This article originally appeared on VICE UK
On a grey London morning, Lucien Greaves, the co-founder and spokesperson of The Satanic Temple is contemplating whether or not he’d run for president of the United States of America.
“Previously one also would have thought that the public face of Satanism would have no chance at gaining public office but at the point when you have a fucking idiot like Trump as president all bets are off,” he shrugs.
Despite the name, The Satanic Temple don’t actually believe in a literal supernatural Satan. Instead they use Satanic imagery to fight for what they call “religious pluralism” – the idea that no one religious viewpoint should be privileged over another.
It’s a bizarre turn of events that we’re living in a world where Satanic leaders are weighting up the pros and cons of running for office but then again it’s a bizarre world we’re living in, full stop. When politicians on both the right and left, are scrambling to cope with the rise of nationalism, xenophobia and populism, The Satanic Temple’s clearly defined, liberal values for the separation of state and church, egalitarianism and social justice are deeply attractive. It’s hardly a surprise that membership of the religious organisation spiked when Trump was elected and has only continued to grow.
Now, The Satanic Temple is the subject of Penny Lane’s new documentary, Hail Satan?. The film is a lot like The Satanic Temple itself: equal parts comedic, absurd, serious and intelligent, made to lift the shroud of mystery surrounding the group and highlight their activist work campaigning against theocratic legislation. In the film, The Satanic Temple’s fight in Arkansas to remove a ten commandments monument takes centre stage, but we also see the group’s every day, community work: a sock drive for homeless people, picking up litter with, you guessed it, pitchforks, and ‘Menstruatin with Satan,’ a campaign to collect menstruation products for local shelters. Most recently, the group has been fighting recent rollbacks on reproductive laws which they believe violate the separation of state and church.
At Sundance London, where the film premiered in the UK, we sat down with Greaves to discuss the current state of politics in America and why Satanists are fighting for the first amendment.
There’s a common idea that The Satanic Temple began as a publicity stunt before evolving into an activist group – is this true?
I’ve always objected to this notion that there was ever a time when we were publicity seeking or doing things just to provoke. Obviously we do a lot of things that are meant to garner media attention but that doesn’t mean that our goal, or end, is to shock or provoke. We want to draw attention to the issues that are important to us and show people how they can become engaged with them. We have our values and deeply held beliefs and when they are violated, we want to fight on their behalf. I think the provocations we do have an intellectual depth to them that a lot of people are starting to recognise now when they see Hail Satan?.
Can you explain what’s happening with Arkansas and the fight to remove a Ten Commandments statue?
That’s still in litigation right now because we’re suing Arkansas. Arkansas put up the ten commandments monument and said it’s not a religious monument, that it’s historical and it’s an homage to American law, which they say was based on the ten commandments. In itself that’s absolute bullshit, there’s no reference to the ten commandments in any constitutional laws and much of the ten commandments directly contradicts the first amendment of the US.
When they put up the ten commandments monument, in order to avoid an establishment clause claim that this was a violation of the separation of church and state, they said that it was a private donation so that implicitly opens up that those public grounds are where any private donations can go. On that premise we offered our Baphomet monument, which they rejected, so we’re suing on the grounds of religious discrimination.
I feel very confident that we’re going to win that case but I suspect they’ll prefer to remove the ten commandments monument before they will allow the Satanic monument to stand. On our end, either outcome is fine. What we’re really trying to avoid is a situation where one religious viewpoint has the exclusive privilege and endorsement of a government institution.
At the moment in politics, especially American politics, more and more binary thinking seems to be happening with left/right, good/bad, conservative/liberal, democrat/republican. It seems that The Satanic Temple is challenging that binary thought.
We definitely feel that within our organisation. We’ve seen a lot of people came to us since the election of Trump. We started out during the Obama administration and I think people then were much more likely to view us as a kind of joke. That was a time when we had a lot of people ask us why we cared if there were ten commandment monuments on public grounds. I think people are realising that these aren’t simply symbolic gestures of patriotism.
We’re in a dire state right now in the US with the Trump administration, which is so clearly pandering to evangelical theocrats. Our liberties are at stake, everything that we are premised upon is at stake. People now have a more intuitive grasp of what it means to align with affirmative satanic values in opposition with those encroaching upon their personal liberties.
Do you think people have come to these realisations too late?
[Trump’s election] has started to wake people up but it’s a little disheartening to see how slow some of the public is to wake up to what’s going on. Even some of the people who have seen Hail Satan? don’t seem to realise that these aren’t regional issues. They see people from out of state going into Arkansas and fighting about a ten commandments monument on public grounds and are thinking, “Why should we care about what’s going on in Arkansas?”
But the precedent that’s set in Arkansas on whether a ten commandments statues is allowed or not has reverberations around the entire United States and potentially the rest of the world. We have Trump in the US and assholes like Boris Johnson in the UK and everybody’s in the same state of affairs. It’s high time people start being more critical of the religious persuasions of their politicians and taking them seriously and at face value when they hold these superstitious or theocratic views.
Why do you think people are increasingly turning to The Satanic Temple to feel represented?
We’re in this desperate state of affairs and we’re going to be suffering the consequences of it for generations to come given the disposition of the Supreme Court under Trump and the fact that the Trump administration is placing so many federal judges into the office. In states like Alabama and Georgia, we’re seeing them overturn Roe v. Wade and making abortion illegal.
Over and over again we’re seeing a population look to The Satanic Temple in ways they never thought they would before because religious liberty has been so expanded in the US under the understanding that the only religious group that would take advantage of it would be the evangelicals. Now the Satanists are coming in and claiming exemptions from abortion restrictions and other such things where we feel the imposition of these theocratic laws contradict our own religious beliefs. That’s the new battlefront and I think you’re going to be hearing a lot more about The Satanic Temple in the near future as our litigations progress and as some of our cases surely end up in the Supreme Court. It’ll be a really defining moment for the future of the world because then we’re going to see whether we’re actually going to treat people on an equal level in a pluralistic democracy or if we’re actually going to codify the exclusive privileges of one religious viewpoint. That’s a very scary place to be in in this time and in this day and age, at the precipice of a new dark age.
'Hail Satan' will be in UK cinemas 23 August.