Seen most profoundly in the 2014 Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, and iterated frequently in both political rhetoric and legal decisions, is the government’s obligation to define religious freedom — the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment asserts the right to freedom of religion. However, the separation of church and state is also embedded in the framework of the Constitution. There is an inevitable clash between those two ideas: The government cannot provide space for free expression and practice of religion while maintaining distance and abject neutrality. Religious expression often requires government screening, whether regarding peyote consumption as a religious act, underage drinking, or, more recently, reproductive rights.
The religious right is weakening the line between church and state. Despite growing religious plurality and declining religiosity, religious organizations have waged a seemingly constant battle to redefine the United States as a religious nation. Using religious freedom as an agent for imposing regulations on peoples’ reproduction, organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom as well as politicians, lobbyists, and private interest groups are leading the crusade to christen America’s policies as decidedly Christian. As a result, the wall between church and state is often porous and crumbling. While many forces, especially on the religious right, seem to precipitate this collapse, The Satanic Temple (TST), a religious organization, reinforces the importance of this wall through its political actions and parodies. Whether or not one agrees with the work of TST, this debate reveals the instability of the United States’ status as a secular nation. TST’s parody is vitally important because it reiterates the fundamental necessity for separation of church and state.
Founded by Lucien Greaves (formerly Doug Mesner), The Satanic Temple is a religious group, a self-described protest organization, and a political parody. Despite its ominous name, TST aims to “encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, [and] advocate practical common sense and justice.” TST capitalizes on its role as a religious organization to upset the religious right’s (un)holy crusade to unite Christianity and the US government. By fighting fire with brimstone, TST has upset multiple attempts to instill Christian iconography and ideology into government spaces. In one example, TST raised a campaign to erect a statue of a Baphomet (satanic goat person) as a reaction to a monument raised of the Ten Commandments near the Oklahoma State Capitol; after the commandments were disallowed by a judge, the Baphomet went to live in Detroit.
The Satanic Temple uses satirical and brash methods to prove its point. In 2013, members performed a ritual called a “pink mass” at the grave of the late Catherine Johnston, mother of the Westboro Baptist Church founder, Fred Phelps Sr. Campy and gay, the pink mass was led by Greaves himself, wearing fashionable black goat horns, as he presided over same-sex couples kissing atop the grave. He then draped his penis and scrotum on the gravestone, and in completing the ceremony made Johnston “gay for all eternity.” The whole affair — a parody of the Westboro Baptist Church’s protests — was as silly as it was political, drawing attention to the irrationality of religion-based policymaking.
TST’s more serious campaigns for bodily autonomy and access to reproductive health are rooted in its Seven Tenets, ranging from the humanist “one should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures” to the charged “one’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.” These tenets provide the legal grounds for TST to argue against policies that they believe suppress their free expression of religion. Companies like Hobby Lobby receiving religious exemption to deny their employees access to birth control violates TST’s religious command to bodily autonomy. Furthermore, as many states have imposed unreasonable standards for abortion providers, that too violates their tenet of bodily autonomy by forcing people to be pregnant when they do not want to be. TST’s command to “never distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs” clashes with laws that allow crisis pregnancy centers, anti-abortion health clinics that are often federally funded, to peddle misleading and incorrect information. With the status as a religious organization, TST uses the legal system to fight what it views as oppressive policies. TST’s campaigns remain legitimate because religious conviction is impossible to measure and must be taken at face value — religious freedom is not dependent on religious vigor.
Political efficacy aside, the mere existence of The Satanic Temple raises important questions about the right to religious freedom. The Satanic Temple is an atheistic religion and does not prescribe to supernatural beliefs. Instead, they focus on a “metaphorical Satanic construct,” which the group claims to be “no more arbitrary to us than are the deeply held beliefs that we actively advocate for.” TST’s beliefs and actions reveal that religious freedom is not simply an abstract concept, but an idea that has the potential for far-reaching consequences. TST draws into question the meaningfulness of religion and declares that if anything is meaningful enough, it too can be a religious belief.
At its base, The Satanic Temple’s radical politics removes the religious right’s monopoly over the discourse on freedom of religion. It allows other groups, be they obviously religious in nature, or with passions so fervent that they coalesce into a religion, to object to policies they disagree with. Fundamentally, it calls into question just how much a government can do to protect freedom of religion while still holding firm on the line of separation between church and state.