Lucien Greaves, cofounder of the Satanic Temple. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Every year, aspiring filmmakers and art students flood to southern Ohio for the Athens International Film and Video Festival (AIFVF) boasts short films, worldwide premieres, experimentals, and documentaries. The event takes place over a week in the Athena Theater.
Among this year’s selections was a documentary focusing on activism, self-expression, and separation of church and state. It forced viewers to reevaluate their view of religion and America as a “Christian nation” and brought to light a minority group whose focus is on religious freedom.
This group is the Satanic Temple.
Wickedly funny, surprisingly introspective, and far too vulgar for its own good, Hail Satan? is the brainchild of independent filmmaker, Penny Lane (Yes, that’s her real name). It chronicles the growth of the Satanic Temple from a bizarre publicity stunt to a religious and political group.
The organization’s first public act was in 2013, when members rallied in support of Florida governor, Rick Scott, when announced the idea of prayer in schools by children of different religions. Clad in all-black clothing, dark robes, and a ram’s horn headband, an unnamed spokesperson for the faction spoke at a podium outside of the statehouse.
“It’s a great day here at the state capitol. Great day to be a Satanist,” he comments– in deadpan–to the cameras. Another member, cofounder Lucien Greaves, stands behind him solemnly, nodding.
“We honor governor Rick Scott,” he continues, and then, almost as an afterthought he says, “Hail Satan, Rick.”
This performance is tongue-in-cheek yet seems perfectly scripted as a bystander yells that the Satanists are going to hell, to which one person replies: “I believe it and I’m very excited about it.”
These opening scenes of Hail Satan? set the movie’s ironic tone of religion in the public sphere. The goals of the Satanic Temple are geared towards the theatrical and the bizzare. The group describes themselves as being nontheistic: one scene expresses that atheism is defining one by what they don’t believe, whereas Satanism (in the Temple’s interpretation) is defined as the rejection of religion.
Hilarious moments include the Satanists covered in piercings and clad in spike-studded clothing adopting a highway and picking up roadside garbage on the side of the road and the founding members selecting a Salem, Massachusetts beige house for their headquarters, which they repaint in black.
Though much of the documentary focusses on the satirizing the group, it approaches the idea of separation of church and state in an uncommon way: by declaring themselves as a religion and the Satanic Temple as a church.
By law, churches are exempt from paying taxes. And in accordance with Rick Scott’s idea of multitheistic prayer in schools, children belonging to the Satanic tradition would be allowed to pray with their peers.
This issue culminates in the debate over Arkansas State Capitol, as the American History and Heritage Foundation poses the idea of putting up a Ten Commandments statue. Political figures in Arkansas see it as the celebration of America as a Christian nation, but Lucien Greaves and the rest of the Satanic Temple perceive it as an attack on the First Amendment.
If the state puts up a statue of the Ten Commandments, Greaves argues, then it is also bound by Constitutional law–the first ten words of the First Amendment–that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”- to put up representation of other religions, namely the Satanic Temple.
The statue design pitched is a seven-foot-tall design of Baphomet, an occult goat deity, with two children worshipping him on either side.
Greaves goes so far as to create a proposal for the state government of Arkansas. The board’s expressions range from vaguely amused to disproportionately horrified to confusion and disgust.
The Satanic Temple finds itself embroiled in a legal battle in Arkansas specifically, but insists that other recreations of the same monument, found on state property across the country, also need to come down.
One poignant scene in the film comes when the Ten Commandments statue in Oklahoma is run over in the middle of the night. Initially, the Satanic Temple is blamed, but the real culprit, however, is a Christian, He says he believes in his religion but does not believe it belongs on state property. He becomes perhaps the first Christian in history to be applauded by the Satanic Temple.
The Ten Commandments plotline takes up the majority of the movie. The other shoe doesn’t drop, however, until a one-on-one interview with Lucien Greaves reveals that the statues were originally a promotion for the Ten Commandments movie from 1956.
The interviewer is just as confused as the audience. Apparently, Paramount Pictures had given the statues to state governments for public display in order to promote the movie. This fun fact is never mentioned by supporters of the statue.
Throughout the documentary, it is emphasized that the Satanic Temple and its leadership is not specifically against religion itself. Rather, they reject the idea of a Christian theocracy, advocate for equal rights of all religions, and insist that the government should not favor one deity over another.
Even in what’s known as a post-Christian society, religious beliefs still influence politics. The debates over abortion and gay marriage are religiously motivated: the Satanic Temple argues that they shouldn’t be. The verdict is definitive: religion, while not inherently a bad thing, has no place in our government.
The film ends with the unveiling of the Baphomet statue on Oklahoma state grounds, towering over its audience with wings spread wide, set to the Hallelujah chorus. It’s triumphant, hysterical, and thought-provoking and leads one into a feeling of mindless celebration. What are we celebrating, again?