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.
“Allowing us to donate [our] monument would show that the Oklahoma City Council does not discriminate, and both the religious and nonreligious should be happy with such an outcome,” the campaign's organizers wrote on the Indiegogo page at the time.
More than 1,000 backers helped the Satanic Temple surpass its $20,000 fundraising goal, but the statue of Baphomet — the mythical horned goat that has become a kind of mascot for Satanists — was never erected; a 2015 Oklahoma Supreme Court decision banning religious monuments on state property had already accomplished the goal of removing the Ten Commandments from the Capitol. Instead, the Satanic Temple took its 9-foot-tall Baphomet statue to Detroit, where it held a party that was billed at the time as the largest public Satanic ceremony in history, drawing hundreds of supporters. The group has since stepped in to exercise its religious freedom — and challenge the authority of religious groups, sometimes partnering with the ACLU to do so — in city councils, public schools and state legislatures across the country.
At L.A.'s Union Nightclub last month, the Satanic Temple held its largest gathering to date — the 1,200 tickets sold far exceeded attendance at the Detroit party, according to organizers. With on-site tattooing, a performance by a band of goth rockers in white masks and black hoods, and a series of so-called destruction and bloodletting rituals — the latter conducted by a group of women bonded to one another by piercings on their necks and faces — it didn't exactly scream political fundraiser. But for many of its attendees, the late-night party served as a first introduction to the Satanic Temple's L.A. chapter, which counts only about a dozen steady members but hopes to grow its base in the coming year with public community meeting scheduled for late March and a slate of actions in the works.
“I love sitting in our meetings because we represent exactly what we should be in Los Angeles,” Morrison says. “It's not a bunch of white, goth kids. We're Asian, black, Hispanic, right across the board, and it's a mix of people from all walks of life, who have all come together under a common mission.”
That mission includes efforts such as the After School Satan Club, designed as a science-based alternative to the Good News Club, which pushes an evangelical agenda in thousands of public schools across the country. Morrison says the group's request to host After School Satan at Chase Street Elementary in Panorama City last summer went ignored by L.A. Unified School District. He's now pushing to get After School Satan installed at Hollywood High instead.
Steve Hill, one of the L.A. chapter's most active members, even waded into state politics last year when he ran for Senate as a Democrat in California's historically Republican 21st District, which covers parts of northern L.A. County. Hill was defeated in the 2016 primary election, scoring just 12 percent of the vote, but says his platform as a Satanist helped garner widespread media attention — even if much of it was negative — for his causes. Hill's passion for prison reform comes from his time working as a correctional officer, where he saw how low-income people of color were disproportionately incarcerated. His desire for Wall Street regulation arose from his experience working in real estate appraisal for more than a decade, including during the crippling mortgage crisis of 2008.
But Hill wasn't always this eager to identify as a Satanist. He met the temple's national leaders at an atheist convention in St. Louis years ago and was, perhaps unsurprisingly, skeptical about joining an organization named after Lucifer. “I initially thought, 'This is absurd. I'm already black, I don't need to be running around saying I'm the devil, too!'?” he recalls. “But as a comedian, I understand that this is basically satire … This is a great tactic to say, 'Don't push your religion and your thoughts and your laws on the public.'?”
As a resident of conservative Lancaster, where Mayor R. Rex Parris has advocated for the right to pray during City Council meetings and once declared the city a Christian community, Hill has his work cut out for him. This year he's focusing on organizing protests at local black megachurches, which he believes take advantage of disenfranchised minority communities. “It's going to be a busy 2017,” he says.