I was 14 when I first traveled to Europe. It was the summer of 1991. I had gone with my mother and brother to visit two exchange students who had stayed with my family in the U.S. in recent years. Puberty pressed within me in those days with all the urgency of a volcanic fissure. I washed far more of my genetic material than just exfoliated skin down the shower drain in our inexpensive hostel in Budapest, Hungary, I can tell you.
On our way to the former Eastern-Bloc country, liberated just two years prior from the yoke of Soviet-style Communism, we passed through Italy, spending a languid day getting lost on the back streets and beside the gently lapping waters of the canals of Venice. Of course, what caught my eye in the train stations and at news & magazine kiosks amid the beauty and splendor of northeastern Italy were the cover images of women with bared breasts. No one else seemed to give a fig about what was, to my Puritanical American sensibility, the most salacious nudity right there on the front cover for all the world—including young, impressionable kids—to see. Of course, no other kids seemed to be half so leering at those same images as me, hailing from a town that once won the dubious distinction of description on the national news show 60 Minutes as “the buckle of the Bible belt,” where, little did I know, such sights could only be had in the grimy sex shops along Victory Drive, near the military base at Ft. Benning. This sexual liberation in Italy proved far more shocking and exhilarating for me than the newfound political freedom exuded by Hungary, where the border guards still wore Soviet-era stone faces as they shoved machine guns at us while asking to see our “papers” at the border crossing on the train from Vienna.
Many years earlier, the marquee sign out front of the small private school I attended had announced that a woman named Tipper Gore would soon be presenting an evening talk on the subject of “Raising PG Kids in an X-rated Society.” I didn’t know at the time who Gore was, nor certainly that she would, in less than a decade’s time, become the Second Lady of the United States, wife to Clinton Vice-Presidential pick Al Gore, allegedly self-styled as the “inventor of the internet” and later advocate for the “inconvenient truth” of climate change. Mrs. Gore’s only claim to national fame at that time stemmed from the fact that in 1985 she had been horrified by the lyrical content of a Prince album she had purchased for her eleven-year-old daughter and decided to take matters into her own hands. In my mind, I imagine her shock upon hearing the music must have approximated my own on the day that I discovered my then-early-elementary-aged cousins playing in their room to the dulcet accompaniment of Marvin Sease’s 1986 hit “Candy Licker,” which prominently features the repeated line “I wanna lick you till you cum.” I am NOT kidding. Despite his explicit lyrics and a resultant lack of airplay, Sease achieved great popular success and a large and loyal fan following over the course of his career, especially from the ladies, as you might imagine. While maybe not quite so explicit as Sease, Prince too rose to early success by crooning some similarly raunchy, sexually charged words.
The disgust and moral outrage Gore felt over “The Artist’s” lyrics—heaven knows what she would have thought of Sease!—impelled her to testify before a Senate panel, because that’s what morally outraged, politically well-connected mothers do. Before Congress, Tipper Gore urged that warning labels be placed on music so that parents can make an informed choice about the content of what they’re buying for their kids. She co-founded an organization called the Parents Music Resource Center to push for an industry solution to her personal parenting dilemma, because that’s also what morally outraged, politically well-connected—and powerful—mothers do. As a result of the highly publicized Senate hearings, featuring push-back from the likes of Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister and Frank Zappa of…Frank Zappa, Gore and her Parents Resource Center successfully pressured the Recording Industry of America (RIAA) to begin placing parental warning labels on music releases that contained explicit lyrics. In 1990, that sticker would morph into the now-familiar black and white “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” label we all know and love (to ignore).
That same year, 1990, British heavy metal band Judas Priest appeared in court on product-liability charges for a highly publicized and sensational civil trial to determine whether they had hidden subliminal messages in their music, messages alleged to have encouraged two teens in Reno, Nevada, to take their own lives some five years earlier. In the 1987 book that formed the basis of her traveling sideshow of parental moral outrage, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society, Gore had specifically named Judas Priest as exemplary of a genre of music she dubbed “porn rock” and at which she took sure aim. To prove her point about the graphic nature of her newly minted category of tainted entertainment-industry offering, Gore mentioned the ironically titled Judas Priest song “Parental Guidance,” not by name of course, but by describing its sordid content—“a…song about oral sex at gunpoint.” The horror!
At some point in that same time frame from ’85 to ’90, my hometown newspaper, the Ledger-Enquirer, ran a front-page piece about alleged Satanic cults operating in our mid-sized city. The piece featured a lurid depiction of a demonic rite where an alleged “Satanic priest” had forcible sex with a young female “sacrifice.” The somehow still-living girl recalled for the reading audience’s titillation the priest’s acrid breath on her young flesh and the fact that a large pentagram necklace he wore had pressed painfully into her breasts with each diabolical thrust. If a key pillar of what constitutes pornography from a legal point of view is prurient intent, then this article felt like porn to my young mind. Of course, the paper’s avowed aim in publishing it was to provide parents with a dire warning of sinister activity that was allegedly afoot in town and might, if left unchecked, ensnare their young children unawares.
Kids as Pawns in the Game of Rhetoric
Ever notice how every moral panic somehow always ultimately comes down to concern for the kids? At least it seems to. But does it really? Gore heard some music she didn’t like and manifested a concern over her children listening to it. But what did her eleven-year-old daughter think of Prince? Was she as disgusted as her mother? Did she even pay attention to the lyrics, and, if she did, did she understand them? Did she even mind? I know my young cousins certainly didn’t register any moral scruple over Sease’s delightfully dirty “Candy Licker”: they were just head-bobbing and jamming right along, all three gleefully chanting “I’m gonna lick you till you cum” right in synch with the erotically tinged blues singer. And when I read that newspaper piece about the Satanic sex—I mean cult!—my mind flitted not to fear of assault, but to the lurid act itself, written as though Robert E. Howard himself had penned the scene for one of his Conan yarns.
The simple fact is: more often than not, professed concern for children on the part of moral crusaders is just a rhetorical tactic—and usually a logical fallacy to boot. As the title to this article about policing transgender individuals’ bathroom use—“Stop Using Your Children As An Excuse To Be A Hateful Human Being”—implies, when people bring concern for their kids’ exposure to this, that, and the other stimulus into conversations about societal issues of moral behavior, what they’re usually doing is expressing their own extreme dissatisfaction with some aspect of the society they inhabit and their resultant desire to have that society changed so as to be more in line with their own scruples and expectations. That is, concern for what negative impact some aspect of society might have on kids is usually a cover for a concern to alter some facet of society itself, using kids as an emotionally manipulative wedge to slip past the rational defenses of critics and interlocutors alike. Preoccupation with “transgender indoctrination” of the youth, for instance, including charges of attempted “brainwashing…into thinking this is normal,” really just masks deep personal umbrage at the public and open presence of transgender people in society and a concomitant wish that such people simply didn’t exist, along with the whole “problem” of transgender identity—or “transgenderism” as it is often dismissively called in the opposition media—itself. Similarly, much of visible controversy surrounding the teaching of detailed sex ed in parts of the country seems to center on the desire on the part of many parents to just keep issues of sexuality, including masturbation, completely out of the public sphere altogether. If no one can talk about it or see it, maybe it’ll all just go away, right?
Adults the world over suffer abuse, neglect, violence, hunger, and so on, but it’s the slogan Save the Children that sets people’s hearts to aching and pursestrings to loosening like nothing else. Remember those Sally Struthers Christian Children’s Fund commercials that ran through the mid-to-late ‘80s, telling you that, for just seventy cents a day, you could help starving children in Ethiopia or elsewhere? It was always children’s lives being measured out in increments of just a can of soda or a pack of gum, “plain or sugarless,” per day so as to tug on the heartstrings of American consumers.
Just as children become the physical manifestation of adults’ hopes for a better future and must therefore at times bear the uncomfortable yoke of parental expectations for both present behavior and future career, they also serve as lightening rods for parental fulminations over whatever sorry, morally degraded state of the world the older generations choose to attribute their dissatisfactions with life to. A lawyer for one of the families that sued Judas Priest in 1990 argued in court:
“The members of the chess club, the math and science majors don’t listen to this stuff. It’s the dropouts, the drug and alcohol abusers. So our argument is you have a duty to be more cautious when you’re dealing with a population susceptible to this stuff.”
Since both of the young suicide victims were high on marijuana at the time of their deaths, high-school dropouts with criminal records, from families rocked by domestic violence and child abuse, it’s hard not to hear in this invidious comparison between the dead youths and putatively more successful and academically serious kids the responsibility-shirking outcry of their parents’ frustration at a world that was painfully other than they would have it be. I wonder how many times those parents had themselves expressed such frustrations directly to their wayward children while the latter yet lived. And I wonder what effect such comparisons had on the young boys’ embattled psyches.
When early pagan critics of Christianity succumbed to moral outrage at what they perceived as the antisocial nature of the new religion and began leveling accusations of imagined abuses of the children, apologists of the nascent movement shot back with accusations of their own aimed squarely what they charged were very real abuses of actual children in pagan society. The thirtieth chapter of Latin Christian apologist Minucius Felix’ 197 CE defense of Christianity entitled Octavius presents the author’s response to persistent charges pagans brought against practitioners of the upstart faith that what Christians were actually doing during their Eucharistic rites was sacrificing babies and cannibalistically consuming their flesh. In his treatment of the controversy, Felix argues that the only people who could possibly believe such a preposterous lie are those who themselves spectacularly mistreat their own children, as he alleged pagans did, by leaving unwanted infants in out-of-the-way natural settings to die—a horror now called exposure—and by practicing abortion, something which the early Church opposed. Earlier in the work, in Chapter IX, Felix mentions pagan charges that not only did sacrificing infants and consuming their flesh and blood form part of routine Christian initiation, but that, when Christians gathered for communal meals “with all their children, sisters, mothers, people of every sex and of every age,” they engaged in drunken, incestuous orgies with one another.
I am an open, publicly visible Satanist. One legacy of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s that all modern Satanists like myself are forced to live with is lingering suspicion that Satanists harm children in one or more direct, horrific ways à la pagan anti-Christian accusations. I am also a parent to two daughters, ages five and seven. So I’m doubly conscious and wary of others’ implicit assumptions about my behavior toward children as a Satanist. Yet, other than championing children’s—indeed all humans’—sovereignty of will and bodily autonomy, my Satanism makes no claim on children whatsoever. I have never spoken to my children of my Satanism and never will, until they’re old enough to ask for themselves. Moreover, every Satanic group or organization of which I am a member forbids participation by minors, unlike all major world religions which, in fact, seem to particularly prefer children’s involvement as a means of early indoctrination. And so, like early Christians, one tactic many Satanists resort to when faced with trumped up charges of imagined moral abuses of children at the hands of depraved “worshippers of Satan” is to point up to their critics the real abuses of children in today’s society that go under justification by the dominant Christian religion and religious principles.
For instance, The Satanic Temple (TST) launched a campaign in recent years explicitly aimed at protecting children from physical harm in the form of in-school corporal punishment, something which proponents of such treatment often justify with reference to Biblical passages and principle. The Protect Children Project declared my adopted state of Texas as ground zero in its efforts, with TST buying billboards to publicize the crusade in areas of the state where corporal punishment is particularly common. The campaign had national observers writing that TST was proving itself through its drive “able to claim the moral high ground over their conservative Christian opponents, some of whom have responded by alluding to Proverbs 13:24, ‘He that spareth his rod, hateth his son.’”
Now, with the current U.S. Administration having declared children and immigrant families’ fear of forced separation from their own offspring as appropriate pawns in the highly politicized struggle over illegal immigration, detention facilities for children are going up across Texas. Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted the Bible during a recent press conference in defense of the new policy. Prominent evangelical pastor and spokesman Franklin Graham has spoken out against separating migrant families at the border, but he fell short in his remarks of criticizing the Trump administration and Sessions’ Department of Justice by name for their “zero tolerance” policy and its disastrous and unconscionable results. Catholic leaders have similarly criticized the practice as “immoral,” going farther than Protestant leaders and specifically mentioning how “our country’s immigration policy destroys families, traumatizes parents, and terrorizes children.” A recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle by a University of Houston professor points out the ironic historical reversal currently on display in Christian responses to the administration’s efforts, with Catholics coming out in clear opposition even as influential Protestants remain largely silent and, when they do speak out, content themselves with general statements of scriptural principle that fall short of laying real blame at the feet of those in power who are responsible for the atrocities. A prominent feminist pagan author and activist even recently added her voice and platform to those speaking out in stern criticism of the policy and practice.
The response from the Satanic community, meanwhile, has been strangely muted. As Satanists who take a lot of crap about imagined abuses of children, we have a real opportunity here to take a visible, public stand against the very real mistreatment of children in a cause that has been provided with an explicitly Christian, Biblical justification. However, while The Church of Satan (CoS) has used its official Twitter account to decry the inappropriate theocratic entanglement involved in a sitting U.S. Attorney General using the Bible to defend government policy, the older Satanic organization has stopped short of making public statements of Satanic scruple against the harm the policy is causing to innocent children. TST has, to my knowledge, similarly made no official condemnation of the administration’s policy, despite its efforts on the Protect Children Project with which an official pushback against separating children from their parents at the border would seem a natural fit. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro recently called the practice “state-sponsored child abuse” after all. There’s been a lot of talk of late about TST’s Grey Faction, which concentrates on fraudulent recovered memory therapy techniques that undergird false Satanic moral panics, and a recent lecture the head of Grey Faction gave at TST headquarters in Salem, MA, on how the mental health industry fails to enact sufficient safeguards in order to protect the vulnerable from these damaging therapeutic practices. But while individual TST chapters and TST-affiliated individuals and groups have taken to social media to criticize what’s happening along the southern border, it seems the upstart Satanic group as a whole is letting this opportunity to seize even more moral high ground from the Christian right on the subject of protecting children from obvious, religiously justified harm pass them by.
For my part, I will not be so silent on the issue. As a Satanist, I can absolutely affirm that what is being done to innocent children and migrant families in the name of a supposedly Biblical principle of abiding by the law flies directly in the face of the chief moral value of Satanism: the sovereignty of individual will and the inviolability of individual bodies. It also violates the rejection of externalization so integral to LaVey’s vision in The Satanic Bible. Elevating the law as an abstraction deserving loyalty and subservience and enshrining that devotion in a written product such as a book of scripture which is then used as a cudgel to further beat down already downtrodden families and justify yourself while doing so enacts the very definition of improper externalization. There’s good reason that the Second Tenet of TST states: “the struggle for justice…should prevail over laws and institutions.” For a Satanist, the struggle for justice has to be about preventing individuals from suffering unjust harm; it’s not about devotion to an abstract or institutionalized externalization. As such, Satanism would or could never countenance a policy that causes unjustified and unjustifiable trauma to children and families, cast as mere pawns in a national ideological struggle between the far-right ethnonationalist factions currently in power and those of us who still view America as a more open, inclusive, and multiethnic society.
Satanism could also, of course, never invoke a similar externalization to suggest that Trump and his administration, no matter how corrupt or morally bankrupt they are in practice, are somehow being used as a tool by a fundamentally just and loving externalized God. The Christian religion and religious scripture, at least under some popular interpretations, not only countenance the present human-rights atrocities at our southern border, but they even justify and attempt to sanctify them. Satanism, however, simply cannot countenance this behavior, cannot justify it, cannot sanctify it, not in the least, not in any way without betraying its most fundamental philosophical and religious principles. As a proud and public Satanist, I now speak out, loudly and clearly, in denunciation of tearing apart families whose only crime is to seek to flee danger, immanent death, or just economic hardship in their own countries and have ended up walking into the maw of an ugly, racist backlash against precisely their kind in this one.
A New Hope
My daughters attend a north Texas public elementary school where they’re enrolled in a two-way dual language program in Spanish and English. That means they’re in class every day with a mixture of students who speak English or Spanish as their first languages in their homes and that, additionally, they spend half of every day in English-language immersion learning Science, Math, and Social Studies and half in Spanish-language immersion learning language arts. Every time they take state-mandated tests of reading and writing, they will take them in Spanish so long as they remain in the program. Recently, the first crop of students in our city to complete this particular dual-language program left eighth grade and entered high school. As eighth-graders, they took the Advanced Placement exam in Spanish. A majority of them passed with marks high enough to earn college credit for the language.
Now that the World Cup competition has started up in Russia, my wife—a big international soccer fan—has sat down with my oldest daughter on the sofa to look at the official FIFA app, with its sections on picking your favorite teams and selecting which teams you want to follow during the competition. My daughter remarked that her favorite team was Mexico, because her good friend in first grade is from a Mexican family, the first generation of her family to be born in this country. My daughter invited her friend to accompany us to the neighborhood pool the day after school let out for the summer and was somewhat saddened to learn that her friend couldn’t join us, as she and her family were traveling back to her parents’ hometown in Mexico, where they would spend their summer. When my oldest daughter thinks of Spanish as a language, her thoughts fly to a language that she speaks, reads, writes, and understands. I converse with her in it and have personally witnessed her using her skills in it to communicate with monolingual hispanic families on local community playgrounds. When my daughter thinks of Mexico as a country, she envisions her good friend, someone she plays with most every day and has a close personal connection to, a connection that has colored how she sees not just the nation of Mexico and Mexicans as a people, but indeed all native Spanish-speakers with whom she comes into contact. As a parent and as a U.S. citizen, I find new hope in these developments both for my daughter and for our nation.
As a Satanist, I don’t tend to moral panic centered on issues of personal sexuality or religious observance when considering children and what they see, experience, and feel influenced by in popular culture or in the public square. But I do very much worry about the callousness potentially inculcated in them by the Christian nationalists and ethnonationalists currently in power in this country, by their having to witness the inhumane treatment meted out by government officials to those of different ethnicity, who speak different languages, and have different skin tones from them. As a parent, I naturally hope big for a better future for planet earth, and, despite my best efforts, I sometimes lay the awful weight of that hope on the narrow shoulders of my children. What I can’t afford to forget, however, is that the weight is mine to bear as well, right here, right now, when it counts most. None of us can afford to forget or turn our backs on the real children who are suffering unimaginable heartache and psychological trauma right now, even as those who have ordered and orchestrated their awful plight hide behind the meagre protections afforded by misapplied Bible verses and a largely complacent and silent Christian-right bloc that has stood by this administration through scandal after scandal. If and when Christians won’t do what’s right and extend the protection the meek and the oppressed plead for in Psalms 10 and 82, then we Satanists will have to. After all, we don’t have an invisible sky daddy or onion-skinned pages of equally flimsy excuses to hide behind. Our morality comes from the only place that truly counts in moral reasoning and judgment: the hearts and minds of individual moral agents capable of making up their own minds about how to proceed in this, the only chance at a world we’ve got. Let’s make it count.