It’s become increasingly apparent that Donald Trump’s administration wants to make religion inescapable, even for secularists. Education secretary Betsy DeVos has donated millions of dollars to private religious schools and once described her education reform as a mission to “advance God’s kingdom.” Vice President Mike Pence, a born-again evangelical Christian who cast the tie-breaking vote in DeVos’ Senate confirmation, also has a history of using politics to advance his religious agenda; last month he became the first vice president to speak at the annual anti-abortion March for Life, and has long waged war against Planned Parenthood in his home state of Indiana. Then there’s Ben Carson, nominated as secretary of Housing and Urban Development — a creationist who once said the theory of evolution was encouraged by Satan.
Perhaps Carson wasn’t entirely wrong, at least, not when you consider the Satanic Temple, a nontheistic activist organization that has for years worked to champion science — notably evolution and climate change — as a counterpoint to religious teachings pushed by public institutions nationwide. Contrary to its name, the Satanic Temple is not composed of the kind of devil worshippers Carson evoked during his speech at a Seventh-day Adventists gathering in 2012. Rather, these Satanists identify as justice-oriented atheists, using the symbol of Satan not just as parody but also to challenge religious groups that use the mantle of God to justify their actions. At a time when religious advocates hold tremendous power in the White House, the Satanic Temple’s mission may become more important than ever — if its would-be supporters can get past all the demonic imagery.
“We decided that Satan was the ultimate rebel, and we realized the power of that symbol,” says William Morrison, a co-founder of the Satanic Temple’s L.A. chapter, which formed about a year ago and has held recruitment and advocacy meetings regularly ever since. He acknowledges that while the group’s allegiance to Satan may give the wrong impression, it has also garnered them an outpouring of international media attention that they likely wouldn’t have achieved otherwise. (One of their closely held beliefs: Any press is good press.) When critics express revulsion at the idea of Satanism, Morrison says he tells them it’s nothing compared to gory religious iconography. “Let’s take the pentagram and paste that on a wall, then let’s take the [crucifix] and put that on a wall. Which one is scarier? This [star] shape or this bleeding hippy dude nailed to a cross?”
While the Satanic Temple doesn’t align itself with any political parties, campaigns or candidates, the organization’s goals are in staunch opposition to the Trump administration’s crackdowns on reproductive health, freedom of the press and transgender rights. “We want First amendment [rights], we want women to have control of their bodies, and we want the LGBT community to have equal rights,” Morrison says. “Obviously with Trump and Pence being in office and with the administration that’s being put in place right now, we’re probably looking at a more aggressive stance” than in previous years. He says membership in the organization surged after Trump was elected, with thousands of members now spread among dozens of chapters around the world.
The Satanic Temple — not to be confused with the Church of Satan, led by Anton LaVey for much of the latter half of the 20th century — rose to prominence in 2014 when it organized a crowd-funding campaign to build a Satanic monument at the Oklahoma State Capitol. Like many of the Satanic Temple’s highly publicized efforts, this one came in response to what it saw as a religious infringement in a public space: a biblical monument to the Ten Commandments, which had been donated by a state representative in 2009.