Can the Satanic Temple Save America?

It’s 1 a.m., and I’m waiting for a Satanic ritual to start at a loft in Detroit. It’s dark, natch, and smoky, ditto, crammed with people dressed in black. Most of them are young and goth-ish. There are upside-down crosses aplenty, pounding dance music, a porn room and a surprisingly good hors d’oeuvres table—freshly baked Madeleines and gorgeous fruit, on platters grouped around a massive ice-sculpture replica of Brancusi’s Princess X, a statue that’s either a penis and testicles or a woman gazing into a mirror, depending on your point of view.

At this Satanic Temple party, the ritual is finally starting. Satanists, it seems, aren’t always prompt. Detroit Satanic Temple director Jex Blackmore—for most of the evening, she’s been leading a man dressed as a priest around on a leash—steps onto a low stage (prominently featured: a podium and an upside-down cross) and reads from a book.

Let’s be very clear about this: Adherents of the modern Satanic Temple don’t engage in religious or animal sacrifice, and they have no truck with magic, even the kind of low-key supernaturality embraced by some Christian denominations. Satan, to these Satanists, is a literary figure, not a deity—he stands for rationality, for skepticism, for speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.

While Blackmore reads, two women and one man, all cloaked, file onto the stage. Each puts on a hood, and they lose the cloaks—except for the hoods, they’re naked, and the optics are a bit Abu Ghraib. A few heavily intoned passages later, Blackmore pushes up their hoods and pours wine into their upturned mouths. All three choke on the wine, which doesn’t make it seem less Abu Ghraib. The reading ends, the crowd shouts, “Hail Satan,” and the three devotees smash the wine glasses they’re holding on the ground.

And that’s it. The ritual, Blackmore said, was written by the Detroit chapter and participation is entirely voluntary; it was “intended to empower guests to challenge arbitrary systems of authority, confront archaic traditions and celebrate the Satanic tradition,” she said. The ritual itself “represented concepts of shame, sexuality and normative religions traditions.”

Wineboarding aside, the modern Satanic Temple is about as non-threatening as a group of devil worshippers can get.

But that’s the point. Satanic Temple chapters across the country have been pushing back against the right-wing religious establishment, providing a vocal counterpoint to religious orthodoxy: like a planned statue of Baphomet next to a Ten Commandments monument at the Oklahoma state Capitol, or the Satanic-themed coloring book being distributed to Florida elementary schools—simple but persistent reminders that freedom of religion applies across the board, that laws or guidelines intended to protect or promulgate right-wing Christianity or to blur the line between church and state convey the same access to other creeds.

The modern Satanic Temple is a relatively new entity. Don’t confuse it with the Church of Satan, founded in the 1960s by Anton LaVey, author of the Satanic Bible; the temple’s beliefs spring from the same traditions of humanist questioning, but differ significantly in a few key concepts, primarily in its disdain for authority.

The Detroit Satanic Temple first made Michigan headlines last December, when a Christian church announced plans to erect a nativity scene at the state Capitol in Lansing. So the Satanic Temple installed a “snaketivity” display on the state house lawn. (What’s a snaketivity? A cross with a pentagram, a large fake snake, an open volume of Anatole France’s Revolt of the Angels, and a banner with Gothic lettering: “Knowledge is the greatest gift.”)

“Restricting religious protections to the majority view is an attempt to delegitimize and control alternative beliefs,” Blackmore said. “If religious legitimacy is determined by a biased government, we are effectively in bondage to the beliefs and practices of those in power.”

A half-hour after the ritual ended, I was deep in heated debate about the merits of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act with a conservatively dressed Satanist who’s in town for the party. The Satanic Temple is pro-RFRA, the federal law that provided the legal grounds for the U.S. Supreme Court’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision; the court found that because the corporation’s owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit some types of contraception, the company need not offer such coverage to its employees.

The Hobby Lobby ruling dealt a major setback to women’s reproductive rights, and at first I’m surprised that the Satanists are not just for it, but support the efforts of several state governments to enact comparable laws, generally understood to target reproductive and LGBT rights. But with such laws in place, temple adherents say, there are greater opportunities to the Satanic Temple to advocate for equal protection.

The causes the temple has championed might seem counter-intuitive, absent context: The Protect Children Project offers kids in states where schools practice corporal punishment religious grounds to deny such punishment. Students can download a letter from the temple’s website noting a religious objection to such punishment. A lawsuit the Detroit chapter has considered filing would seek to require doctors to present medically accurate information to patients, a move designed to counteract right-wing efforts to slant reproductive health information.

Some of the temple’s tactics—the Satanic coloring book, for example—might make you wonder if they’re serious, or if the temple is firmly tongue-in-cheek, in the tradition of alternate religions like Discordianism or the Church of the Sub-Genius. But guys, I think they mean it.

The Satanic Temple is consciously trying to craft an alternate religious identity, one aligned with progressive beliefs and scientific principles, but with the special protections granted to those with sincerely held religious beliefs.

It’s a point that’s earned the approbation of no less a luminary than iconic cult film director John Waters, in town to headline Detroit’s Dirty Show, an annual erotic art exhibition. I spoke to Waters at the show that night; he’d been invited to the Satanic Temple party, but declined the invite, explaining that he had a 7 a.m. flight. “But I love what they’re doing,” he said. “I’m a member.” Really? “Well, I’m in talks.”

Waters is more sanguine than the average Satanic recruit; in some—well, most—circles, the tag “Satanist” draws some serious side-eye, even decades after the Satanic Panic of the 80s, in which popular media envisioned roving bands of homicidal Satanists, was debunked.

And in truth, the principles the temple is championing aren’t particularly, well, evil.

“According to a common misperception, organized religion embodies the highest moral virtues, and the figure of Satan as an adversary must therefore stand in diametric opposition to decency itself,” Blackmore said.

So why, I asked her, not change the name to something less alienating?

“Of course, we see that, in reality, traditional dogmas often stand in stark opposition to reasoned moral positions,” she said. “We have no interest in accommodating these misperceptions nor being apologetic for them. We call ourselves Satanists with pride, because Satanists we are.”

And as right-wing religious groups use federal law and courts to shape public policy, the Temple’s efforts seem increasingly necessary. No mainstream religious group is mounting the same kind of visible opposition to orthodoxy, to the right-wing religious views becoming enshrined in public policy. Can the Satanic Temple save religious freedom in America? I’m not sure. But at least they’re trying.