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Playing Devil’s Advocate: The Satanic Temple’s Lessons for the Left

Original illustration by Ayca Tuzer ’24, an Illustration major at RISD

“One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone. Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.” These assertions, numbers three and five on the list of the Satanic Temple’s Seven Tenets, are recited during an essential Satanic Temple ritual: abortion. According to the Satanic Temple’s belief system, the first-trimester-specific abortion ritual “provides spiritual comfort and affirms bodily autonomy and self-worth.” Consequently, bodily autonomy is a sacred religious right that must be protected under the law. 

In an effort to protect the rights of those seeking abortions, the Satanic Temple has filed lawsuits against abortion bans in states including Idaho, Indiana, and Texas. Additionally, the Satanic Temple recently announced that it is launching “Samuel Alito’s Mom’s Abortion Clinic,” a telehealth clinic providing free counseling and medication abortions to New Mexico residents seeking to perform the abortion ritual. Although described by Vox as “equal parts performance art group, leftist activist organization, and anti-religion religious movement,” the effective political organizing of the Satanic Temple should not be undersold. In particular, its telehealth abortion care service displays that the Satanic Temple is not merely “trolling” the public. Rather, it has capitalized on a loophole in American law without acquiescing to right-wing legal arguments or the constraints of likability politics.

The Satanic Temple’s national fight against abortion bans centers around the rights enshrined in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its various iterations at the state level. These bills bar federal and state governments from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion,” which the Satanic Temple claims includes its abortion ritual. As a Satanic Temple spokesperson explained, “We’re objecting to the regulations that are not actually necessary for the abortion and do not offer better outcomes. [It] would be unconstitutional to require a waiting period before receiving Holy Communion. It would be illegal to demand Muslims receive counseling prior to Ramadan. It would be ridiculous to demand that Christians affirm in writing the unscientific assertion that baptism can cause brain cancer. So we expect the same rights as any other religious organization.” 

Though its fights against abortion bans have garnered more attention since last summer’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court case, the Satanic Temple’s activism spans over a decade. The Satanic Temple was founded in 2012 by Malcolm Jarry and Doug Mesner. Mesner, who had a history of involvement with Satanism through the Church of Satan, first joined forces with Jarry to protest the proliferation of religiosity in Florida schools. In 2012, then-Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) signed a bill that allowed students to read “inspirational messages,” initially described in the bill as “prayers,” at school-sponsored events. Although the law was religion-neutral, Jarry and Mesner saw this as an attempt to indoctrinate public school students with Christianity. In response, they mobilized a group to go to the Florida Capitol steps to “thank” Rick Scott for giving Satanist students the opportunity to spread their faith in school. Michael Wiener, an actor hired to play the “high priest” at the rally, ended the protest by declaring, “We feel confident that Rick Scott has helped initiate the inevitable—opening the gates of hell to unleash a new Luciferean age that will last one thousand years and beyond! Hail Rick Scott! Hail Satan!” 

Though dismissed by some in the media as a mere prank, this rally exemplifies the creative and provocative activism of the Satanic Temple. Since 2012, the Satanic Temple has grown substantially, boasting over 700,000 registered members with chapters throughout the United States and around the world. The Satanic Temple practices “nontheistic Satanism,” meaning its members “do not believe that Satan is a deity, being, or person.” Instead, its mission is to “[facilitate] the communication and mobilization of politically aware Satanists, secularists, and advocates for individual liberty.” It has continued to target laws that it claims are codifying favoritism toward Christianity. Its use of religious freedom arguments typically reserved for the ideological right has led the Satanic Temple to describe itself as “a ‘poison pill’ in the Church/State debate.” 

Over the past several years, the left has had an internal debate about the sagacity of upholding “politics as usual” while those on the right become increasingly bold. Many have argued that the left should replicate the right’s shameless violations of our political norms and values—fighting fire with fire. Yet, this solution to the left’s political quagmire may hurt the larger left-wing cause, even if it achieves some political success. Normalizing right-wing tactics of “playing dirty” is dangerous, as it serves to both legitimize the destruction of our political systems and further entrench legal tactics abused by the right. Instead of succumbing to this false choice between losing the political game and cheating at it, the Satanic Temple provides an alternative strategy.

The underlying mission of the Satanic Temple is not solely to fight for its own religious liberty, but rather to display how right-wing “religious freedom” arguments fall apart when applied to unconventional religious groups. For example, the Satanic Temple frequently references the 2014 Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case in order to advance their religious freedom argument. In this infamous case, the owners of Hobby Lobby successfully argued that their Christian faith necessitated an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s provision that employer-provided health care must include contraception coverage. While one might see the Satanic Temple’s use of this case as “playing dirty” by exploiting right-wing legal victories, it is exposing the hypocrisy of these religious freedom arguments. This tactic offers an innovative avenue for leftist activism.

Furthermore, the Satanic Temple is uniquely designed to eschew “likability politics,” instead embracing the ire of the right while it focuses on achieving its legislative goals. Although its particular brand of unlikability politics might prove problematic for more mainstream groups, it does illuminate a flaw in standard progressive activism. Particularly since Dobbs, when Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion put a target on the rights to marriage equality and contraceptive care, the insufficiency of popular political approval to actually protect rights has been made clear. 

While many of the activist groups fighting for these rights have spent the past several decades winning over the hearts and minds of the American people, the Satanic Temple has taken a radical approach that dismisses the pressure to convince moderates. Although mainstream activists have done great and important work in persuading large swaths of the American public, it is necessary to grapple with the chilling fact that winning over enough people is no guarantee that rights are protected. 

As the Satanic Temple continues their fight to protect bodily autonomy and abortion rights, their marked disinterest in prioritizing persuasion tactics enables them to take radical action. Unencumbered by the burden of likability politics, the activism of the Satanic Temple crafts a unique and inspirational model. In order to countervail the religious right’s continuing attacks on personal autonomy and civil rights, the left as a whole should embrace the Satanic Temple’s Second Tenet, as “the struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit.”