Religion is performative. There are structures and icons and rituals and languages devoted to tenets of moral regulation. Hail Satan? allows audiences to critically think about, and to play with, that performance. Fire is included.
The direct subject of the documentary is The Satanic Temple, a post-Christian community of pranksters and protesters. They are non-theistic, so Satan just represents their counter-Christian program. By counter-Christian, they mean pro-religious diversity and pro-science. Members believe any religious privilege is tyrannical and ill-fitted to modern society, that there should be no servitude that ignores knowledge. Therefore, the larger subject is the civic borderland. How do we deal with markers of Christian morality that alter the American political landscape?
Director Penny Lane (Nuts!) outlines the primary figures and pillars of contemporary Satanism. Their community has grown exponentially — because the Internet. Satan is great marketing, am I right? And their tenets are alluring. They include political action, free thought and will, prioritization of scientific knowledge, justice, and accountability. Sure, there are horns and cloaks and goth kitsch all over, but mostly just for fun. To scare the straights, as it were. Because if you aren’t in on the jokes, you aren’t paying attention. Their raw outsider aesthetic shocks people into considering stereotypes and absurdities within traditional practices.
Lucien Greaves, the Temple’s main spokesman, has a spooky and awkward presence on camera but eloquent insight into his organization. He speaks about historical moral foundations and counter-balances, about societal change. Interviews with members reinforce rational, inclusive, and playful beliefs. The Satanic Temple does not advocate violence, and there’s an interesting tension between leaders when it comes to political overthrow. Their image is already electric, they can’t veer into double standards or legal jeopardy. They stick with press events and protests, their visibility and adaptability are crucial.
A core project of the Temple is placing sculptures of Baphomet (the Sabbatic goat) next to monuments of the Ten Commandments outside government buildings. Their call for representation points to lacking separation between church and state. They have flustered politicos in Florida, Arkansas, and Oklahoma who fall back on the “Christian Nation” default, citing Constitutional God-talk. The doc lays out some big-picture arguments, how the Constitution uses God only in restriction of its influence, how the current conflation of government and Christianity actually comes from the 1950s.
My favorite part of the film is its rumination on that decade’s Christian paranoia. A revival accompanied the Communist Red Scare, and Satan became a more perfect symbol for socio-political evil infiltrating American society. Cinema and television were tools of evangelical patriotism, with those such as Billy Graham and Cecil B. DeMille feeding upon the surge. DeMille’s 1956 Paramount classic The Ten Commandments provides the model for monuments being erected today. How profound to think about how media have repackaged and sold religion in different eras.
Hail Satan? is quick and charming and thoughtful as it redefines adversaries both symbolic and real. It asks viewers to consider why Satan is used to threaten people with some sort of dark destiny. It explains Satanic Panic and deflates the myth. It offers alternate moral frameworks and carnivalesque humor. But more than anything, it warns against government enforcement of religious views. Blasphemy is a cry for independence.
I happened to watch this film right after rewatching Ken Burns’ Prohibition series, and I was struck by how the two aligned. There are always some who feel that America can be improved by legislating a finite morality, but history has proven that to be quite unsuccessful. Cheers to choice and to various blasphemies.