I’m confused about how to understand the Satanic Temple (TST) and its activities these days. Time was, articles were appearing on Patheos, lauding the group’s Seven Fundamental Tenets and dubbing them “morally superior” to the (in)famous Ten Commandments of Abrahamic religion and popular, culture-war wrangling. Then, once TST’s Protect Children initiative and the Texas billboards the group purchased to help publicize it hit the press, another article appeared, celebrating how TST was “able to claim the moral high ground over their conservative Christian opponents,” whom the organization characterized as content to use flimsy Biblical platitudes as justification for officially sanctioned violence against children. There was a morally aspirational sense to media descriptions of TST in those days, and the organization itself seemed perfectly content to accept the mantle of principled Satanists, with members and leadership sharing these kudos on their various social media accounts. Founder Lucien Greaves himself proudly claimed “the ethical and constitutional high ground” while commenting on TST’s campaign to place a monument to veterans in a Minnesota public park and later touted in reference to former Missouri governor Eric Greitens’ attempt to blame TST in a failed effort to bolster support for his flailing governorship that the latter had “lost the moral high ground to anybody who actually looks at the facts, and he tries to regain it by asserting moral superiority against The Satanic Temple.” In sum, there was a time when a key component of TST’s capacity to disrupt conversations about what Satanism and Satanists are all about lay in its consistent ability not just to lay claim to principle, but, more importantly in this day and age, to hold fast to it, come what may.
Now, however, an internal rift is spreading within the organization over the issue of TST’s decision to retain the services of lawyer Marc Randazza for its lawsuit over religious viewpoint discrimination involving Twitter—an issue that opens up a whole can of worms of related grounds for disagreement over free speech, hate speech, and what kind or degree of tolerance is necessary in a pluralistic society. The contention is so acrimonious and bitter at the moment that a recent article in Jezebel described the split as an outright “Civil War” within the group.
TST founder and spokesperson Lucien Greaves put out a blog post in response to the controversy, criticizing those who are currently dissenting within and even resigning from the organization over Randazza and related concerns, including the entirety of the former Los Angeles Chapter, among others. Greaves lambasts these individuals and groups for, in his words, treading “down the spiral of purity.” In the piece, he refers to the chorus of critical individuals rattling various bones of contention as “the rabble being roused.” Those are some dismissive, ultimately belittling words from a founder about some of the ground troops that have helped make his pet organization into the going national concern it is today.
Greaves’ comments about a mistaken quest for purity within TST bring to mind the Church of Satan’s (CoS) constant harping on the theme of the so-called “Goodguy Badge,” a concept drawn from one of LaVey’s more unfortunate and complex essays in the The Devil’s Notebook. Many within CoS and similar Left-Hand-Path (LHP) organizations tend to understand the essay as a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in crusading for charitable causes of any type. Consequently, they most often wield LaVey’s Goodguy-Badge concept as a cudgel with which to badger those who would take on a cause of moral improvement in the world, a kind of weapon in the struggle to further what seems like an ultimate aspirational nihilism. It’s as though such critics felt that Satanists simply shouldn’t have moral aspirations and designs on the world at all, that any such cause-taking is fundamentally un-Satanic to begin with. Much of CoS’ criticism of TST from the get-go, lampooning the group as un-Satanic and purely politically motivated, has relied on this idea.
As LaVey actually makes clear in his discussion, however, his beef in the Goodguy Badge essay is not with taking on any and all charitable causes per se, but rather with those who take up moral struggles for universal benefit and seek, through sanctimoniousness and self-deception, both to convince themselves that such struggles ennoble them beyond the reach of any and all personal failings they may suffer from and receive censure for and, more problematically, to enforce their ideas of right and wrong, good and bad on others, using the external goal of the moral cause to justify doing so. He writes:
“This is not to say that one should not be angered at an injustice or speak out against whatever violates one’s security. That is the first law, the law of self-preservation. But we must consider the motives behind the selection of an enemy. Perhaps nothing more is threatened beyond the threat of not having an enemy. … Every peer group has its own Goodguy Badge. The genuinely worthy gain it through individual strength of personality and accomplishment. The rest attempt to gain it by attaching a label to themselves. Psychologists call this ‘identity.’ Man either establishes his identity through self or through a collective phenomenon often referred to as a ‘cause.’ … Irrational self-interest and undeserved self-righteousness are, on the other hand, hallmarks of the Goodguy Badge. Religion, having created billions of ‘undeserving’ or ‘unworthy’ followers, is the number one wholesaler of Goodguy Badges.”
Moral crusaders not only tend to harbor numerous unmentionable skeletons in their own closets, but they potentially pose threats to the sovereignty and autonomy of others by seeking to exercise suasion or even outright compulsion upon them toward behaviors not of their own choosing. Moreover, within groups where one prominent individual signals virtue by taking up some moral cause, others often quickly follow suit out of conformity or, worse, desires to one-up the original crusader with their own bigger, better commitment to the cause. The worst estimations of everything from the so-called Social Justice Warrior (SJW) movement to prominent campaigns that fall beneath the ever-growing “going green” umbrella usually paint such initiatives with this particular brush. Greaves’ use of the phrase “purity spiral” seems intended to do much the same within his own organization.
Greave’s arguments in his recent article are quite the opposite of the morally aspirational tone TST set early on. His sentiments now seem rather plainly pragmatic and calculating. He writes:
“However, problems with our particular lawyer seemed to run deeper with some. I got a number of ‘did you know…?’ messages including fun facts such as ‘he’s been on the Alex Jones show?’ and, of course, ‘he even represented [insert name of some alt right villain I’ve never heard of]?’ While trying to be sensitive to these concerns, I also pointed out that none of that was relevant to me. What I know of the lawyer is that he describes himself as a liberal, albeit of the old school ACLU variety. it’s [sic] quite possible that he’s an asshole. It’s quite possible that I would disagree with everything else he might stand for outside of our case. He’s not a Satanist and he didn’t take the time to read and agree with our religious tenets before taking our case. I didn’t take the time to learn his politics, and I still don’t care what they are. He’s not representing our views, he’s defending our legal rights in court. He is a tool that has been made available to our enemies to their benefit. If we deny ourselves the same tools on the grounds that they’ve been used by our enemies, have we not merely forfeited our own fight?”
Notice that, here, Greaves makes no attempt to rise above TST’s “enemies” on moral—or any other—grounds. Rather, he argues that TST must avail itself of the same tools as its opponents or else face the prospect of loss or even outright forfeiture in its legal struggles. I reckon lawyers will always do well in these battles, no matter who the combatants are. He continues his missive:
“To be clear, we had no other choice in lawyer. It was either this lawyer, or we did not pursue the suit. … It feels right to fight for our right to not be openly threatened and harassed on either of the social media mega-giant platforms. To me, it’s simply childish and counterproductive to insist that ones lawyer also agree with one’s political views, or to insist that a lawyer specializing in First Amendment cases not have represented reprehensible speech. I can’t imagine we’d ever pursue any legal remedies at all if we upheld such a standard. … We could sit back with smug satisfaction and accept second class status just for the fleeting claim of pristine virtuous martyrdom. But I, and TST, have always fought to win.”
Again, the message is: it’s either take this best chance at winning or face defeat right here, right now; if we waited around for someone perfect to come along, we’d never be able to act at all, but would make of ourselves martyrs for the cause in the very worst sense of that turn of phrase.
So, in light of this controversy and the response of TST’s spokesperson to it, I feel I have to ask TST itself: Which is it be? Do you represent an aspirational kind of Satanism with clear convictions and firm moral principles to the high country of which less scrupulous religious competitors cannot but hope to attain? Or is it to be a more realist, pragmatist brand of Satanism, with a simple agenda of combatting Christian theocratic overreach by any means necessary, be they scrupulous or otherwise? Of course, it needn’t in reality be one or the other: a Satanic group can certainly, and perhaps even should, be both aspirational and calculating, morally straight and strategic. But in this case, the dichotomy goes directly to the heart of the organization’s early self-definition.
With its unabashedly hopeful and pluralistic Seven Fundamental Tenets and highly visible public action with professedly universal aims, TST has staked its ground within Satanism in self-conscious defiance of Satanic stereotype, playing the moral trump card to both Christian hypocrisy and CoS’ often more nihilistic and misanthropic vision for humanity. The closest thing CoS has to fundamental tenets with advice or guidelines as to practical morality and fair treatment of others is its collection of The Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth, which read like the playbook for a character in a Robert E. Howard Conan yarn. They include such practical concerns for the lone-wolf hero braving a perilous, dog-eat-dog world as not giving unsolicited advice or opinion, not bothering others with your complaints, not deigning to visit another unless you’re prepared to show him proper respect while in his domicile, not putting up with insolence from guests in your own domicile, not making sexual advances unless given “the mating signal” (ew!), not taking others’ property unless asked to, never failing to acknowledge the power of magic that’s worked in your favor lest magic exercise its retributive power against you, not complaining about self-martyrdom, not harming children, not killing other animals unless under attack or hunger, and minding your own business in the open unless someone messes with you, in which case don’t take crap from nobody. (Come to think of it, perhaps this convergence of tone and focus between Howard’s Conan and LaVey’s heroic Rules of the Earth is not so coincidental after all: I’ve written about the various points of contact between the CoS founder and popular pulp writer here.) Obviously, these all fall far short of being the aspirational principles for shaping a better future humanity that TST’s Seven Tenets seem largely to be.
It’s precisely one of these Tenets—the first, about acting with compassion and empathy “toward all creatures’’—that many of the dissenting voices within TST have been citing as the one they most feel hiring and working with Randazza is in danger of violating. The final words of Greaves’ Patreon post describe TST as “an organization that never trades principles for appearances.” Yet reading Greaves saying of the Twitter lawsuit that “[i]t feels right to fight for our right to not be openly threatened and harassed on either of the social media mega-giant platforms,” it’s hard to escape the feeling that TST very much is trading its principles for expediency by employing an attorney whose client list includes Andrew Anglin in a lawsuit over the latter’s use of his own substantial media platform at The Daily Stormer to orchestrate precisely an online threat and harassment campaign against a Jewish woman named Tanya Gersh. Then there’s the allegation that Randazza is close personal friends with alt-right conspiracy theorist Mark Cernovich, even apparently partying and socializing with Cernovich at an event the latter sponsored, called “Night for Freedom,” where a succession of far-right, Trump-supporting speakers and self-styled “free-speech advocates” delivered messages heaping abuse on “brown people” and “faggots,” as well as political liberals and women. Another of Randazza’s clients, author and white supremacist provocateur Jared Taylor, has argued “American slaves had some surprisingly positive things to say about slavery.” In his Daily Stormer, Anglin has echoed this same sentiment, publishing one piece with the headline “Blacks Loved Slavery and Regretted its End,” an article that ends with the hope for “a domineering black woman to be on TV as the Anti-Oprah, presenting the solution to the problems of the black community as a return to slavery.” While some in TST might point to Tenet Number Four about the freedom of individuals to offend in order to defend Randazza’s many unsavory clients and whatever personal friendships the lawyer may have cultivated among them, others in the organization apparently find grave difficulty conceiving of how the labels “free speech” and “the freedom to offend” could ever be made to apply un-ironically to open calls for a return to slavery in the United States. It is instructive for the present purposes to note that the second half of that same fourth Tenet reads: “To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.” I guess if your argument is that African Americans actually enjoyed—and would presumably enjoy again—the condition of slavery, then you needn’t worry about running afoul of that either in your calls to revive the so-called “Peculiar Institution.”
Interpersonally, you could analyze the current internal TST conflict as being between Lucien Greaves, with his own sense of the tight-knit organization of close peers he helped conceive and create, and the national—formerly international—group TST has burgeoned into, encompassing many more voices and agendas than originally bargained for.
Ideologically, however, I choose to see this conflict as reflective of a larger tension within post-TST modern atheistic Satanism itself between two competing concepts of what Satan is all about: between a degenerate, strictly trickster—even troll-like—Satan, on the one hand, and a more activist, aspirational Satan, on the other; between the spirit of impish glee and pure enjoyment while wallowing in the world as it really, currently is—warts, chaos, and all—and a somewhat more allocentric drive to seek solutions to make the place better for heathens, free spirits, and the rest of the downtrodden. Again, I’m not saying these two “ways of Satan” could or should never be co-instantiated in the same Satanic organization, even the same individual Satanist. Rather, I’m suggesting that the two concepts exist in tension with one another, and, at any given time, that tension can become inflamed into all-out conflict.
In a Machiavellian struggle against Machiavellians, a degenerate, trickster/troll Satan certainly wouldn’t worry over scruple, but would, in Greaves’ words, fight to win—and probably fight dirty. If what you most value about the world is the constant struggle, the games, the never-ending sense that it’s all going to hell, and the barely contained antinomian delight of that hell anyway, why not? But then the unpleasant introspective question that must be faced is: What is it everyone loves—or loves to hate—so much about TST to begin with that might be placed at risk if the organization fractures into obscurity or too many key players leave it for cause of conscience? Is it the fact that TST has proven pretty wildly successful in garnering enough attention to begin mounting serious challenges to dominant narratives about everything from Satanism to what constitutes religion and religious liberty in this country? Was simply winning against the theocrats really the chief value everybody sought in joining, allying with, or just closely following TST in the first place? If so, we probably need to revise a prevailing conception of the organization as one of principled Satanists and just accept that less probably divides TST and CoS than unites them. Both can be equally Social Darwinian in their focus; it’s just that one is more active in public—or period!—than the other and maybe plays a better game in respectability politics when it needs to. Perhaps actually insisting on principled respectability for Satanists during a high-stakes match with the dominant culture really is just setting yourself up for “pristine virtuous martyrdom,” all for a misguided insistence on some putative purity of thought or value.
I don’t have an answer to this fundamental quandary. I feel the tension and conflict between Satanic degeneracy and activism acutely within myself most every day. Seeing this struggle writ large in the current internal TST controversies only further pries away at this already chafing fault line. In bringing Satanism out of the shadows and helping to democratize it somewhat, TST has performed what I regard as a valuable service. As the organization gears up to bring its signature Baphomet statue and all the Religion v. State wrangling it represents to Arkansas, where the Ten Commandments etched in stone stand tall on public land, I cannot escape the feeling that the group still has important work left to do, work that may become much more difficult to accomplish if the present stress fractures persist and worsen into more and more complete breaks.