Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of Secular Nation Magazine
It started in 2009, when Oklahoma rep. Mike Ritze proposed a curious bit of legislation intended to justify erecting a monument to the Ten Commandments on the State’s Capitol grounds. As the monument would be a private donation — and the grounds available to other such generous offerings (so the argument went) — the 6-foot granite slab of graven Abrahamic edicts could certainly not be seen as an expression of religious preference or privilege. In fact, according to the bill, it would seem that the Ten Commandments aren’t actually of a religious nature at all, but a foundational American legal document.
The bill, which was effortlessly signed into law with bi-partisan support, asserts that the Ten Commandments somehow convey important historic American truths. To wit, that “God has ordained civil government and has delegated limited authority to civil government”, and also that it was “God” himself who “limited the authority of civil government.” (The question of whether or not it was God who came up with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, in an effort to maintain a separation of Church and State, must be dutifully ignored in this particular revisionist fantasy.)
Of course, the Ten Commandments have nothing at all to say about any of these things, but the bill renders embarrassingly apparent the fact that Oklahoma lawmakers cannot readily distinguish Biblical passages from foundational American documents. Thus, this remarkably miseducated bit of legislation further credits the Ten Commandments — believed to be authored by a divine autocrat — for words penned by our Founding Fathers: “God has endowed people with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
These things must all be understood, Ritze’s bill explains, “[…] in order that [the people of Oklahoma] may understand and appreciate the basic principles of the American system of government, the people of the United States and of the State of Oklahoma need to identify the Ten Commandments, one of many sources, as influencing the development of what has become modern law,” and that “the placing of a monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol would help the people of the United States and of Oklahoma to know the Ten Commandments as the moral foundation of law.”
The monument was erected in 2012 and, by the end of 2013, I was launched into infamy by way of a simple letter to Oklahoma’s Capitol Preservation Commission — the agency in charge of monument approval, standards, and general oversight. As spokesperson for, and co-founder of, The Satanic Temple, I offered that we, Satanists, should like to offer a monument of our own to stand alongside the Ten Commandments. Ours, too, would be privately donated, and has a solid basis in history. Surely, the procedure by which the Ten Commandments found approval could be duplicated to erect a monument of another type. Even the most confused of politicians should know that viewpoint discrimination isn’t their jurisdiction.
The media went wild, and vigorous debate ensued. Publicly, Oklahoman politicians tried to scoff us away, ignorantly invoking the preferences of the majority, and further asserting the distinctly unique American-ness of the Biblical Ten Commands. The Commandments, it was maintained, were appropriate for the Capitol grounds because of their formative role in American law.
I had the opportunity to argue this point with Oklahoma representative Paul Wesselhoft on a segment of Huffington Post Live, aired May 02, 2014:
“the idea that the 10 Commandments are foundational to US or Oklahoman law is absurd and obscene,” I informed the baffled lawmaker. “Not only have the 10 Commandments never been codified into federal or state law, but they are, as a body, very obviously counter-Constitutional. Commands such as, ‘Thou Shalt Have No God Before Me’ and, ‘Thou Shalt Not Worship Graven Idols’ are necessarily the fiats of a theocracy. The United States was founded on pluralism, religious liberty. US law has never been so backward as to put failure to ‘respect the Sabbath’ on equal terms with murder and theft. The 10 Commandments are undoubtedly historical, but they are in no way American.”
As an outspoken critic against the Satanic monument, rep. Wesselhoft seemed certain — questions about the Ten Commandments’ own degree of Americanism notwithstanding — that our own proposed design lacked any historic American legitimacy at all. In fact, The Satanic Temple and I had accounted for arguments related to history and American Law when contriving our monument plans. As I explained:
“The central image we have chosen in our monument design is known as ‘Baphomet’; a goat-headed, angel-winged, androgynous creature first rendered in its most widely recognized form by occult historian Eliphas Levi in the 19th century. The name Baphomet, however, comes much earlier from during the Crusades. ‘Baphomet’ is almost certainly derived from ‘Mahomet’, or Muhammad, prophet of Islam. Muslims were the ‘satanized’ outgroup of the time. For centuries, Jews were regularly accused of all of the things now attributed to an imaginary Satanist conspiracy: infant sacrifice, cannibalism, complex plots against the Common Good. During the early colonization of the US, it was commonly believed that the Native ‘Indians’ worshipped Satan. Later, black slaves were the afeared Satanists, believed to be entering into pacts with the Devil as part of a supernatural plot to overthrow their oppressors. And, of course, most everybody is aware of the Puritan witch-hunts. These unjust accusations — these savage out-group purges — are all a part of the trial and error that helped us to realize our need for a rational, secular legal system.
Standards such as the accuser’s burden of proof, the presumption of innocence, a respect for material evidence, are all a result of our finding ways to subdue brute mob intolerance. Today, we are rightly offended by anti-blasphemy laws and divine fiats.
Our monument will stand in honor of those unjustly accused — the slandered minority, the maligned outgroups — so that we might pay respect to their memory and celebrate our progress as a pluralistic nation founded on secular law.”
I would argue that the message behind our monument speaks more directly to the formation of US Constitutional values than the 10 Commandments possibly could. It especially does so when it stands directly beside the 10 Commandments, as it affirms no one religion enjoys legal preference.
Wesselhoft struggled to assert that because the Ten Commandments are laws and, as lawmakers, making laws is what those at the Capitol do, the Ten Commandments deserve placement on the Capitol grounds. It was a new ad hoc argument that had no place in the original justification for the monument’s approval.
“As a representative in Oklahoma,” I reminded him, “you represent Oklahoman Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims — as well as Christians, and even Satanists, insofar as you should maintain an environment in which each of these groups are treated with equal respect in the eyes of the law. If you don’t understand that basic premise of holding public office, you have no business doing so.”
There was a stunned pause before the aged and bewildered representative gave his stammering, seemingly senile reply: “Well, that’s your opinion. I have my own…”
And there it is. The duties of public office, the virtue of American pluralism, are but matters of opinion. Seldom has a problem of such magnitude been so completely, if unwittingly, defined in so few words.
As The Satanic Temple continues to broaden its scope — from offering exemptions against corporal punishment in schools, exemptions from anti-abortion laws, to coordinating with secular groups in further efforts to ensure plurality wherever the Church/State line has been breached — our legitimacy as a religion is constantly questioned, our motives impugned as “merely political” or as an elaborate prank. Often central to this criticism is the fact that we are openly atheistic and anti-supernaturalist, positions long held to be in direct contradiction to “religion”.
At its best, religion provides a narrative construct with which a community can contextualize its goals and develop a sense of purpose. It provides a symbolic structure, identity, values, and body of practice for those who embrace it. Contrary to popular perception and philosophical criticism to the contrary, I argue that religion can not be defined to require a belief in the supernatural. “Religion” enjoys certain privileges and exemptions that would be reprehensible, in a pluralistic society, to reserve for supernaturalists alone. ‘Sincerely held beliefs’ don’t deserve special consideration for the degree in which they are dependent upon magical thinking. While we reject superstition, our values are no less sincerely held. And while we view Satanism in metaphorical terms, our tenets and symbolism are far from arbitrary.
As stated on our website, “Satan is symbolic of the Eternal Rebel in opposition to arbitrary authority, forever defending personal sovereignty even in the face of insurmountable odds. Satan is an icon for the unbowed will of the unsilenced inquirer… the heretic who questions sacred laws and rejects all tyrannical impositions. Ours is the literary Satan best exemplified by Milton and the Romantic Satanists, from Blake to Shelley, to Anatole France.”
Thomas Jefferson — the actual author of the words in the Declaration of Independence to which rep. Mike Ritze ascribed Biblical roots — in his Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom stated, “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” Elaborating on this bill (which was important enough to him that it was named among three lifetime achievements upon his grave), Jefferson wrote in his memoirs that in this statute “protection of opinion was meant to be universal”, and the document included “within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.“
But while Jefferson himself welcomed “infidels” within the mantle of religious protection, those who otherwise agree with our every position sometimes still balk at the symbolic extremism of Satanism. Why, they ask, can we not refer to ourselves as something else? Something less offensive, less stigmatized? The question misses the point. The self-identified Satanist embraces the outsider status and is drawn to the forbidden, anomalous, and obscure. We identify with the symbolism of “blasphemy” as an expression of liberation from superstition — a firm resolve to bow to no God, gods, or arbitrary authority of any kind.
Be that as it may, the inquirer may persist, with The Satanic Temple acting so openly as political activists, isn’t the “religion” claim still mere artifice? Is this not simply a clever bit of activism? It is always interesting to apply the questions that are presented to The Satanic Temple to other, unquestioned, religious groups.
It is hardly an original observation to note that the current objectivist crusade being carried out by the American conservative “Religious Right” bears little resemblance to anything that can be justified by Biblical scripture. How has it come to be that a book which explicitly places no value, or personhood, on fetuses or infants under a month of age (Leviticus 27:6, Numbers 3:15 – 16) is said to inform a position against abortion? How are Christ’s seemingly communistic inclinations reconciled against the so-called “Judeo-Christian values” of our Tea Party Republicans? How do we ignore the New Testament’s acceptance of slavery (1 Timothy 6:1-2; Ephesians 6:5) and other abhorrent practices? Apparent inconsistencies abound. Questions such as these, volleyed at the crusaders themselves, almost invariably lead to to an exasperating flood of tortured interpretations, theological contortions, and impenetrable cognitive dissonance.
Likewise, it is fruitless to point out the multitudinous hypocrisies and inconsistencies in modern Judeo-Christian religious practice as it relates to Biblical prescriptions and proscriptions (the tedious numbering of which has produced fully dedicated books and websites, rendering it needless that I should attempt to explore even a sampling here).
Biblical fidelity aside, it appears that American conservative Christian culture has constructed a sense of identity and a political agenda based on an evolving (though certainly not progressive) interpretation of Christian values. It’s pointless to insist that they redefine themselves as something other than Christian, just as it’s a waste of time to expect they’ll ever admit their values aren’t the product of a continuous unbroken Biblical tradition.
It’s well past time that non-superstitious value structures assert their religious rights, and give lie to the now-prevalent notion that there is a monolithic, necessarily supernaturalist, voice of Religion. It is my hope that, in the near future, when one speaks of “the religious agenda”, the immediate question becomes, “which one?” I believe that our fight in Oklahoma, however it may ultimately be resolved, will bring us a long way toward that end.