The debate between secularists and the religious is nothing new, but a fresh front on that long-simmering battle of the culture wars is being waged on the grounds of the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock, where one organization is pushing to have its deity, Baphomet, displayed next to a large monument of the Ten Commandments.
It gets dicey when you consider that the organization behind the Baphomet statue, a goat-headed figure with angel’s wings, is the Satanic Temple, a decidedly secular organization that isn’t nearly as vile as its name implies.
“If I learned one thing, it’s that they are not big on giving up. They do not go away,” said Penny Lane, director of the new documentary “Hail Satan?” which follows the Temple’s crusade to have Baphomet placed on the Capitol grounds, on the legal reasoning that the Constitution cannot favor one religion over another.
Even for those who claim no religion at all.
“Hail Satan?” is far from what its name might imply, as the documentary film follows the mercurial leader of the organization, Lucien Greaves, a camera-shy Midwesterner thrust into the public eye thanks to the fight over Baphomet’s inclusion, which raises the ire of state Senator Jason Rapert, the Republican—and ordained minister—who sponsored the monument of the Ten Commandments for the Arkansas Capitol grounds.
“The first thing that struck me about [Greaves] was that he was not especially interested in attention at all. He’s very uncomfortable in the role of a public figure,” said Lane, whose previous documentaries include “Nuts!” and “Our Nixon.” “He thinks someone needs to do it, and I think he’s going to do the best he can with it. But [he’s not] the typical cult leader [and] evil stuff that you might expect.”
Indeed, rather than drinking the blood of animals and knocking over crosses, “Hail Satan?” shows the Satanic Temple ostensibly involved in doing good for the community. They raise money for charitable causes and, but for their name, seem only to want to be left alone to their nonreligious devices.
Lane, who says she grew up in a nonreligious community, said that her thinking on religion morphed from a notion that all religion was bad, to a more open idea, while making her documentary.
“It was a real revelation because I have never felt more understanding of the religious impulse or appreciative of what religion brings to people and understanding what a religious identity can mean to a person,” she said. “I think the idea of religion going away forever no longer appeals to me, but I do think we can have ‘better’ religions. Or some religions that maybe feel a little more in line with what we supposedly [believe] in the post-Enlightenment world.”
One of the doc’s premises is that America, despite its pledge to have no official religion, in fact favors Christian dogma, even down to the inscription “In God We Trust” on its currency. Religious affiliation has been falling among millennials, Lane said, and that has allowed for an exploration of where precisely those people who claim “none” as their religious affiliation fit within the broader American strata.
“Especially younger people, they’re just leaving organized religion in droves,” she said. “There’s just this big gaping hole when they’re no religion. I think the core audience [for ‘Hail Satan?’] is people who are religiously indifferent or unaffiliated, and would be surprised by how much they have in common with the Satanists.”
Lane said it was somewhat difficult to raise money for “Hail Satan?,” with many financiers tuning out a sentence or two into her pitch. However, Magnolia Pictures, the distributor, immediately came aboard.
When asked if her subject is drawing any backlash, Lane hedges, saying that protests perhaps “expected” haven’t materialized much beyond “misspelled internet comments.”
“Because I’m not a Satanist, at the end of the day, those images, that mythology, that art, it doesn’t do anything for me,” she said. “If you have a religion, the symbols really matter, [but] I don’t care about any of those symbols. It’s not going to bring me any kind of personal liberation to smash a cross because I don’t care about a cross; it never meant anything to me.”
Lane said she felt compelled to make the documentary given that she sees a conflict between a secular society and monolithic religious institutions that don’t reflect modern values and ideas.
“The Satanic Temple is not the solution for most people, because most people don’t want to be Satanists. But it is a novel solution to that problem, and it inspired me,” she said. “We’re supposed to be in this secular world where we use reason to understand things and we use the scientific method and we care about freedom and individualism and all of those great values that have come from modernity.”
The battle on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol goes on, with free-speech lawsuits hoping to keep Baphomet side by side with the Ten Commandments. But even other institutions have stepped in, Lane said, with one even proposing to “build a wall” between the Ten Commandments and the State House to undermine the separation of church and state.
“The Satanic Temple lawsuit [is unique] because their proposed remedy is not taking down the Ten Commandments, it’s to put Baphomet up,” Lane said. “I don’t know of any other secular groups have had that kind of approach.”
“Hail Satan?” is now playing in select theaters.