Voting for the Opposition

Satan Enters US Politics

By Jim Knipfel

With a marked increase in reported exorcisms (both officially sanctioned and amateur) around the globe in recent months, it seems the public’s fear of a very tangible demonic kingpin alive and working here on earth may soon reach heights not seen since the post-Exorcist boom of the 1970s. Millions of people are coming back around to the notion, as the Louvin Brothers sang in 1959, that Satan is real. It’s estimated that at present there are between 600 and 1000 exorcism-centric evangelical sects in operation across the US, and those numbers go up exponentially when you take into account other nations like Italy, India, and Germany. By all reports, most of these outfits are being kept quite busy by victims of all faiths who’ve been led to believe they are under personal attack by diabolical forces.

But the concern stretches much farther than the merely personal. Along with the fear of Satanic possession, the fear that Satan would somehow insinuate himself into the political process is as old as, well, the very idea of Satan himself. According to literalist biblical scholars, the Book of Revelation prophesies the Antichrist will take the form of a charismatic and powerful political figure who would eventually trigger the battle of Armageddon, bringing about the End of the World.

Since then, people have been trying to identify him before it’s too late, mostly driven by political motivations of their own. In his day, a number of people were firmly convinced Napoleon was the Antichrist. Turns out he wasn’t, quite. Citing selected Biblical passages as evidence, Konrad Heiden’s 1944 biography Der Fuehrer declared Hitler the Antichrist as well. Hitler may have come closer than Napoleon, but still didn’t quite make the cut. In more recent years, True Believers at opposite ends of the American political spectrum have claimed that both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were the Antichrist, though for different reasons. How else to explain how a foreign-born Muslim could not only be elected President of the United States, but be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just a few short weeks later?

The idea of the Prince of Lies entering the political arena has also provided rich fodder for pop culture, from episodes of the "Twilight Zone" and "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" to Rosemary’s Baby and the hugely popular and silly Omen franchise. It’s not hard to see why people could easily imagine the devil lurking about the corridors of power. A cursory glance at the candidates in any political race, the workings of the electoral process, the unholy mechanics of modern politics itself, and it’s hard to imagine how Satan couldn’t be involved in some way. It just seems obvious, especially this year.

But now, with no guile, no disguise, and no shadowy, left-handed, brimstone-scented deception, it seems Satan really is tossing his hat in the ring, sort of. Given the sharp rise in devilphobia among the superstitious, his timing is either very good or very bad. In any case, the reaction has been predictable.

Despite the clearly stated separation of church and state and the right to religious freedom as mandated by the US Constitution, America has come to be perceived, and perceives itself, as a specifically Christian nation. Sitting presidents end their speeches with “God bless America,” “In God We Trust” is emblazoned on our currency, and there is no question which god is being referenced. Atheist groups who have filed suit to have prayer removed from public schools and nativity scenes barred from government property have been reviled by the media and the masses in general, often likened to communists or terrorists. Although it would likely mortify James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, it’s a given today that any candidate with serious designs on the White House has to actively court the Christian vote, from Ted Cruz's openly and unapologetically Judeo-Christian agenda to Bernie Sanders arranging to meet with the Pope. If a candidate can’t provide solid evidence they’ve been in regular attendance at a (non-threatening) home church for years, they don’t stand a chance.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, first forwarded by New York Senator Chuck Schumer in 1993, was at heart an effort to prevent the government from encroaching on the beliefs and practices of any American’s chosen religion. In 1997, however, the Supreme Court ruled the law was only constitutionally viable on the federal level, and could not be applied to the states. This led a number of states to pass their own versions of the RFRA, but with a slightly different angle. Although by law the language of the assorted states’ versions of the RFRA could not specify Christianity, Florida, Michigan, Arizona, Ohio and other states have used it as a means to sneak prayer back into schools, allow nativity scenes to crop back up outside government buildings, and place restrictions on abortion rights.

This is where Satan comes in.

There’s nothing new about Satanic organizations and movements. They’ve been around in assorted incarnations for thousands of years, mostly underground and in the shadows. Even if most Satanic cults were little more than the fanciful products of mass hysteria, the thought they might exist still scared the hell out of people who imagined them to be host to the most evil and gruesome shenanigans. In the 20th Century organized devil worshippers achieved a slightly higher public profile, from Aliester Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis to Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan.

While many members of those groups have claimed a dark influence on certain political matters, The Satanic Temple, or TST, is among the first to tout an unabashedly political agenda. According to their website, TST aims to “encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will.” It sounds more gentle and pleasant and warm than you might generally expect from a Satanist group, but in practice it’s actually a bit more focused than all that.

Formed in 2013 in reaction to the increasing intrusion of fundamentalist Christianity into American politics, as well as the apathy of a public that allowed it to happen, TST exploited the language of the RFRA (as well as the law’s original intent) to pull a number of high-profile publicity stunts.

In 2013, when Florida governor Rick Scott signed a bill allowing students to offer what were called “inspirational messages” at school assemblies, TST hosted a rally to hail his decision -- and hail Satan at the same time, letting Scott know the language of the bill unwittingly allowed Satanist students to offer inspirational messages of their own. Not long afterward, they lobbied for and won the right to offer a Satanic prayer before a high school football game in Seattle. They petitioned for the right to erect Satanic sculptures beside state-sponsored nativity scenes in Indiana and Florida, and were actually allowed to erect their own statue in Michigan. They’ve also fought for the right to install a statue of Baphomet beside a monument to the Ten Commandments outside the Oklahoma state capitol, and after Christian-themed coloring books were distributed to students in Colorado, TST published and distributed a coloring book of their own. This past December they organized a four-city tour they call The Sabbat Cycle, which involved a screening of the award-winning indie horror film The Witch, followed by an ersatz magic ritual and a political discussion led by TST members.

Most revealing of all, in January of this year they argued Arizona’s RFRA granted them the right to offer the opening prayer at a Phoenix city council meeting. Upon being presented with the demand, the council took an emergency vote and declared that from that point on, only official police or fire department chaplains would be allowed to give the opening prayer. When TST threatened to file suit, the council took another emergency vote, this time opting to do away with opening prayers altogether rather than let the Satanists have their turn. It was an odd sort of victory, but certainly proved TST’s point, even as it screwed Muslims, Jews, Taoists, Scientologists, Mormons and Zoroastrians out of their shot.

Apart from lighthearted media stunts involving public prayers and goat-headed statues, The Satanic Temple has also fought for reproductive rights and an end to corporal punishment in schools. One bit of persistent trouble TST has encountered is the claim they’re simply a group of political activists disguised as a religion to get publicity. Moreover, it’s claimed they’re just liberals who call themselves “Satanists” for the cheap and morbid shock value. The group’s founders, after all, publicly admit to being atheists, so how could they possibly be a religion?

To counter this, TST (which currently boasts 17 chapters across the country and over 100,000 members and associates) claim that, like any religion, they are a disparate collection of individuals with a shared core belief system. Of course the same could be said of any political party, the Boy Scouts of America, New Yorker subscribers, Fruit of the Month Club members, and Uncle Willie’s Eyeball Buddies. On the flipside the charge that TST is a political group and not a religion could likewise justifiably be pinned on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s church, the Westboro Baptist Church, and countless other Christian groups whose political agendas seem to far outweigh their religious faith and Biblical scholarship.

Perhaps the much bigger problem facing The Satanic Temple is their stated hope to encourage a Silent Majority (to borrow a phrase from another noted Satan-worshipper) likewise disturbed by the influence conservative Christian thinking has on the formation of public policy to stand up and fight back. Satan is the ultimate symbol of rebellion, and TST aims to turn their series of publicity stunts into the groundwork for a viable social revolution. Sadly, as most other contemporary would-be revolutionary movements have quickly discovered, the apathy they’re hoping to turn around — mostly that of Goth kids, stoners, and metalheads attracted by the group’s horror movie aesthetic — is much more powerful than the Prince of Darkness himself. It might be argued that if TST really wanted to make a splash, a far more effective tack down the line might be to forward a serious and openly Satanic presidential candidate of their own. Now that would scare the bejeezus out of people.

Published May 4th, 2016

Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.