If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince you he didn’t exist, the greatest trick the Satanic Temple has pulled is … well, let’s go to the tape. Was it getting Oklahoma to scotch its proposed 10 Commandments monument outside its statehouse, by promising to plant an 8-foot-tall goat/man/angel statue beside it? Was it actually building said statue and rolling it through Little Rock to spotlight the hypocrisy of Arkansas’ 10 Commandments eyesore?
Or was it holding rites at the grave of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps’ mother that were purportedly aimed at turning her gay in the afterlife? The very idea, of course, is hilariously absurd — but then, how else do you get through to the sort of warped zealot who claims, as Phelps does, that American soldiers die in war because his loving god believes we should do a more thorough job of bullying gay people? How do you converse with anyone, really, who reads the Bible and decides that it gives them license to pick on people, or anyone who reads the Constitution and claims that America was founded as a quote-unquote Christian nation?
The new documentary “Hail Satan?”, directed by Penny Lane, falls somewhere between a ridealong with a genuinely oddball subculture and a valentine to the emerging religion of satanists. They contend their group is not, as you might guess, aligned against God or Jesus or whatever. They seem disinclined even to claim Satan — as an invisible dude who lives, in, what, a fiery hole somewhere in the Earth’s core? — is what you’d call “real.” Rather, they position themselves as the opposition to a status quo that feels smug or exclusionary. “Satan represents rebellion against arbitrary authority,” one of them says, and honestly we could all get along better if we just discussed our religious figures as the symbols they are rather than pirate radio stations only a few people can tune into and hear clearly.
The film also identifies the satanists, correctly, as trolls. An author on their movement says so, and a bystander to a rally of theirs at the Arkansas state capitol later chimes in: “They just want to irritate, if you want to know the truth.”
That, insofar as it goes, is absolutely true. But the satanists retort that they’re pushing back against corrupt churches and governments. A planned black mass in Boston was eventually thwarted by the heavy Catholic pressure there, which a satanist points out left the moral high ground to a church that for years systematically covered up and perpetuated child rape by its clergy. When lawmakers in Florida, Oklahoma and Arkansas moved to erect monuments to the 10 Commandments, the satanists stood up for the First Amendment (seriously, read its first 10 words) and took the fight to court. If there’s any question of the regard “Hail Satan?” has for Jason Rapert’s hulking marble 10 Commandments monument, just admire the choice to play Marilyn Manson’s rendition of “I Put a Spell on You” during a slow-pan shot down the monument, beginning with its order not to worship other gods.
The most annoying sort of troll, it turns out, is a troll who has a point. The founder and spokesman of the movement/church is a Mads Mikkelsen-looking cat who goes by Lucien Greaves, who is, if nothing else, elegantly understated in his aims for the church. His best foil in the film is none other than Sen. Jason Rapert, the Arkansas lawmaker who arranges for the big marble tablets on the statehouse lawn. Forget the Constitutional law arguments against it; the second Commandment forbids graven images. See, you can read it right there in the marble engraving.
If Christians were intent on starving the Satanic Temple of members, they could simply work out a more caring, pluralistic version of Christianity. The satanists who find their way to the church are not what you’d call antisocial; if anything, they’re so hungry for community that they’re building them in chapters around the world. As one of them points out, the structure is actually part of the appeal. (Atheism, one points out, is boring by contrast.) Between their beach litter cleanups and their counter-protests at abortion clinics, satanists do some pretty freaky stuff, and you’ll see plenty of that, here, too. Is it what you’d call evil? Nah. They’re literally not hurting anyone. When the same can be said for Christian doctrine, you’ll probably hear a lot less from the satanists.