Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Satanic Monuments and Church-State Separation: The Perspective of One Oklahoma Christian

Oklahoma made news this week when the Satanic Temple unveiled the design for its proposed monument to Satan, which it has sought a permit to build on the grounds of the Oklahoma capitol building. Here's what it would look like:

Satanist Monument

Kind of like a goat-headed Santa Claus, at least going by the looks on the children's faces. I'm not sure actual children would be quite so adoring.

In a tongue-in-cheek statement, the spokesperson and leader of the Satanic Temple, Lucien Greaves (aka Doug Mesner), noted that the monument would be functional as well a symbolic, serving as a place "where people of all ages may sit on the lap of Satan for inspiration and contemplation" (although, as Robin Abcarian of the LA Times has noted, the monument might be more suitably used as a time-out chair by parents--a proposal that might cause me to rethink my view that time-out is generally preferable to corporal punishment).

The proposed monument is a response to the erection, in 2012, of a privately-commissioned Ten Commandments monument that is now on display on the Oklahoma capitol grounds. Doug Mesner has elsewhere acknowledged that the Satanic Temple was originally created to serve as "a 'poison pill' in the church/state debate. The idea was that Satanists, asserting their rights and privileges where religious agendas have been successful in imposing themselves upon public affairs, could serve as a poignant reminder that such privileges are for everybody, and can be used to serve an agenda beyond the current narrow understanding of what 'the' religious agenda is." Their current move is in the spirit of this founding mission.

The ACLU is currently suing to have the Ten Commandments monument removed--and the state of Oklahoma has put a "moratorium" on further religious monuments pending the outcome of the suit (there have, since the erection of the Ten Commandments monument, been requests from several other groups to erect monuments, including representatives of a major world religion, Hinduism). Put another way, the state has actually been able to use the ACLU lawsuit as a kind of cover--allowing them to reject other organizations' petititions for monument space.

But, eventually, the lawsuit will run its course. If the ACLU wins, the Ten Commandments will be taken down and the Satanists won't be able to erect their goat-headed Santa. But what happens if the ACLU loses?

There is, after all, an argument that could be made that keeping the Ten Commandments monument does not violate the establishment of religion clause in the Constitution. If the monument is treated as an historically significant symbol of the rule of law, apart from its religious content, there might be an argument for saying that the state of Oklahoma is not violating church/state separation by allowing a private group to erect the monument. This, in fact, seems to be the line that supporters of the current monument are taking.

But the state could make this case for preserving the monument only if it were equally open to erecting other such law-symbolizing monuments, and only if it adopted religion-neutral procedures for deciding which such symbolic monuments to erect. That is, they'd need to make decisions about monuments with no favoritism based on the religion of the monument sponsors and no favoritism based on the sectarian religious messages symbolically endorsed by the monument itself--and with a commitment to even-handedness in the implied message that the resultant mix of symbolic monuments conveys.

If the State of Oklahoma wants to pursue that course, they might win. And they might even avoid having to put up the proposed Satanic monument, since it is not overtly a symbol of the rule of law. But the Satanic Temple folks have proven themselves clever enough that they could quite readily revise their proposed monument to reflect the Satanic Temple's attitude towards laws.

And, in fact, the Satanic Temple does seem to have a law-and-order perspective that they want to bring into public conversation. Speaking of the Satanic Temple's relationship to Anton LaVey, author of the "Satanic Bible," Mesner had this to say:

LaVey’s rhetoric tended toward Social Darwinistic Police State politics. Since 1995, violence in the United States—and, in fact, the world over—has been in decline, and we’re now in a position to evaluate what’s working for us, and where we went wrong previously. Certainly, a strong and effective police presence is a contributing factor, but we also find that autocratic governments breed social violence. We also find that Social Darwinism, interpreted in brutal, strictly self-interested terms, is counter-productive, and based on a simplistic misinterpretation of evolutionary theory. We do better when we work in groups, where altruism and compassion are rewarded. We are social animals. That said, however, I believe in a system that runs meritocratically. Also, revenge is a natural impulse, without which justice would never be served. We should do our best to mitigate the pain of those who are suffering, whoever they are—but also be diligent to punish the misdeeds of those who behave unjustly to those around them.
According to Mesner, the Satanic Temple does not embrace Satan as a literal being, but as a symbol wedded to an atheistic worldview. Satan names "a rebel angel defiant of autocratic structure and concerned with the material world," and this serves as an apt metaphor for a certain attitude towards political freedom and atheism, one that could be symbolically represented in a way that would likely meet the requirements for a monument on the Capitol grounds.

In other words, even if the particular monument proposal currently offered up by the Satanic Temple could be rejected in a manner consistent with church-state separation (while still preserving the Ten Commandments monument), it doesn't follow that the State of Oklahoma is safe from Satanic monuments.

Put more simply: If the state really wants to fight for the Ten Commandments monument in a manner consistent with church/state separation, it opens a big door. And while space limitations may give the state some leeway to choose among proposed monuments, the mechanisms whereby such choices must be made would be fraught with complications, potentially unsavory outcomes, and dangers of future lawsuits. Not to mention an aesthetic mess as rival groups clamor to install their goat-Santas and Flying Spaghetti Monsters on the Capitol grounds.

I'm a fan of the Ten Commandments. But I'm also a fan of church/state separation. The constitutional prohibition against state sponsorship of a particular religion is a promise to every religious and non-religious community in the country. It is a promise against having our religious freedom curtailed by the demands of a different religion that has come to enjoy theocratic control. It is a promise of a level playing field, in which all of us are afforded the freedom to live out our own comprehensive conception of the good life in a manner consistent with everyone have the same opportunity.

Allowing the Ten Commandments onto the grounds of the state capitol--unless it is done in a manner that would also allow the Satanic Temple to erect their own symbol of law--threatens that promise. But any threat to that promise is a threat to those of us who want to live a religious life informed by our understanding of the Ten Commandments. It threatens us because state sponsorship of religion may not always sponsor a religion supportive of the practice of our own.

Pursuing a policy that is both consistent with the promise of church/state separation and allows for the continued presence of the Ten Commandments monument is a kind of quagmire, one in which the Ten Commandments are lost, figuratively and literally, amidst the clutter on the Capitol lawn.

Far better, in the end, for those of us who care about the Ten Commandments to honor them on private ground.


  1. Nice post, Eric. But two points struck me as odd/inappropriate:
    1) Justifying the Ten Commandments monument as an example of our legal history is tenuous. Those have been superseded by so much secular law in Western history, that claiming roots in Jewish religious law is going to be a tremendous up-hill fight. Those connections are only evident in the fantasies of religious devotees, thinking that every law links back to the Ten Commandments.
    2) While you give fair treatment to the Satanists position, your calling it "a goat-headed Santa Claus" is a bit dismissive. If this is how they choose to represent their faith, we need to be accepting of that in all ways. Equating it to the fantasy of Santa is unfair, as far more depictions of Jesus with children gathered around him have been used throughout history. Why didn't you equate it to those on an equal level?

    BTW, if you want to support their cause, here is the link:

    They've raised over $2000 in the last day or so!

    Take care,
    Toby Braden Johnson

  2. I'm not a fan of the Ten Commandments, personally. They start with "I command you to worship me and only me," not exactly a statement in congruence with God as loving father, not to mention First Amendment freedom of worship. No carved images? That would mean no Michelangelo's David, no Venus de Milo. Then a rule directly in contradiction to the First Amendment's free speech guarantees. Then the Sabbath rule: could be worse, I suppose. But we won't like Sundays without the NFL. Then a rule about honoring your father and mother, without any kind of caveat that honor needs to be earned, and with a vague threat to boot. Killing, adultery, stealing--fair enough. Ditto for making false allegations against people. But then we are forbidden to covet (we meaning men, obviously, so it's not clear if any of the rules actually apply to women, who are analogous to houses and livestock). How would a capitalist society based on not coveting things even begin to work? Frankly, a good half of these are unAmerican. It is nonsensical to claim them, as some do, as the foundation of our justice system.

    1. I suppose it's worth noting that there are different ways to be a fan of something. Fans needn't be uncritical, and they needn't always be fans of exactly the same features of what they are fans of. Two fans of the same singer/songwriter might value very different things about the singer/songwriter, or have quite different understandings of what the singer/songwriter really means to say in their songs.

      I'm part of a tradition that is inspired by Luther's approach to the 10 Commandments, as displayed in his Large Catechism. Luther does not treat them as saying all that there is to be said on the subjects they address. And he is less inclined to read them literally and more inclined to see each commandment as representing, to the intended audience of ancient Jews, some broad ethical principle using language, images, and examples of particular offenses which would speak to that audience. So, we cannot simply appropriate the 10 C's as they were written, with a different culture and context in mind. We need to ask ourselves what they mean for us today, given our culture and context. We might also (although Luther didn't stress this piece) be conscious of how the cultural context of ancient peoples constrained their moral understanding in ways that shaped the expression of the 10 C, and then ask how those commandments would look if those constraints were lifted.

      So, in Luther's approach to the first few commandments, he isn't much concerned about the literal worship of graven images or Baal. And he doesn't take literally the notion of divine "jealousy." For him, the message is about priorities--about what we put first in our life and how we organize our system of values. Our "god" is whatever we put first, and we are idolaters if and when we make something other than God (with a capital "G") into our god...such as money or technology or the nation-state. Keeping in mind that Luther takes God to be the source of all that is genuinely good and ennobling and life-enriching, one could say that what the first commandment is about our failure to put first in our lives that which is genuinely good and ennobling and life-enriching.

      Now as soon as you acknowledge a level of uncertainty about the nature of the good, an uncertainty that Luther didn't exhibit (operating as he was in the homogeneously Christian society in which he lived), approaching the commandment in Luther's way will lead you to conclusions (or lack thereof) which Luther didn't himself condone. Likewise, approaching the other commandments in the way that Luther did is, in general, not the same as simply parroting Luther's own readings of them.

      All of that's a long-winded way of saying that not every "religious life informed by an understanding of the Ten Commandments" will look the same...and some will be averse to many of the same things that bother you.

      I agree, by the way, that the rule against coveting is "unAmerican," at least in the sense that it isn't well-reflected in the American way of life and the Capitalist economic system that is driven by a presupposed covetousness with respect to material goods.

    2. I think to be a fan you at least need to be saying that something is, in the simplest terms, more good than bad. I can't agree that is the case here, especially when we ask what they mean for us today in our own context. We are not at all a nomadic desert tribe that needs to be unified by a single faith and for whom coveting means potentially fatal consequences; we are a late capitalist multi-faith society for whom many of the rules are, at their very best, counterproductive.

      (Also not a big fan of Luther.)

  3. Toby: I certainly agree that justifying the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds that it honors our legal history in some distinctive way is tenuous at best. That is why it would have to be justified as a symbol of the rule of law that resonates meaningfully with some people in society, as opposed to being justified by some special place in American history. But as soon as you make the move of justifying it as a resonant symbol of the rule of law, you need to be open to other symbols of the rule of law that resonate meaningfully with others, and you need to be open in a way that does not show favoritism.

    As to the likening of the image to Santa, it's what came to mind...probably because Christmas has just come and gone. But now that you mention the question of its propriety I find myself forced to reflect on the issue...and I think, in fact, it is proper.

    The Satanic Temple, which produced the design, holds that Satan is a symbolically resonant fictional character. That does not fit well with the way Christians view Jesus, but it fits pretty well with the way most of us view Santa. Thus, the comparison to Santa seems more apt than a comparison to Jesus.

    1. But as a scholar you realize that the likelihood of all three figures being theological constructions, valid more by belief than by any empirical basis is an equally fair consideration. Just because more people belief in one fictive creation, does not grant it more validity in the real.