Soon after the violent white supremacist protests in Charlottesville this month, religious leaders and pious politicians began the usual drudgery of fitting the events into their preferred narratives.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) seized the opportunity to rail against secularism, declaring that the whole thing was but a symptom of a rampant evil that has been allowed to freely permeate public schools unmitigated by the moral corrective of compulsory Bible study. Some Christian leaders, such as Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., said little about the actual events in Charlottesville, but praised President Trump’s “bold” and “truthful” statement at his news conference three days after the protest, which claimed “many sides” were to blame and that all sides harbored some “very fine people.” American Family Radio host Bryan Fischer blamed Democrats.
But the consensus among Christian leaders was that Satan was at fault. As Evangelist Franklin Graham put it: “Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on President Trump for what happened in Charlottesville. … Really, this boils down to evil in people’s hearts. Satan is behind it all.” Premier Christianity, a popular news and culture blog “from a Christian perspective,” condemned both white supremacy and Trump’s equivocating response to it as “Satanic.” Similarly, Morgan Guyton, director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola universities in New Orleans, saw in Charlottesville a “manifestation of Satan’s power.” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, denounced white supremacy as “Satanism” and “devil-worship.”
As the co-founder of and spokesman for the Satanic Temple, I’m naturally irritated by such comments. To many casual observers, there seems to be a tendency to view condemnations of white supremacy as Satanism as a triumph of progressive thought among prominent U.S. Christians. But such language is not harmless. It lets mainstream religions off the hook for some of the darker periods of American history, despite the deep connections between slavery and Christian theology. These leaders’ invocation of the eternal adversary as a scapegoat comes with darker implicit assumptions that should be confronted and rejected outright.
I identify nontheistically with a Miltonic Satan that defies all subjugation, exalts scientific inquiry and promotes Humanistic, pluralistic values. The Satan of Modern Satanism is a metaphorical icon for Enlightenment values. Satanism adopts a mythological backdrop that we feel is more befitting to modern culture than the monarchical, feudalistic, theocratic superstitions of old. The Satanic Temple, far from endorsing crass nationalistic tribalism, actively fights for individual sovereignty and secular values.
In allowing the colloquial use of “Satanic” to stand unopposed as a blanket term to describe all that is reprehensible and morally corrupt, one also tacitly affirms the implied opposite, that Christianity defines all that is just and morally sound. Correcting this assumption is more than a matter of embittered punitive nitpicking; it’s a matter of maintaining fidelity to historical facts so that we might more appropriately confront the dire issues of the present. It’s a matter of undermining the destructive certainty of moral authority held by the superstitious.
Slavery in the United States was traditionally — and rather credibly, from a theological perspective — justified on scriptural grounds. The Ku Klux Klan is as much a religious Protestant sect as the Taliban or al-Qaeda are Muslim. The doctrine of the Christian Identity movement, with its spurious scholarship and militant apocalyptic urgency, forms the ideological backdrop of “virtually all white supremacist and extreme anti-government movements” in the United States, the Anti-Defamation League writes.
Allowing Christian leaders to merely disown Protestant radicalization by fiat absolves them of having to confront the problem. It’s one thing to disagree with the scriptural interpretation of a movement; it’s another to deny that the movement had any foundations in scriptural interpretations at all. Facing the problem of Protestant racism from within means acknowledging its existence and dedicating a certain amount of energy to maintaining a nonracist church, not merely claiming that such elements exist only when politically convenient.
It’s well past time we stopped allowing religious authorities to pretend that their doctrines have guided the rights revolution, when in reality, far too many of them traditionally stalled and crippled it. Without a moment’s introspection, we find American Christian religious leaders claiming the glory of the 1960s civil rights movement while simultaneously fighting to prevent and undo any advances in rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. As if they’ve never been wrong, and failing to be corrected by those who know better, they carry on acting as if “right” is not defined by that which is equitable, increases happiness, or reduces suffering, but rather is defined by (their interpretations of) what is stated as such in their archaic, yet allegedly infallible, laws.
Blaming “Satan” for any misdeeds, real or imagined, has never been a victimless crime. Moore’s words are the very stuff of witch hunts inspired by a guilty desire to purge one’s own sins in a conflagration of the scapegoated “other.” In fact, Trump’s own conspiracy scapegoating, his cozy relationship with deranged paranoia-mongers and his near unanimous support among evangelicals have all unquestionably contributed to the increasing flagrance of the racist right. Blaming Satanism for Charlottesville only adds fuel to the growing flames of conspiracist unreason while shifting responsibility from where it properly belongs.
Finally, it must be said that nothing could be more antithetical to modern nontheistic Satanism than racist ideologies. We embrace a large diversity of individuals from a wide spectrum of political and cultural backgrounds, but we’re all unified by our respect for individual rights and pluralism. It is axiomatic within Satanism that individuals must be judged for their own actions and for their own merits. To unfavorably relegate individuals into arbitrary categories, or to take credit for the achievements of another based upon a shared classification, is to defy the very foundational principles of our ethics. We simply have no place for simple-minded supremacist, nationalist ideologues, and it’s impossible to interpret our tenets otherwise.
Ironically, much of what Moore and other preachers of superstition claim to know about Satanism is derived from a mythology constructed from libels against minority out-groups by Christian majorities. Pagans and Jews were early victims of violent purges, their practices deemed Satanic and intolerable. Native Americans and black slaves were often suspected and accused of Satanic activity in Early America. The vision for a “Christian Nation,” persistently fought for by evangelical theocrats, with its refusal to accept cultural diversity, holds that there is but one right way to live our lives, one lifestyle for all households, only one acceptable religious outlook that should be dictated to the nation at large, one god for one people. Is it really so mysterious that some among them might decide there’s a “right” race as well?
If we’re going to confront the violence in Charlottesville in any constructive manner, we’re going to have to do better than “the Devil made them do it.”