The Satanic Temple, best known for its offer to build a monument to Satan in an attempt to challenge the Constitutionality of a Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma, recently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain any correspondence surrounding the issue.
Lucien Greaves, the Temple’s organizer, sent me over a hundred letters, petitions, and audio files of voice mail messages addressed to the Oklahoma Capital Preservation Commission—an amazing archive for a historian of American religion.*
One Oklahoma paralegal felt it would demonstrate the state’s religious diversity, while another accused the legislature of hypocrisy and threatened to take a sledgehammer to the Ten Commandments monument. Aother, referring to the Temple’s statement that Lucifer symbolizes “the selfless revolt against tyranny, free & rational inquiry, and the responsible pursuit of happiness,” suggested that these values would be better honored with a statue of George Washington. A total of two messages suggested that the best way to block the Satanic monument was to also remove the monument to the Ten Commandments.
But virtually all of the messages were opposed to the monument, ranging in tone from bewilderment to anger to tears. What they shared was a complete lack of understanding of the establishment clause or its implications for government institutions—not to mention a staggering level of confusion.
Several callers demanded to know whether the governor was for or against erecting a monument to Satan. One caller from Florida, who did not understand that the Ten Commandments monument was on government grounds, reported that his pastor had told him that all religious displays in Oklahoma must now feature displays of Satanism as well. Others believed the monument would have seven heads, or that it would be appear on “The White House.”
One caller tearfully confessed that in the 1960s she had used peyote and crystal meth, and read Nietzsche. The voicemail service cut her off before she could finish her point.
Several people interpreted the issue in a supernatural register. “I believe a statue of this nature would bring a curse upon Oklahoma. We do not need that,” said one caller, while another explained that there was already a Satanic monument at the Oklahoma capital (apparently a statue of a Native American warrior placed on top of the dome in 2002 is actually an idol of Baal erected by Freemasons). A letter writer expressed that the Satanic statue should be allowed because it would force the Illuminati to reveal their Luciferian plans to the world.
But most callers essentially argued that the Ten Commandments should be allowed and the Satan monument forbidden because the framers of the Constitution founded the United States as an explicitly Christian nation. There was a palpable cognitive dissonance as constituents tried to formulate legal arguments that reconciled their ideas of America as both a Christian nation based on Mosaic law and a nation that guarantees religious freedom, which resulted in such statements as:
Yes, people have a choice as to what they want to believe and yet we need to make that “choosing” as easy as possible to choose Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Therefore, concerning the rights of different religions, I don’t see where the CIVIL LAW OF EOUALITYAPPLIES. It is repulsive to me to even have to consider another religion as being equal to Christianity.
Painfully absent from these sort of arguments was a recognition or understanding of the establishment clause. In their view, religious freedom is like pie and giving a slice of freedom to Satanists means taking a slice away from Christians. Accordingly, many callers invoked a tyranny of the majority, arguing that religious minorities can be ignored because Oklahoma is “The Bible Belt.” One letter suggested that the monument to Satan be allowed but that its scale must be in proportion to the percentage of Satanists living in Oklahoma.
Virtually no one understood the point Greaves was trying to make—that the establishment clause was designed to prevent problems inherent in building religious monuments on government property. Because the authors of the messages fail to understand the difference between government endorsement of Christianity and the personal liberty of Christian citizens, Constitutional issues surrounding the separation of church and state are interpreted as demonic attacks perpetrated by “God haters.”
Constitutional ignorance has fueled our culture wars and perpetuated a narrative that Christianity in America is under attack. September 17 is Constitution Day, the perfect opportunity to recognize that the First Amendment has two clauses about religion; we’re not only a nation that values religious freedom, we are also a nation that recognizes the government shouldn’t tell us what to believe.
*Greaves expressed his suspicion that some files had been omitted from the FOIA request. Documents sent from the Satanic Temple were not among the included files, nor were any meeting notes or minutes discussing the Temple. The only data concerning what the monument committee thought about the Satanic monument are hinted at in e-mails to and from an executive assistant. In fact, reading through the files, I felt sympathy for this assistant, who dutifully relayed all phone messages from constituents to the legislature. This resulted in e-mails like:
[John Doe] at [555-555-5555] from Durant, OK. is opposed to the statue being erected. He will personally come up, rope those devil horns and pull it down 🙂