Satanism was huge in the last century (if you believe the Christian right) but now it’s back and better than ever, as revealed in Penny Lane’s 2019 documentary about American religious activists The Satanic Temple.
Through illuminating interviews and news footage, Hail Satan? tracks the group’s inspired political activity while exploring the meaning of Satanism, a phenomenon often referenced but seldom discussed. The Satanic Temple are not devil-worshippers but argue that you don’t have to believe in a deity to be religious, taking instead a moral code from its rebellious figurehead. It’s through this religious status that the Temple is able to challenge Christian privilege in a nation founded on the separation of church and state.
The documentary works its way towards the unveiling of an 8.5-foot bronze sculpture of Baphomet outside an Arkansas government building, where a Ten Commandments monument stands in violation of the First Amendment. Along the way we witness equally brilliant Satanic Temple stunts, from a black mass on the streets of Boston to an “After School Satan” club to protest the promotion of Christian clubs at public schools. The formula is almost ingeniously simple, and its exponents impressively sane in their insanity. Between Satanist spokesperson Lucien Greaves feeding a pig on a lead and the Republican politician/Christian minister from Arkansas called Jason Rapert, I know who I trust more.
This collision of the inherently ridiculous and politically impactful makes Hail Satan? feel like an American version of the British documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape. Where we had Tory MP Graham Bright claiming horror movies would corrupt dogs, they had televangelist Billy Graham warning that Dungeons & Dragons was Satanic. Both the video nasties scandal and the American “Satanic panic” ruined lives, the difference is that those views never went away in the US, with ongoing consequences for LGBT and reproductive rights.
Those areas devastated by the Christian right are where The Satanic Temple seeks justice; “Looking out for the Other,” as one of its eloquent members puts it. Theirs is a religion born of trolling but based on deeply held secularism, pluralism and patriotism, their steadfast humour and constitutional rigour making for a hilarious and thought-provoking documentary that exposes hypocrisy and defends blasphemy without hurting anybody. Until one of them gets carried away and starts inciting violence. But what could be more religious than that?