The design for the Satanist statue proposed for the lawn of the Oklahoma state capitol is a delight: Baphomet, a goat-headed pagan idol, sits gracefully on a chair, gazing beatifically forward while holding two fingers aloft. Two children, a boy and a girl, stand on either side of him, looking worshipfully upon the goatly representation of the occult.
For the Satanists who designed the statue and their supporters, the joke is obvious, though no less hilarious. Baphomet is a figure likely made up by the Inquisition for the purpose of accusing its victims of worshipping him. Satanists today use his face as a way to mock modern fundamentalist Christians for their tendency to concoct imaginary enemies to stoke their own paranoid fantasies about being persecuted.
Hilarious as the statue is, it was designed to make a serious point. Christian fundamentalists in Oklahoma managed to get a Ten Commandments monument placed on capitol grounds in 2012. Though the supporters of the monument deny it, it’s an obvious attempt by fundamentalists to get the state government to endorse Christianity above all other religious beliefs, in a direct violation of the Constitution’s ban on state establishment of religion. The ACLU of Oklahoma has sued, arguing, “When the government literally puts one faith on a pedestal, it sends a strong message to Oklahomans of other faiths that they are less than equal.”
No doubt the Satanists expect Oklahoma to reject their petition, which is the point, of course. By rejecting the petition, the legislature will make it clear they really are elevating one religion over another, strengthening the ACLU’s case against the state.
Naturally, conservative politicians are confident the statue will not end up on capitol grounds. Rep. Paul Wesselhoft told CNN that the statue wouldn't be disqualifed because of Satan, but because the statue has "no historical significance for the state of Oklahoma." It is worth noting that neither do the Ten Commandments, which are believed by Christians to have been written somewhere in the Middle East. Rep. Bob Cleveland was more overt, admitting that the difference between the statues is one endorses his favored religion while the other does not.
"In my opinion this Satanist monument does not meet with the values of Oklahomans," he said, basically admitting that the Ten Commandments statue is an endorsement of the "values", i.e. faith of Christianity.
Rep. Don Armes was even more blunt in making it clear that the Oklahoma state legislature rejects religious pluralism and is only interested in elevating Christianity as the only legitimate religion. "I think we need to be tolerant of people who think different than us," he said, but of course there's a "but."
"But this is Oklahoma and that's not going to fly here."
In other words, we need to be tolerant of other people, but they are expected to sit down and know their place. Unsurprisingly, the Oklahoma legislature has already taken a major pre-emptive strike against the possiblity that any other religion or belief system but Christianity get representation on the capitol grounds. After receiving requests for monuments not just from Satanists, but from Hindus and animal rights activists, the legislature decided to place a moratorium on the building of monuments. The message is crystal-clear: The Oklahoma state legislature is not interested in reflecting the diversity of Americans, but only wants to elevate Christians above everyone else.
Sure, Satanism isn’t a real religion, though it’s delightful to consider how the fundamentalists behind the Ten Commandments statue probably don’t realize that and will have heaving fits of fear at the possibility that the devil is trying to weasel his way into Oklahoma politics. Satanists will be the first to tell you they don’t really think Satan is real, and instead just rally around the character to make a political point about the arbitrary nature of religion. But that shouldn’t matter. There are plenty of Christians who take a less than literal approach to their religion, saying they believe God is love or that Jesus was just a guy with some nice ideas. Their beliefs aren’t generally considered any less valid for it, and so it’s unfair to hold Satanists to a double standard.
Which is why prank-minded groups like the Satanists are doing such an important public service: They are able to challenge religious fundamentalists in their attempts to stomp out freedom of religion and religious plurality without having to worry overmuch about enduring the oppressionreal religious minorities face. When a Muslim or Jewish group objects to the religious right’s attempts to enshrine Christianity as an official or endorsed state religion, they run the risk of provoking the exact fear of religious pluralism that leads conservative Christians to do things like build Ten Commandments monuments in the first place. Ugly prejudice against minority religions is why Christian conservatives want the government to affirm their belief that theirs is the one true religion. When religious minorities push back, many Christians use that pushback as evidence that “they” are out to destroy Christian America.
But the Satanists don’t care if you hate and fear them. Indeed, the point of being a Satanist is to delight in the irrational hate and fear that your fake religion provokes in the true believers. You can’t worry about your religion being demonized, since you pretend to worship demons already. You definitely can’t worry about your fellow believers being oppressed, because none of you are really believers in the first place.
It’s not just Satanists who are in a position to turn themselves into a mirror so we can see some of the silliness that stems from trying to mix government with religion. Pastafarians, another fake religion that pretends to worship a deity called the Flying Spaghetti Monster, get some of their licks in, as well. Recently, Christopher Schaeffer, a minister in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, was elected to the Pomfret, N.Y. town council. He insisted on being sworn in wearing a colander on his head, a clear mockery of the various religious rites that are used to swear people into office.
Granted, the Satanists are making a more important point with their statue than Schaeffer is with his spaghetti strainer. They’re protesting religious fundamentalists who want to uphold their faith above all others, but the swearing-in ceremony that Schaeffer is mocking is not one that is known for being religiously exclusive. On the contrary, most governments will let you swear in with any religious tradition you want, which is why Schaeffer was allowed to do the colander stunt in the first place. Still, the prank makes an important point about how, even with the religious tolerance built into the swearing-in ceremony, the ceremony still reinforces the idea that religious beliefs should play an important part of one's role as a politician. That alone should trouble us, because ideally, leaders of a secular society would leave their religious beliefs at the door and choose to govern not by religious faith, but by reason and an interest in representing all their constituents, regardless of belief, equally.
After all, most of us are hired for jobs and do those jobs without anyone mentioning our religious beliefs at all, because they are irrelevant to the work we do. Why then do politicians in a supposedly secular government have to make a fuss over their religion right from the beginning? Wouldn’t be better if everyone just made a secular promise to do their jobs properly, putting them all on the same page?
This is why pranksters with fake religions are striking a blow for a better understanding of what it really would take to create a government that not only avoids overt favoritism for any single belief, but really does create a welcoming space for all. After all, if our religious pluralism has room even for people who admit they’re making it up as they go along, it definitely has room for all flavors of belief, whether they’re deadly serious, just for fun, or somewhere in between.