Hail Satan? breaks down stereotypes
Perhaps the first thing anyone will notice about the group at the center of Hail Satan? is that they are incredibly polite. That’s right, the folks who call themselves The Satanic Temple are as kind and open-minded as the best of us, and even though they wear black and partake in strange rituals, their message is not one of death and destruction. No, this “religious” group cares much more about equality, acceptance, and the separation of church and state. In a country that claims to be secular, but still clings to the notion that the USA was founded in Christianity, The Satanic Temple will do anything they can to upend this hypocritical institution, and they will do it peacefully and with a smile.
Penny Lane (Our Nixon, Nuts!) has put forth a frequently hilarious documentary that chronicles the history of The Satanic Temple, interweaving it with their attempt to get a Baphomet statue erected on Capitol grounds in both Arkansas and Oklahoma. No, the Satanists aren’t expressly interested in having an icon of their ideology erected in a political venue, but they wish to make it clear that by allowing the Catholic Church to put up a Ten Commandments monument on the same grounds, the government is not supporting religious pluralism; is in fact showing preference for one faith over others. As such, The Satanic Temple takes the stance that either all religions, up to and including Satanism, be represented, or none at all. But since the Baphomet statue features some classically disturbing imagery, and is associated with the most famous of Biblical villains, the powers that be will have none of it. Yet hypocrisy is hypocrisy, and even though the American political system is chock full of it (is fueled by it, some might say) no one can deny that the Satanists have a point.
The Satanic Temple began its life in Massachusetts, where cofounder Lucien Greaves (who hides his real name in order to protect his family from an onslaught of death threats) was understandably perturbed by the Catholic Church’s inclination to act like the highest arbiter of morals while also working to protect an unfathomably large number of sex criminals within its ranks. Greaves doesn’t necessarily believe in the existence of Satan, but he does see the value of his function as a religious icon. If Satan stands against the pious, and the pious are complicit in provable monstrosities, it certainly stands to reason that Satan’s is the team you want to be on. So in a way, the The Satanic Temple could uncharitably be considered a trolling movement, and if it weren’t for their own acts of charity and community outreach, it would probably be an accurate description.
Many members of the Temple appear in the film as talking heads, while some appear only as talking shadows (once again, anonymity is a fantastic tool when you’re in the business of drawing ire from religious folk), and all are very clear that they are not against Christianity, Catholicism, or any religion for that matter. They speak only on behalf of religious pluralism and sound ethics. In fact, they are so damned ethical that when the leader of one of the their chapters turns her congregation into a militant feminist movement, calling for violence in response to oppression, The Satanic Temple (politely) excommunicates her from the “faith.” You see, when your image is an easy one for the world to criticize, it’s imperative that no ammunition be given to detractors outside of “they dress funny.”
You know who else dresses funny? The Pope.
Members of the Temple talk about what drew them to the group, while Greaves and his ilk are shown happily standing against the status quo. In this way, Hail Satan? could easily function as a recruiting tool. As a brochure, this movie sure does paint them in a positive light. And if it weren’t for their staunch advocacy against such things, one could even call the film propaganda. If there’s one way that this film feels incomplete, it’s in limiting the voice of those who are staunchly against the church. I can’t speak as to whether or not these folks made themselves available for comment, but their presence in the film mostly takes the form of news broadcasts and protest footage. I’d have loved to hear someone discuss with the filmmakers directly what their beef is with The Satanic Temple, especially since both morally and ethically, the Temple stands on much firmer ground than they do. Heck, I’d love to see a full on debate between a Temple member and what I’ll call, for lack of better term, a hater.
Ultimately, Hail Satan? is a film about stereotypes. Just because someone looks a certain way, or associates themselves with certain imagery, doesn’t mean they are expressly good or bad. In fact, chances are they’re a little bit of both. What The Satanic Temple stands for is the ability for this duality to be recognized — for everyone, no matter who they are, to be given the opportunity to live with dignity and freedom, and for policy to be based in reason, truth, and liberty. Hell yeah.
Hail Satan? opens in Philly theaters today.