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A Co-founder of the Satanic Temple on Rebranding Satan in the 21st Century

If you follow offbeat news or legal battles, you’ve read stories about the Satanic Temple. The religious activist group has turned up in all corners of the country, counter-protesting anti-choice picketers at Planned Parenthood in Detroit, performing a gay “Pink Mass” over the grave of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps’ mother in Mississippi, and offering to take in Muslims or other refugees following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. But you probably didn’t know that they lobby against corporal punishment for schoolchildren and seek to debunk pseudoscientific mental health care. You may have not even realized the Satanic Temple is a different entity from the older Church of Satan. Established in 2012, its leaders envisioned “active and relevant Satanism” rather than the “mere social club” they felt the Church had become.

What does that mean in practice? For one thing, Satan is just a symbol, “the heretic who questions sacred laws and rejects all tyrannical impositions.” But when you’re raising money for, say, a statue of the goat-headed god Baphomet to stand alongside a Ten Commandments monument installed by a state representative outside the Oklahoma Capitol, people are bound to come to their own conclusions. A huge challenge in the Temple’s mission is correcting the misconception that they promote allegiance to evil or belief in the supernatural — or that this is all some kind of trolling media stunt.

Intrigued by the branding work that goes into keeping the Temple alive and well, I spoke to co-founder and spokesman Lucien Greaves (who avoids using his legal name due to threats against his family) about strategizing for the group. Currently, he’s in Little Rock, Arkansas, in preparation for a lawsuit against the state. As in Oklahoma, the Temple is requesting a Satanic statue be erected next to a Ten Commandments monument on Capitol grounds, one they argue establishes unconstitutional religious preference.

Given that media coverage is part of your strategy — any activist group’s strategy, really — how do you combat the false impression that this is some postmodern stunt?

As we keep doing what we’re doing, people see we’re in the fight seriously. People will eventually realize this can’t be terribly easy, or just a lark — something we’d do with our time if we didn’t feel strongly about it. I knew it would be an uphill battle from the start, but each time we’ve been vindicated, it shows we’re in this for real. I speak nationwide, and there’s a lot of interest; people want to hear us out and listen to us, and they see we’re on the front lines. Of course there’s still a lot of confusion… [including] skepticism that we’re non-theistic.

Is this a full-time job for you?

I think “full-time” doesn’t really do justice to the magnitude of it. [Laughs.] I’m sure it doesn’t look a lot from the outside.

Honestly, once you start looking at the organization, it does seem like a lot. How do you keep it going?

We’re pretty much sustained by donations, either directly or through people purchasing our merchandise, which contributes to our legal fund. We don’t have staff attorneys; sometimes we get pro bono support. Our primary costs are the abortion rights cases, and right now in Missouri. [For two years, the Temple has challenged the state’s abortion restrictions, among them “informed consent” materials, mandatory ultrasounds, and a 72-hour waiting period, winning a major court victory in January.]

Is the Temple non-profit or tax-exempt?

We turned in what’s called the 1023 form for the IRS, but only recently. The Trump administration was talking about getting rid of the Johnson Amendment [a tax code provision that prohibits nonprofit and religious groups from engaging in political campaigns]. We objected to that kind of exemption — we wanted no strings attached, freedom to be political and call out other religious groups. We expected the Johnson Amendment to be killed, but that didn’t happen. So we’ll see, because, you know, they don’t really give you strong criteria to qualify as a religious nonprofit, but it’s hard to see how they could deny that we are.

I noticed your website uses the word “decentralized,” which is very in vogue these days — if you’re into Bitcoin, anyway. But can a group like yours operate entirely without any hierarchy?

We’re not going to pretend we can operate that way. It’s like America, kind of like the liberal democratic experiment in microcosm — we try to balance the autonomy of chapters and individuals with reasonable expectations and guidelines. It diminishes the liberty of anyone in the group to be misrepresented by anyone else in the organization. It’s a principle we’re going by, but it’s not going to be a purity test.

Has anyone done that? Misrepresented the group?

It’s always up for debate. We have media and conduct standards, and we haven’t seen any egregious examples [of those rules being broken]. There are so many card-carrying members, though, it’s a plausible scenario.

How many members in all?

We have 100,000 members internationally, but then we run into the criticism that we only register them online. We have a good feeling that the vast majority meant to identify with us. There shouldn’t be a monetary obstacle or test to belong.

How are the Temple’s agenda and legal actions decided?

There are several factors. We don’t want to set a bad precedent. We can fight similar battles in many different places, so it’s smart to choose the right venue, with the best plaintiff, the best case. Sometimes it depends on when we have pro bono support — then you might as well do it. The major hurdle is financing.

The internet is one thing, but what’s the reaction on the ground in a place like Arkansas?

I hear from both sides, naturally. There was support for the Ten Commandments monument going up. When they took the shrink-wrap off, a crowd met it with cheers and hallelujahs. But you also had a lot of people showing up to shake my hand because they support what we’re doing. The viewpoint in Arkansas isn’t as universal as people might think. People sometimes message me that they’d like to show up but are concerned about their jobs, families. Progressives can be fooled into missing that. We fought this battle in Oklahoma, and they ended up taking down the monument, but we hadn’t even filed our lawsuit yet, that was an ACLU case. But the court may have also wondered how they could justify the Ten Commandments while denying our statue request.

The Temple is still relatively young, just six years old. Where do you see it in the next ten?

It brings us back to that question of intention and how serious this is. It’s very serious for the people involved. People see us in the news and hear about us when we’re fighting these actions, and not any other way — we don’t go out and proselytize. They know they can help finance these things. If this component of the culture war we’re having with the evangelicals were to end tomorrow, this community would continue to grow. I hope in ten years — I hope it’s only ten years! — people will laugh about these flagrant attempts to violate the Constitution.