Speak of the Devil

How The Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk about Religion

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Joseph P. Laycock
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2020.
     272 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190948498.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As prolife demonstrators outside the Texas capitol in 2013 sang “Amazing Grace,” some prochoice demonstrators responded with the cry “Hail Satan!” As Joseph Laycock writes of this event in his latest book, Speaking of the Devil:

“Strategically speaking, the chanters conceded the moral high ground in exchange for the short-term satisfaction of upsetting their opponents. However, implicit in the chant…is a desire to show that Christians do not speak for everyone and that framing a political perspective as ‘Christian’ does not necessarily make it moral. As socially engaged Satanism has developed, it has experimented with a variety of techniques aimed at deploying [Satanic] symbols…to unsettle assumptions about religion and religious freedom. Some of these tactics have been more effective than others” (16).

This book is a must-read in the study of American politics and religion. In reading the passage above, I could not help but process the chant of “Hail Satan!” into a typology of meaning, as in James Bielo, Words upon the Word: An Ethnography Group Bible Study [New York University Press, 2009, 33-38]. As Bielo observes, the “Christian” label simultaneously represents (1) a minimal identification marker in a postdenominational era, (2) a family-centered lifestyle and evangelizing mission, (3) a healthy skepticism of one’s faith, (4) a specific denomination marker, (5) a born-again spiritual relationship with God, and (6) a witness to the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The loaded signifier of “Hail Satan!” likewise represents (1) a symbolic slogan used by liberal progressives to challenge and troll conservative Christians; (2) a polarizing identification marker for an imagined community of nontheistic satanists, politically and socially committed to American secularism; (3) a New Age and Human Potential mantra used by theistic and nontheistic satanists alike to reflect on issues of autonomy and self-determination; and (4) a proclamation of Satan’s supernatural existence along with a call to worship his evil, made by theistic satanists. Such a religious hierarchy, inherent in the presentation of Laycock’s research, is organized according to a (post)Christian sentiment of sincerity, one that continues to shape the general study of religion. The three-part typology proposed by Jesper Aagaard Petersen, Contemporary Religious Satanism: A Critical Anthropology [Routledge, 2016, 1-24], whose work Laycock engages and seeks to extend, adheres to the same sentiment, privileging “Esoteric Satanism” over its “Rationalistic” and “Reactive” forms.

Laycock is aware of such bias, given his efforts to rescue from academic dismissal the Satanic Temple, the most institutional manifestation of this new wave of political satanism and the immediate subject of Laycock’s book. Because this group consistently identifies as nontheistic, academic convention places it lower on the spectrum of religiosity and into the realm of disingenuous pranksters. Laycock argues, however, that while satanism formed as a reactionary subculture, using progressive politics to challenge Christian supremacy in public spaces, scholars should never reduce such organizations to an “epiphenomenon” (187). The book correctly presents Satanic Temple members as “Satanic Patriots,” champions of religious pluralism and freedom in America (192). Laycock then argues himself into an intriguing conundrum: Should scholars discontinue the privilege given to Christian notions of belief and sincerity and adopt other systems when evaluating religiosity? Or should they simply reevaluate popular perceptions of the Satanic Temple, clarifying what they believe and what makes them sincere? This book endorses the latter.

“[We protest] within the system because that’s the best way to challenge the system … use [the laws created] against them.” This political strategy, voiced by Stu de Haan, Satanic Temple-Tucson, in the Hail Satan? documentary (dir. Penny Lane, 2019), was first implemented by cofounder Lucien Greaves. Under the latter’s leadership, the Satanic Temple does more than embrace alterity and weaponize irreverence. Through a political savviness, the organization “punches above its weight due to its ability to draw media attention, its creative use of the legal system, and its tactical manipulation of its opponents’ rhetoric” (x). Laycock presents a similar judicial argument in his book, asserting that this brand of satanism qualifies as an “official” religion, given its “serious parody” and “creed, code, cultus, and community” (114-28).

Laycock’s scholarly conundrum mirrors the ideological schism that divided Satanic Temple chapters in 2018. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (146). This Audre Lorde quote was repurposed by “Radical Satanist” Jex Blackmore, formerly of Satanic Temple-Detroit, known for her controversial performance art and guerrilla theater. Blackmore’s departure was a result of her attitudes toward freeform political shock value. She accused the National Council (Greaves and others) of hypocrisy regarding the individual tenets of satanism and criticized their political restrictions over protest. “How do we unite people who identify as outsiders if we’re not doing outsider actions?” she asks. Laycock understands how figures such as Blackmore view “safe” activism as inherently limiting, “assenting to rules created by an oppressive system.” But some may be curious as to how Laycock views himself in his scholarly endeavor to reformulate the Satanic Temple in a way that appeases the academy’s sincerity bias and thus influences its serious consideration of political satanists as religious subjects.

Laycock’s book produces several contributions to the field. His survey of satanic history and its use in popular discourse reveals the extent to which the satanic affinity for performance traces back to earlier Church of Satan figures such as Anton LaVey but also the political activism, militant reactionism, and moral sensationalism of conservative Christians, especially the public spectacles of Catholics, prolife protesters, and those affiliated with the Westboro Baptist Church. As Laycock noted in his webinar on Hail Satan? (American Academy of Religion, Virtual Annual Meeting, A8-216, 2020), a future study could engage further questions of demographics, the post-Christian people of color who embrace the Satanic Temple cause. Another ethnographic study, divorced from issues of sincerity, could analyze forms of religious protest through dramaturgy (design and performance).

About the Reviewer(s): 

William Chavez is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph P. Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His work explores American religious history and new religious movements. He is also a co-editor of the journal Nova Religio.

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.