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Taking Satanism seriously

The Satanic Temple aims to be a powerful political player

A sign for the Satanic Temple in Salem, Mass. Wikimedia Commons

Taking Satanism seriously
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In communities across the country, the Satanic Temple seeks to take advantage of this chaotic moment in American life to score political points. In Tennessee, the Satanic Temple is suing for access to school facilities. Earlier this year a man destroyed a Satanic display at the Iowa state capitol building, and the accused is now being charged with a hate crime. In my own county of Ottawa in Michigan, a representative of the Satanic Temple is scheduled to give an invocation at a county commissioners meeting later this month. And most seriously, Satanists have tried turning abortion into a religious rite in an effort to provide cover for those seeking the procedure in states that have limited access after the Dobbs decision.

The best way to understand these efforts is to see them as a mocking parody of Christianity. The Satanists are not serious about the religious nature of their movement, even as they increasingly are a serious threat to traditional morality and public religion. Bendr Bones, the Satanist minister who plans to give the invocation at the Ottawa County government meeting, admits that the group is really about terrestrial ideals and values rather than religious doctrine.

“We are advocates for critical thinking, pluralism, compassion, empathy, conforming our beliefs to scientific understanding, the struggle for justice,” he says. Satanists typically deny belief in an actual, literal Satan. Their devotion is instead to the high-minded ideals of progressive social justice. For Satanists, the devil is merely symbolic of “the eternal rebel” against traditional religions. Instead of supernatural beliefs, Satanists purport to “promote pragmatic skepticism, rational reciprocity, personal autonomy and curiosity.”

All of this indicates that Satanism, at least as understood in this way, is not really a religion at all. That’s why lawsuits like the one in Tennessee are promoted by anti-religious groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Inspired by the tactics of their namesake, Satanists use the cover of religious belief to undermine religion itself. Just as evil is ultimately derivative of and dependent on the good, Satanism is parasitic on Christianity.

The fact that Satanists want to find shelter under the umbrella of religious liberty is a sign that such freedoms are real. Any time there is anything good in this world, evil will seek a way to twist and corrupt that good thing. Satanic appeals to religious liberty protections are an unintended witness to the vitality of such safeguards.

Just as the right to free speech does not entail the freedom to slander someone, religious liberty exists within the context of other liberties and responsibilities.

Religious liberty is America’s first and foundational freedom, and this is one reason why the free exercise of religion occupies such a prominent position in the Bill of Rights. But in a diverse and complex society, no right provides an absolute claim to unlimited autonomy or unbounded expression. Just as the right to free speech does not entail the freedom to slander someone, religious liberty exists within the context of other liberties and responsibilities. As the political philosopher William Galston once put it, “No free exercise for Aztecs,” referring to child sacrifice. The same ought to hold true for abortionists as well. There are certain activities that might claim religious liberty protection but which nonetheless either violate some other fundamental right—such as the right to life—or are not truly religious at all.

Judges are usually reluctant to tread onto the treacherous ground of adjudicating religious dogma, and rightfully so. But just as the courts are dismissive of patently obvious attempts to bypass political responsibilities by means of a veneer of religiosity, so should they find that some movements and beliefs are not actually religious and do not qualify for religious liberty protections. It may sometimes be tempting to join the Church of No Federal Taxes, especially around this time of year. But that’s not really a religious institution at all, and neither is the Shrine of the Flying Spaghetti Monster—or the Satanic Temple, for that matter.

The government inevitably must draw the line somewhere. It has to discern the difference between groups, movements, and actions that are protected expressions of religion and those that are not. A government that cannot distinguish between a monument engraved with the Ten Commandments and a statue of Baphomet truly is blind, both to political responsibilities as well as spiritual realities.

It is time to take Satanism seriously, and that means to some extent taking Satanists at their word. When they say they don’t actually worship anything or anyone, then we should believe them, or at least treat them legally as a movement with no religious significance.

Satanists may not believe in Satan, but Christians know that Satan surely believes in them. And he’s certainly hoping that the Satanic Temple’s efforts to undermine religious liberty in this country are successful. It is the responsibility of courts, county commissioners, and all citizens to make sure that religious liberty is protected—from its outright opponents as well as its counterfeiters.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.

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