Religiously Nonreligious

The Secular Activism of The Satanic Temple

in Religion and Society
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Laurel Zwissler Professor, Central Michigan University, USA laurel.zwissler@cmich.edu

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Abstract

This project is based on fieldwork with members of The Satanic Temple (TST) in a mid-western, ‘Bible-belt’ state in the USA. Formed in 2013, TST identifies as a religion centered on eradicating Christian dominance of public space and is notorious for inserting a large Baphomet statue into debates around displays of Ten Commandments monuments. Members insist that TST is not a parody, but is a legitimate religion, with specific beliefs, ethical values, and practices, albeit a religion aimed at defending the nonreligious. Core beliefs include “non-theism,” hailing Satan not as an actual deity but as a symbol of rebellion against oppression. This article explores how TST's constructions of the religious and the secular lead their protests against one to produce the other in specific ways, at times implicitly supporting Protestant normativity.

The Satanic Temple (TST) is the latest iteration of Satanism as a new religious movement, positioning itself explicitly as more political than other popularized forms of Satanism, in contrast to being primarily aesthetic and self-actualizing in orientation (e.g., LaVey's Church of Satan; see Luijk 2016). As a very recently instantiated variation of Satanism, The Satanic Temple has not yet received much serious scholarly attention, the recent monograph by Joseph Laycock (2020) being an exception. Most of the academic analysis the organization has received has focused on its role in legal matters, such as its resistance to school prayer in Florida and Georgia and to abortion restrictions in Missouri and Texas, and its claims to public monument space in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Minnesota (Brown 2018; Lane 2019; Loewentheil 2015; White and Gregorius 2019; Wexler 2020). It is mentioned briefly at the end of historical surveys of Satanism (Dyrendel et al. 2016; Introvigne 2016,) and gets occasional gestures in work on Witchcraft and Satanism in popular culture (Zwissler 2018a; Chavez 2023). However, this article provides a more focused treatment of the ways that The Satanic Temple engages with cultural tensions surrounding secularization and non-belief.

The Satanic Temple was officially founded in 2013 by Malcolm Jarry and Lucien Greaves (pseudonyms), who met at Harvard University and bonded over frustrations with George W. Bush's newly established Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Speaking to the New York Times, Jarry said, “Imagine if a Satanic organization applied for funds . . . It would sink the whole program” (Oppenheimer 2015). The Temple's inspiration was to intervene in church/state conflicts with insider leverage by claiming standing as a religion, as members have put it, “poison pill activism.” When communities defend overt Christianity in public space under the idea that religious expression is legally protected, TST joins the fray with its own, very different religious expressions. For example, their first public action to garner press coverage was a mock rally at the Florida state capitol in response to a bill to legalize voluntary prayer at school functions. As if grateful that Satanic children could now practice their religion in school, a black-clad Greaves held up a sign that read, “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!” the then-governor (Oppenheimer 2015: Lane 2019: Wexler 2020).

They followed this up with the “Pink Mass” held over the grave of Catherine Johnson, the mother of Westboro Baptist1 founder Fred Phelps (Jauregui 2013). Drawing inspiration from posthumous proxy baptisms by the Church of Latter-day Saints (Boyle and Campbell 2015; Perreault, Duffy and Morrison 2017), the stated intention of the ritual was to turn Johnson gay in the afterlife. Bedecked in a horned headpiece, Greaves presided over the stunt, which involved first two men and then two women kissing over Johnson's grave. The ritual was retaliation against Westboro's threatened picketing of the funerals of Boston Marathon bombing victims. Subsequent TST actions have included constructing and offering a giant, goat-headed Baphomet statue to “complement” Ten Commandments monuments in Oklahoma and Arkansas, creating Satanic literature to distribute in public schools alongside Bibles, an afterschool program for children as an alternative to Bible study groups, and numerous legal challenges both for inclusion in opening prayers to public meetings and against abortion restrictions (See Laycock 2020 for an overview).

Originally inspired as a ‘letter of the law’ organization to check boxes necessary to meet legal definitions of a religion, the Satanic Temple has nonetheless developed into its own community. Journalist Anna Merlan (2018) writes at Jezebel, “The Satanic Temple is, of course, a merry band that engages in high-concept legal trolling . . . [but] they've become a genuine spiritual home for a lot of people.” Many of my participants expressed a deep sense of “coming home” to Satanism similar to what fellow Pagan Studies scholars and I have encountered within other new religious movement communities (Hutton 1999; Pike 2001 and 2004; Zwissler 2018b). Participants share narratives that they were always Satanists, they just did not yet have the language to articulate their orientations. One of the services TST provides for them, then, is putting their convictions into words, which many see best expressed in the organization's Seven Fundamental Tenets. As the Seventh Tenet states, “Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word” (The Satanic Temple n.d.).

A core component of TST's identity is as a “non-theistic” religion, having no deity. They are adamant in hailing Satan not as an actual being, but as a symbol of rebellion, especially invoking Milton's Lucifer (Greaves n.d.). They perform and celebrate aspects of religious identity, especially community, ritual practice, and public service, but specifically do so without “supernaturalism.” For example, in an essay delineating their differences from rival precursor, The Church of Satan, Greaves writes, “Resolutely non-theistic, The Satanic Temple does not endorse supernatural (or ‘supernormal’) explanations, a position also codified in the tenets which state, ‘Beliefs should conform to one's best scientific understanding of the world’” (Greaves n.d.).

For research participants in the local chapter with whom I conduct fieldwork (discussed in more detail below), the distinction between being non-theistic and atheist was, depending on the person, either crucial or non-existent. Some members, such as Kari and Becca, were specifically attracted to TST because they already identified as atheists (interviews 26 September 2020 and 7 October 2020). Like them, media-liaison Marr understands his identity as a Satanist to be simply another way to express his atheism, explaining, “I tell you I'm a Satanist, a lot of people think ‘opposite of what I am,’ and it gives me the opportunity to tell you how we're already together, instead of trying to rope us together [by ignoring differences]. I draw a line in the sand and say that I'm an atheist, I have some very strong opinions about religion, and these are the things that are important to me. It gives me that chance right out of the gate” (interview 1 September 2019). For these members, their personal atheism finds expression through Satanism.

However, for other participants, non-theism is attractive as a label and a community definition precisely because it does not foreclose other types of beliefs. In discussing the distinction between non-theism and atheism, founding chapter member Renard says, “We also have members that are practicing Christians. It's challenging. There's a lot of other members who believe they [Christians] have no place in TST, but TST is a non-theistic religion. Your spiritual beliefs are irrelevant to the organization. They're not important.” He continues, “Atheism can be just as evangelistic as other organizations. And dogmatic” (interview 20 October 2019). Renard specifically prefers non-theism as a more inclusive identity than atheism.

Members like Theus appreciate the cover such a distinction provides. In discussing his initial reticence to personally call himself a Satanist, despite his instant affinity for the chapter community, he says, “My struggle has been that I really rather they say that they're non-theistic, rather than atheistic. That's like a little caveat that I hide behind, because—it's not really that I believe, to be completely honest, just because of the shorthand nature of it—I would say that I believe in some supernatural stuff. But I don't think it's really supernatural. I think it's just one of those things that we don't understand how it works yet” (interview 8 November 2019). He explained further that some of those as-yet-unexplained things include unverbalized communication with loved ones, the kinds of things that others might label “psychic,” and some of the mysteries of quantum physics. Treating non-theism as distinct from atheism also creates room to welcome members like Nix, who continues to venerate the Pagan goddess, Brigid, outside of her Satanic practices.

Fieldwork Context

The Satanic Temple had been on my radar for several years, largely due to the activism of Satanic feminist Jex Blackmore, who was official media spokesperson for the Temple up until her departure in February 2018 (Blackmore 2018). I was aware of her split with the Temple by April 2019, when I drove a few hours to see an art-house screening of Penny Lane's documentary on the organization (Lane 2019). Sitting in the row in front of me turned out to be several leaders of a newly formed local chapter. After the film, I approached them about the possibility of conducting fieldwork with their group.

Following a few emails with the media liaison at the time, it took several months of waiting for national governance to approve the group's request to work with me. I was finally able to schedule my first interview in September 2019. Since then, I have been conducting interviews with members every few weeks, driving a few hours to meet them in their city, meeting on zoom due to pandemic cautions, or when quirks of schedule permitted, hosting them at my local coffee shop.

The chapter is located in a midwestern, rust-belt town known regionally for its religious conservativism, but also for a burgeoning hipster scene, consisting of breweries, restaurants, and an annual international art show. The chapter structure is composed of an official leadership board of four people, with a broad circle of initiated members and an even wider base of people who are less formally affiliated with the community, but nonetheless attend events and participate in meetings. Like many aspects of this new, loosely organized religion, the preferred term for the group and its leaders’ relation to the formal, international institutional structure changes often. Recently, headquarters initiated a shift from “chapters” to “congregations,” complete with a new ordination training required for local leaders.2

I was invited to join the group at the state capitol as they installed what has become an annual December holiday display featuring a goat sculpture. Media were invited to cover their ceremony, which included a procession, a formal speech, and a rite of sprinkling with ‘blood’ (actually red cake mix). It made the local news. I also attended a subsequent Yule party, co-sponsored with a Friends of The Satanic Temple group, made up of the remnants of a defunct chapter in another large city. The event included presentations by national figures and culminated in a ritual in which local members ritually burned the crafted goat from their capitol display. This was a major TST event, with representatives from national leadership present. My participants were especially excited that Lucian Greaves, co-founder and spokesperson, was in attendance, as well as a lawyer featured in Lane's documentary.

It was hard not to be especially fond of my participants at this event for the ways in which they embodied midwestern aesthetics, rather than stereotypically ‘Satanist’. Members of the other, former chapter were tricked out in leather, lingerie, and soft-fetish wear, but my participants wore sensible clothes for the cold weather, even sporting a flannel shirt or two. They were earnest, friendly, and excited about the event in a way that contrasted to members of the other group, who maintained an urban cool about them. However, I do want to emphasize that despite their differing clothing and demeanor, everyone got along well and members of both groups were welcome, as was I. I bring up these details because they demonstrate a contrast between the formal presentation of the national organization and the ways their ideals are lived at a local level. There is both continuity and disjuncture as messaging and values move across social registers and milieus.

The local chapter began its formation two years before I started my fieldwork with them. Their origins, like many groups these days, were online. A few disparate people had been following TST for a while, not dissimilar to the way I had been. In interviews, original leaders frequently cited the Pink Mass or the Baphomet statue lawsuits as the events that first got their attention and piqued their interest in the group. Samantha, the person who would become the chapter head, posted a question in a TST Facebook forum asking whether there were other folks in her part of the state, having seen another future founder, Larissa, at their local Pride festival in a TST T-shirt.3 A handful of enthusiastic people responded to the post. This small group organized themselves and applied to national leadership for recognition as an official chapter.

National leadership fast-tracked the group's recognition as a formal chapter when the pre- existing chapter in the state, in a major urban center three hours away, broke up following the removal of its leader for unsanctioned, independent activism. This put the new group in the position of being the only official chapter in the state, right before the documentary came out. In addition, members told me that they were the last chapter to be approved before a hiatus declared by national leadership to rethink the organization's structure. As a result, they were inundated with interest almost immediately after officially coming into being.

There is great anxiety to ensure that all chapter actions are sanctioned by national leadership. This means that the chapter sometimes waits months to be able to pursue activist projects. This is further complicated by the fact that national itself is not entirely satisfied with the approval process. For example, in 2018, before the chapter was officially approved, members wanted to put up a holiday display at the state capitol, to continue a tradition that the now-defunct chapter had started. They did not receive official approval in time, but Lucien Greaves contacted them to tell them that, even though formal approval was not going to be processed in time, they nonetheless had the support of national leadership, which would include legal defense if required.

In telling me this story, participants were really pleased that they had received such a blessing, even if it was informal. However, it also demonstrates that the inner workings of institutional hierarchy are unsteady. Further, it highlights the tensions between community values based on activism and autonomy and a national leadership concerned about official appearances and a formalized hierarchy of approval.

Secular Religious Activism

American culture, instantiated in popular “civics” discourse, is not alone in promoting secularization as a common good, though the political conflicts over religion in public space are culturally specific. In particular, the founding document of the Constitution has historically been interpreted as both protecting citizens from the imposition of a state religion and encouraging free exercise of their own religions (e.g., see Wexler 2020). Conflicts arise over how to enforce both aspects practically, especially when the dominant religion, Protestant Christianity, understands its free exercise to involve discriminating against, or at least restricting the practice of, other religions through dominating public space and shaping laws, all of which is justified through claiming status as the “true” heritage religion of the nation.

These tensions lead to competing definitions of secularity within American culture and, relatedly, among scholars. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor (2007) explicates three different approaches. First, secularization can be defined by religion's relocation to the private sphere from the public, especially visible in its absence from politics. Second, secularization can be understood as a decrease in private belief and practice. Third, within society and individual lives, religion becomes one voluntary option among many, which include non-belief, a position that will continue to grow. In comparison, scholars such as Peter Berger (2014) argue that contemporary secularity is composed of religious plurality, an aspect of multiculturalism. When religion and Christianity are not assumed to be synonymous, and when religion itself is not assumed as universal, then public space opens up to multiple expressions of religious, and nonreligious, belief and practice.

While they are very clear that their goal is secularized public space, in their struggles against Christian dominance, TST members express an either/or acceptance of different definitions of secularism. They are happy either with the idea that public space be cleared of all religious expressions, or that multiple religious expressions be equally represented, or at least welcome, in public space. What they find unacceptable, and focus on fighting against, are situations in which Christian religious expressions dominate society without complement or challenge.

For example, founding member Renard explained a conflict within the local group over strategic intervention:

For instance, in [a nearby community], they have religious displays on top of the school. That's facing a legal challenge from the atheist organizations and from the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. Our membership wanted us to get involved and to start pushing there and say, okay, we can put up a Satanic display on the school then, if they're going to have this religious display. And it's like, later. That's not what we do right now. If we did that right now, it just gets more complicated and makes things harder for the ACLU. They're pushing to have it removed entirely, right? So that would totally muddy the water. So just getting people to understand that when the fight is going on to remove religious monuments, that's not where we get involved. Once those movements have failed, then we come in and say, okay, this is a location where religious displays are good? You said you want religious displays here and that it's legal? Great! We'd like to put our religious displays up (interview 20 October 2019).

Despite the publicity TST has garnered through its religious displays and despite his personal role in erecting multiple holiday installations at the state capitol, Renard's personal preference is for no religious displays in public at all.

Following Matthew Engelke's “strategic secularization” (2013), I suggest “strategic religionization” as a productive analytic perspective on TST's negotiations with public space. In Engelke's fieldwork with the British and Foreign Bible Society, he noted that they attempted to rebrand their campaign to distribute Bibles from the explicit, religious mission that it always has been, instead, to one of promoting cultural competency. Arguing that the Bible is fundamental to Western culture and that exposure to it is as important for British self-understanding as Shakespeare, the Society attempted to reframe a religious project into a secular one. The reframing involved mobilizing new language of cultural heritage, rather than the language of theological truth that they historically shared in internal conversations. The project remained the same, but its outward-facing justification changed.

These kinds of semantic shifts on the part of Christian organizations create an opportunity that TST has exploited, but in reverse. TST's overall goal remains to eliminate Christian dominance of public space. However, in arguing that doing so promotes those shared human values that evangelical Christianities use to obfuscate what are otherwise clearly missionizing projects, such as erecting Ten Commandments monuments on public property, TST claims that same expanded definitional space for themselves. In other words, they accept missionaries’ claims that religion contributes to the public good and further assert that, because they do, too, they are also equally “religious.” As churches argue to legitimate their expansion into public space on the notion that their principles reflect and contribute to some universal good, TST meets them in that new space performing as a peer.

Playing the Game with Christianity's Pieces

In the anthropology of religion, as in the academic study of religion more broadly, there is endless wrestling over the definition of the term religion. In our field, it is well determined that religion has always been in the eye of the beholder, not only a matter of perspective but also, always a political distinction, bestowing or denying legitimacy and power (e.g., Asad 1993 and 2003). In the context of North America this is especially blatant, tied up as it is with colonial projects of justifying the disenfranchisement and subjugation of Indigenous peoples (Smith 1998; Wenger 2009; Joshi 2020; Williams and deLisle 2021), the exploitation of African peoples (Chrieau 2003; Weisenfeld 2017; Wells-Oghoghomeh 2021), and then in restrictively distributing cultural legitimacy beyond the mainline Protestantisms of those governing (e.g., Sullivan 2021). American history is rife not only with the depressingly expected racist denigration of the religious practices of Native people and other people of color, but also with frantic anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism (Coviello 2019; Zwissler 2018b).

TST is a religion born of public discourses about religion. Rather than challenging the hierarchies inherent in the term, TST embraces the power of labelling, appropriating it through careful curation of its self-definition. By consciously and performatively adopting aspects of those attributes most popularly associated with religion, members highlight the arbitrariness of those standards at the same time that they reinforce them.

TST constructs its self-understanding as a religion around definitions based within US legal codes. Many scholars have deconstructed the ways these legal codes are, themselves, based not only on Christianity, but on Protestant Christianity (Puar 2007; Jakobsen and Pellegrini 2004; Mahmood 2016). Further, Saba Mahmood (2016) has laid bare the ways that the “freedom of religion” enshrined not only in the US constitution, but also imposed globally through official human rights law, is based in a desire to protect evangelical Christian exclusionary practices at home and missionizing practices abroad. In its formation, it was never designed with the priority of protecting minority religions from persecution, but instead to protect American Protestantism from interference by nation-state governments, including the US federal government.

In meeting on turf overdetermined by evangelical Christians, TST risks reinforcing assumptions ultimately subversive to their own goals. Beyond complicity in the political privileging of religions, the potential drawbacks to this strategy are especially clear when it comes to the organization's reproductive rights work. TST becomes one more institution publicly led by a male spokesperson arguing over women's bodies. In needing women plaintiffs to file challenges to restrictive state abortion laws, in order to make it to court with legal standing, TST must use specific women in its pursuit of its larger secularization goals (e.g., Bloomberg Law 2021). While the intention is clearly different, and while my participants would strenuously disagree with this perspective, there is nonetheless a way in which TST is joining the fray of church/state conflicts without challenging its inherently patriarchal structures (Scott 2011; Zwissler 2018b and 2020; for an ex-insider perspective, see Blackmore 2018).

Leadership hustles to fit popular ideas of what a religion should have and be. Both national leadership and my local participants repeatedly engage the terms “belief,” “ritual,” “ethics,” and “holidays” to explain how and why TST is a religion. For example, Riley was very excited that, when TST announced officially observed holidays, they included a personalized holiday of one's birthday. As an hourly retail worker, he liked the idea that his corporate employer would be legally required to let him take his birthday off from work. He stressed that his happiness was not just about assuring himself a nice day, but that he felt affirmed by the message of self-care and self-respect that the designation conveyed (interview 10 January 2020).

Like the secular humanists studied by Engelke (2014) and Susanne Kind (2020), my participants make a distinction between what they understand as religious beliefs and religious practices. Their pride in being non-theistic is an important part of this worldview. For them, there are real advantages that come with practices normally understood as “religious,” such as community building, emotional support, and the psychological benefits of ritual practice. However, they want to decouple these from religious beliefs, which they understand as irrational, anti-scientific, and delusional.

The American political situation is different from, for example, Great Britain and Sweden, in that there is nothing comparable to the Church of England or the Church of Sweden, no official, default religious institution. However, in the American case, the traditional authority of Protestant Christianities does function in similar ways. Collective groups of Protestant churches have historically enjoyed mainstream status and disproportionate political power, reproducing a kind of cultural dominance which, while not associated with a specific denomination, is nonetheless shared between several and creates a default assumption that America is Protestant. This is articulated through arguments that America was founded as a Christian nation. This notion is often employed in the context of “culture war” conflicts, which take myriad forms, but include: what relationships are legally recognized; access to abortion, birth control, gender affirmation, and other medical care; even what holiday greetings retailers direct their staff to use (Zwissler 2020).

While TST shares with Secular Humanists a public education orientation and a desire to provide alternative ritual specialists, they differ in their embrace of Satanic imagery. Secular Humanists tend to emphasize their continuity with their home cultures (Engelke 2014, 2015; Kind 2020), whereas Satanists emphasize their difference. Non-assimilation is communicated not only through the choice of Satanic imagery and identity, but also through embracing alternative aesthetics, especially those associated with punk, metal, goth, and fetish communities. Rather than performing mainstream normality, as Secular Humanists have tended to do, Satanists opt for oppositional self-representation that they assume will shock others.

At the same time, despite their choices in dark clothing and makeup, Satanic Temple members are also engaged in performing mainstream values and virtue signaling. This is demonstrated through the publicity of their Seven Tenets, but even more so through the many charity and public service campaigns local groups take on. These include beach clean-ups, collecting clothes for homeless shelters, fundraising for animal rescues, and, in the case of my participants’ chapter, collecting menstrual supplies for the local Planned Parenthood women's health services, as well as a book drive for incarcerated people. Public service is such an important part of TST representation that for several years it was the only public activity that chapters could take on without national leadership's explicit approval.

Given how fundamental it is for TST members to contribute to their communities in the name of Satanism, we can see continuity with Secular Humanists “Good without God” publicity campaigns (Blechschmidt 2020; Engelke 2015). Like these Secular Humanist campaigns, TST public service work is meant to demonstrate more than their point that a community can create robust ethical standards without belief in a deity. Going further, they assert that the theological acrobatics required to uphold coherent, supernatural belief systems undermine the rationality required to maintain consistent sets of ethics, especially those that defend vulnerable members of society against those more powerful. However, there is an added layer to TST's activity, in that they are deliberately mobilizing with symbols and costuming associated with evil and harm and subverting those associations by doing good things. They take glee in upending Satanic stereotypes, yet are still seeking mainstream acceptance, or at least recognition, rather than maintaining indifference.

Parody and Sincerity

Practicing Satanism has always involved both mockery of Protestant values and sincere protest for other Protestant values, a criticism that Protestant Christianity does not live up to its own ideals of individual freedom and conscience. As Laycock also notes (2020: 114), one way to reconcile these seeming contradictions is Melissa Wilcox's (2018) theoretical frame of “serious parody.” Inspired by research with The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a queer activist group, Wilcox defines serious parody as, “a form of cultural protest in which a disempowered group parodies an oppressive cultural institution while simultaneously claiming for itself what it believes to be an equally good or superior enactment of one or more culturally respected aspects of that same institution” (Wilcox 2018: 71).

In some ways, Wilcox's term fits the public work of TST well. In presenting as a religion in public space, members simultaneously claim moral high ground for themselves and call into question the allotment of moral high ground to religious groups in general. In focusing on building community, psychologically transformative group ritual practices, and community-improvement charity work, TST redefines religion on its own terms, precisely by insisting that it is one and continuing to perform as such in public space. In doing so, members call into question broader public assumptions about what constitutes a religion, particularly criticizing “supernaturalism” and notions of belief, as well as the guilt and shame that TST members associate with hegemonic Christianity. Nonetheless, it is important to be clear that TST is a white-dominant organization with straight-presenting men as national founding figureheads and, therefore, the social margins from which TST performs are arguably shallower than those from which The Sisters witness.

Legal scholar Jay Wexler (2020) is emphatic that The Satanic Temple is not a parody organization, but a legitimate religion, in contrast to groups that he understands to only be mocking the religions of others, such as The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. While Wexler acknowledges that parody is an important part of TST's protest tactics, his concern is that labelling TST as a parody organization undermines its public standing and discredits the authentic engagement of its members. Doing so means giving power to its critics to silence it as fake and therefore not deserving of social and, most importantly, legal standing. However, in his concern to distance TST from parody and therefore illegitimacy, Wexler runs the risk of reifying the assumed spilt between parody and sincerity, implicitly reinforcing a policing of boundaries between religion and fun that has historically served to shore up hegemonic Protestant institutions and their gatekeeping of public legitimation. Further, ludic and joyful aspects of religious identity and practice have historically been radically embraced by marginalized religious movements, especially those born out of Romanticism, such as feminist Witchcraft, other forms of Contemporary Paganism (Hutton 1999; Pike 2004), and, yes, also religious Satanism (Luijk 2006; Chavez 2023).

TST is sincere, but their sincerity is of a different kind, or they are sincere about different things. They challenge Protestant-based definitions of religion, going back to Tylor (1920 [1871]), that religion is primarily about belief, and instead emphasize community, ethical action, and ritual practice, as well as personal identity. In doing so, they embrace modern notions of cosmologies as both descriptive and prescriptive. Change your story and change your world.

It also means that their approach to theology is different. Their idea is that religion should help create a world that they envision, rather than restrict that vision. When fundamentalist Christians insist that gender, racial, and sexual equality cannot exist because God requires hierarchy, Satanists (and other non-fundamentalists of all stripes) are flabbergasted, exasperated, and annoyed, because from their perspective, if your god is an unjust tyrant, then you are worshipping the wrong god. As Renard put it, “The difference between atheism, where the founding principle is that these gods don't exist, and non-theism, where it doesn't matter [whether they do], is, if Yahweh comes down in Washington, DC, and declares this place a kingdom of heaven, we're still going to keep fighting for what we're fighting for” (interview 20 October 2019).

Instead, TST members imagine a world based in social justice and inclusion and they collaborate in creating a symbol that supports work for that vision. In this sense, TST is deeply indebted to leftist religious movements, especially feminist theology and liberation theology. This is an approach embraced by social justice activists who do not wish to reject religion simply because it has been compatible with heteropatriarchal, white-supremacist oppression, but instead choose to repurpose such a powerful tool for social construction to their own ends (Zwissler 2018b).

Performing Protestantism

In performing Christianity's other, Satanists like TST engage with what David Frankfurter has called “direct mimetic parody” (Frankfurter 2006: 198–203). This dark cosplay is another way of calling evangelical Christianity's bluff. If differences in thought and restrictions of Christian cultural dominance are Satanic, then those who are working against them might as well really be Satanic. There is power in consciously claiming a marginalized identity and performing the darker aspects of externally projected critique. However, TST members also work to subvert those same accusations by performing their charity and public service while embodying these dark aesthetics. They feel empowered by scaring their opponents, but also empowered by explaining how that fear is unfounded (Zwissler 2018a).

Nonetheless, the edge of such performances can cut both ways. For example, the second part, subverting fear, is not always well communicated beyond TST community itself. For example, Lacey Corey Brown (2018) demonstrates that, while their good intentions—providing an alternative to students within public school districts to empower local resistance to the forcible entry of a nationally coordinated after-school Bible program called The Good News Club—were obvious to TST members, they did not effectively communicate those good intentions more broadly. As a result, their After School Satan Club frightened non-involved parents, but did not accomplish the second goal of subverting the Christian groups that constructed the basis for that fear.

Similarly, the organization's initial silence during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 demonstrates how its performative opposition can complicate its ability to stand with the marginalized. Individual chapter participants strongly support the movement and chalked up the white-dominant organization's lack of a statement to the desire not to take attention from the voices of people of color, as well as not wanting to detract from the movement by associating it in critics’ minds with Satanism. A rival organization, The Church of Satan, issued a statement along similar lines early on in the protests (Ethan 2020). However, on his personal Patreon page, spokesperson Lucien Greaves (2020) posted a statement explaining that he would not make a statement, largely suggesting that BLM was not politically savvy and was unlikely to accomplish real change. This, he explained, is why TST had not endorsed it from the beginning in 2013.

A few months later, TST did finally issue a statement through its official webpage, introducing the “Satanists of Color Coalition,” who wrote, “The Satanic Temple believes that Black lives matter. . . . Racism is bullshit. It has no place in Satanism and no place in a just society. To the extent that we're able, we plan to be productive partners in fighting it.” However, they also ended with a disclaimer: “We must make it absolutely clear that the above is purely a statement of our morals and values. As a rule, TST does not endorse other organizations, and this includes the Black Lives Matter movement” (The Satanic Temple 2020). The institutional ambivalence around issuing a statement unequivocally endorsing Black Lives Matter throws into relief a tension within TST performance of Christianity's other.

Part of what makes contemporary Satanic religious movements so difficult to parse for social meaning is that, historically, Satanism has been practiced both as parodic rebellion against hegemonic Protestant Christianity and a sincere enactment of its promise of individual transcendence. The ritualistic parodies of the Satanic Black Mass, while initially the product of Medieval Catholic nightmares, emerge in actual practice from Protestant milieus. Given this context, then, dominant religion is being mocked, but being mocked through a form of anti- Catholicism (Frankfurter 2006: 114–117). The meaning of Black Mass performance is therefore multivalent, both resisting hegemonic Protestantism as a form of dominating religion, but also aligning with it through making fun of Catholicism as overly ritualized and archaic, even if the ludic parallels are emically understood by practitioners to apply to Christianity in general, and therefore, from their perspective, to the broad Protestantism that dominates North American and British culture.

TST's performances, protests, and lawsuits work to counter Christian hegemony in American public space and, largely, in the case of monuments, prayer in schools and governmental spaces, and anti-choice pregnancy legislation, this dominant Christianity is of the Protestant and evangelical variety. Only in the specific case of countering anti-choice protests does Catholicism become more visible. However, the actual performances in which TST has engaged often parody, not evangelical Protestantism, but more marginal forms of Christianity, such as Catholicism and Mormonism. In the example of the Pink Mass, they ridicule Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church, itself already overwhelmingly denounced and derided by mainline Protestant churches, and most everyone else (Baker et al. 2015; Gray 2020), by appropriating a mockery of Mormon theology and ritual practice. On the other hand, it is especially scathing trolling to equate Westboro with Mormonism, which they have also themselves repudiated with their usual venom (Westboro Baptist Church 2011). In trying to make fun of dominant Protestantism, TST nonetheless participates in its stereotypes of other forms of Christianity, which mainline Protestantism has spent American history marginalizing, maligning, and mocking. Driving the point home, when I asked about the power dynamics operating in high-profile TST ritual actions, Greaves (2021) responded not for himself, but for other members, “I think they're seeing these things just as Christianity, which has been harmful to them.”

As a final example, when the Baphomet statue was first moved to Salem, MA, initially there was not yet a proper space for it in the house that serves as TST headquarters. The contractor TST hired to build the temporary shelter crate for the statue was Amish. Tom, the host at headquarters the day I visited, shared this information with mischievous glee, deeply amused that the person who built Baphomet's apartment had no idea what he was creating (personal conversation, 8 August 2017). I have heard versions of this story from several members since.

Why is this story funny to TST members? What implicit assumptions are necessary to turn this series of factual events into a joke? In this narrative, a very religious and, more specifically, devoutly Christian man is tricked into doing something that his religious orientation would never allow him to do consciously, that is, to serve Baphomet and work with self-proclaimed Satanists. Therefore, through his participation in capitalism—accepting, completing, and getting paid for this job—the man, who was content to keep his head down and kind enough to build to their specifications, has subverted his religiosity, become a hypocrite, or, at the very least, been duped by smarter and more worldly Satanists into doing their bidding against his conscious will. This story highlights contradictions between TST's social justice ethos of transparency, compassion, and consent in contrast with their joy in playing the Trickster.

However, to make this story into a joke also requires assuming that Amish Christians are just like conservative evangelical Christians, in that their religion is powerful, socially dominant, and self-contradictory in its values, as well as some basic ignorance about the relationship of Amish people to broader “English,” or non-Amish, culture. Amish people live apart from English culture because it is not godly. That is, all non-Amish culture is sinful and, for practical purposes, contains evil, Satanic influences, values, and temptations (Cooper 2006). That Amish man did not need to build a worship space for Baphomet in order to be creating something that goes against his religious values: building anything for English patrons means building something that is worldly, not godly.

Nonetheless, from Amish perspective, that is not a moral compromise. Amish people generally understand working for and with outsiders as an acceptable practice that does not threaten their personal religious identity (Kraybill et al. 2013). It is instead a Calvinist notion of profession as “calling” from God that requires not only one's own actions, but the source of the money used to pay for the labor of those actions, to be morally pure (Weber 1995 [1905]). From Amish perspective, that could very rarely happen, as very few of the people from whom they obtain work are going to themselves be Amish, the only correct religion. Therefore, in a way, the joke turns back on TST: from Amish perspective, they are no more transgressive than any other non-Amish group. All English culture is non-Christian and morally corrupt.

I engage this extended analysis to point out that, by collapsing all Christianity into a single, monolithic category in its performance of pro-secular activism, TST fails to recognize ways that power is unevenly distributed within and across different forms of Christianity. Mocking marginalized sects further stigmatizes minority religious groups that are also, themselves, oppressed by dominant Protestantisms. In other words, through ritual performances and social discourses, TST claims religious legitimacy for itself by participating in the further delegitimization of other, already marginalized religions. Probably of more direct strategic concern to TST, conflating all forms of Christianity reinforces, rather than subverts, conservative, evangelical hegemony. When TST sends up Catholics, Mormons, fringe groups like Westboro Baptist, and even their Amish carpenter in their overall project of challenging political dominance of the Christian Right, they unwittingly capitulate to some of its own claims to represent true Christianity and, therefore, the right to speak for all American Christians.

Conclusion

Contestations over the moral and pragmatic meanings of religious freedom—freedom of religion, freedom from religion—have been a consistent part of American political self-fashioning, even as the genealogies of these conflicts demonstrate that there has never been a universally codified definition, only a changing series of dominant ones. In the current political moment, major conflicts arise out of claims by particular forms of conservative Christianity that their guaranteed “freedom of religion” requires the right to dominate public space and to set policy for the entire country. That is, that their groups have a right to determine limitations on the rights of others. Of the many responses such Christian nationalism has elicited, one is the activism of The Satanic Temple, which positions itself to meet dominant Christianities in public space as a peer institution, deserving of equal freedoms.

The Satanic Temple walks a tricky line in identifying as a religion for whom a deeply held value is defending the nonreligious by removing religion from civic space. As an important lynchpin of their legal strategy against Christian dominance in public politics, members insist that TST is not a parody, but is instead a legitimate religion. Justifying this position, they point to specific beliefs, ethical tenets, and ritual practices, as well as the benefits of consciously created community. Those legitimizing beliefs, potentially ironically, include “non-theism.”

In deliberately forcing questions about the boundaries of “religion” as a legal category within US culture, TST's self-positioning raises even more about the assumed roles of sincerity and authenticity in religious identity. In addition, their construction of legitimate and illegitimate forms of religion is inescapably shaped by centuries of Protestant Christian domination within America over the very category itself. Their efforts to counter hegemonic Protestantism through parodying minority groups potentially further disempowers other, already-marginalized religions and ultimately supports their actual target's primacy. I suggest that, as TST continues to develop as a religious institution, moving from enthusiastically performing mainstream and legal definitions of religion, in order to demonstrate legitimacy, to considering more carefully which aspects they wish to affirm and which they wish to challenge, may better advance members’ quite sincere goals of promoting religious freedom for everyone.

Acknowledgements

To my fieldwork participants: Thank you for sharing your worlds with me. While my analysis may diverge from your perspectives, please know that it is grounded in sincere respect and gratitude. This work benefited from the workshop, “Committed to Religion's Other: The Anthropology of the Secular,” Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies (ISEK), University of Zurich. I thank all contributors for critiques and suggestions, and particularly Mascha Schulz and Stefan Binder for organizing. Writing was supported by a Faculty Research and Creative Endeavors award from Central Michigan University. Like all my work, this project has been nurtured by personal relationships and conversations: thank you especially to David Ferris and Sylvia Zwissler. Finally, my heart-friend, Sarah Boyce, delighted in the beginning of this project, but passed before its completion. Every day is poorer without her co-conspiracy.

Notes

1

Not affiliated with any other Baptist denominations, Westboro Baptist Church promotes the theological view that tolerance of LGBTQ+ people is inherently satanic and damns the US government and all its citizens by extension; self- and community salvation requires eradication of queer people and “lifestyles” (Baker et al 2015; Gray 2020). To promote their idiosyncratically bald homophobia, they disrupt all manner of public and private events, including funerals of fallen soldiers, with aggressive hate speech, such as one of their most notorious mottos, “God hates [crude slur for gay men],” which is also their Internet domain name (see Westboro Baptist Church 2011).

2

This change further emphasizes institutional investment in being a “religion,” as analyzed here.

3

Larissa Wolf has since passed and her loss is deep for the community. Hail Larissa.

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Contributor Notes

LAUREL ZWISSLER is Professor of Religion at Central Michigan University. Her monograph, Religious, Feminist, Activist: Cosmologies of Interconnection (University of Nebraska, 2018), focuses on global justice activists and investigates intersections between religion, gender, and politics, relating these to debates about religion in the public sphere. Fieldwork with contemporary Witchcraft communities also inspired a series of articles about the shadows of women within classical scholarly theories of religion, exploring challenges to traditional notions of academic knowledge creation, disruptions grounded in imaginaries of female bodies and the moral values ascribed to them. She co-edits the U Penn journal, Magic, Ritual, & Witchcraft. OCRID: 0000-0003-4567-8344. Email: laurel.zwissler@cmich.edu.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Identity. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

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  • Chavez, William S. 2023. “Post-Christianity and Esotericism: A Study of a Satanic Exorcist.” In Living Folk Religions, ed. Sravana Borkataky-Varma and Aaron Ullrey. London: Routledge.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Greaves, Lucien. 2021. “Religion, Secularity, and The Satanic Temple: A Roundtable with Scholars and Community Members.” With William Chavez, Megan Goodwin, Amy Hale, Joe Laycock, Jay Wexler, and Laurel Zwissler. American Academy of Religion (AAR) Annual Meeting, San Antonio, TX, 22 November.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Joshi, Khyati Y. 2020. White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America. New York: NYU Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kraybill, Donald B., Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt. 2013. The Amish. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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