To say I have mixed feelings about the documentary Hail Satan? is a bit of an understatement. I’ve long been an avowed atheist, though not a particularly militant one, but I have a clear enough memory of my conservative, religious, Christian upbringing to know how triggering everything about this might be to plenty of people — including, quite plausibly, multiple people I know personally who might deign to read this very review.
And therein lies the rub. The “Satanic Temple,” as an embodiment of “modern Satanism” stands for objectively reasonable activist goals. Who in their right mind would read their “Seven Tenets,” without associating them with the Satanic Temple, and disagree with any of it? The first one includes the phrase “in accordance with reason”; the second references “the struggle for justice”; the third is about physical autonomy.
Clearly this organization understands how, culturally, they are playing with fire. The bummer of it all is how reasonable their arguments are, yet how lost their arguments are going to get as they provoke the system by exposing institutional hypocrisy.
And make no mistake — the hypocrisy is epidemic. In one of only two mentions of religion in the United States Constitution, it states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In what universe does the erection of a monument to the Biblical Ten Commandments on State government grounds not violate that clause? (Side note: one of the interview subjects in Hail Satan? notes that the prevalence of such monuments on government property across the country can be traced back to a publicity stunt promoting the 1956 motion picture The Ten Commandments. Yes, really.)
So Hail, Satan? not only tracks the beginnings and evolution of the Satanic Temple as an activist organization with rebellious ritualistic leanings toward blasphemy-as-a-statement, but its push to get local municipalities to erect their own statue of Baphomet, basically a goat-headed angel with two adoring children flanking him, next to any Ten Commandments monument on government property. Their arguments, which is objectively a pretty airtight one, is that it aims to celebrate the religious pluralism — as opposed to, in one man’s words, “Christian supremacy” — on which this country was founded.
There is, of course, multiple elements of ridiculousness to all of this. Could anyone as effectively make the same arguments without invoking what a majority of this country regards as the world’s greatest embodiment of evil? How can these people expect to be taken seriously? Well, by using faith-based laws agaist those who passed them, they have managed it — by getting the Oklahoma state legislature to back off on erecting the Ten Commandments on their Capitol grounds; by getting the Phoenix City Council to abandon their sixty-year tradition of doing a religious invocation before sessions when the Satanic Temple requested to be a part of it. You should see the footage of the local citizenry addressing the City Council in opposition of the Satanic Temple being allowed in. Some of them look literally hysterical.
A key question is asked one of the interview subjects: “Do you think most people think you’re kidding, or that you’re evil?” I would expect most of the otherwise reasonable conservatives I know would come down on the latter option. I also know plenty of people on the spectrum between atheism and secularism, though, and probably most of them would expect these people are perpetuating an elaborate hoax, having fun at the expense of the religious community.
If nothing else, this film illustrates how “Satanic” peope’s earnestness should not be underestimated. It’s often said these days that modern Satanists don’t literally believe in a “Satan,” but rather regard him as a symbol of rebellion against tyranny. These are people who organize work to the public good, such as the local Arizona chapter that adopted a highway (although they pick up litter with extended pitchforks, a nice touch). These are people who are very serious, and are by and large very friendly.
That’s not to say they are not without their dark rituals, which, if Hail Satan? is any indication, just offer a more offbeat kind of community to people that they lose by rejecting more conventional religion. Perfectly valid points are made about the perversity of many Christian rituals (wine representing blood, eating of flesh, etc). That said, there’s a somewhat delicious irony to the leader of the local Detroit chapter being rejected from the national organization for falling too far out of line with their organizational principals. A Satanist calling for the execution of the president? That’s a step too far! To be fair to the Satanic Temple, they really are a nonviolent institution, something codified into their ethics. Those Detroit Satanists can pour wine over naked bodies in ritual ceremonies all they want, but advocating actual violence of any kind — let alone against the president — is unacceptable. Think of their reputation!
My flippancy here could easily be presented here as unfair. But, I am also a realist, and the idea of any group openly calling themselves “Satanists” gaining a truly positive reputation in this country is preposterous. The makers of Hail Satan?, such as director Penny Lane, are clearly on their side. The film actually makes a strong case that we all should be. It also falls slightly short of illustrating what good they’re doing by using Satan as a fundamental symbol of their identity. They want their earnestness to be acknowledged, and while they tend to get it from legal scholars, when it comes to the culture at large, they are either laughed at and dismissed, or they are deeply, almost fatally feared. Neither of those responses make any objective sense.
And although Hail Satan? is otherwise very well constructed and presented, I do wish it spent more time acknowledging such questions. It ends on their fight with the Arkansas state legislature over the Ten Commandment on Little Rock government property, and in this case all they manage is the temporary presentation of their Baphomet statue on the bed of a truck during a rally. Evidently, their case against Arkansas is ongoing, but for some reason the credits roll before any clarification on that matter is offered.
Still, for those with an open enough mind to give it a look anyway, Hail Satan? is provocative in all the right ways. Its greatest problem is really the same problem the Satanic Temple has itself: any association with Satan, no matter how “symbolic” it might be, will instill far more fear than actual thought. I’m not sure there has ever been a greater irony than a movie about Satanists being one of the best examples out there of preaching to the choir.