Recently read: Laycock’s ‘Speak of the Devil’

Joseph P. Laycock, Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion (Oxford: OUP, 2020).

The past two years I’ve taught a class called ‘Religion in the United States’. My broad focus has been the presentation of how Americans have designed, interpreted, and implemented the concept of ‘religion’ in the public square. In some sense, the class could be classified as religious studies, American history, political science, and sociology. Underneath this broad focus, and the variety of subjects of which it could be a subset, is that cherished concept of ‘religious freedom’.

When I teach about ‘religious freedom’, I’m inclined to be positive toward the idea. Religious intolerance hasn’t had a good track record. But I’m also inclined to be disappointed. A cursory examination of American religious history reveals that ‘religious freedom’ has meant, usually, religious freedom for the majority. In this country, that has meant a variety of things—for example, Protestants lorded over Catholics—but it has never meant ‘non-Christians’.

Joseph P. Laycock’s new book Speak of the Devil may seem to some to be argument ad absurdum when it comes to religious freedom. (Why use the Satanists as exemplars?) But in fact, the Satanist may be the most interesting case study available. There’s no religion out there that makes people as uncomfortable with their own claims regarding religious freedom as the Satanists.

When it comes to matters of the separation of church and state, the Satanists confront our presuppositions and expose biases. Do we want ‘prayer in schools’ to include the right of state-employed teachers to lead a prayer? Many Americans might say ‘yes’. But what if the teacher was a Satanist? They’re unlikely to maintain the firm ‘yes’. The most natural side-step is to deny that Satanism is a real religion but then we get into tricky territory of asking who gets to define real religion. The courts may be wrestling with this but the IRS has been clear that Satanism, at least in the form of The Satanic Temple, is a real religion.

In Laycock’s book his main focus is The Satanic Temple, though Chapter 2, ‘Origins and History of The Satanic Temple’, and Chapter 4, ‘The Satanic Reformation’ (and other parts of the book), remind people not only of the influence of Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, but also of ‘the writings of Romantics such as Blake, Shelley, and Byron’ (p. 88) who represented Satan not as the baddest-baddie but as the rebel with a legitimate cause (with God being the omnipotent, cosmic-bully). These two chapters will help readers see how The Satanic Temple is uniquely Satanist, when contrasted with the more libertarian, Ayn Rand type Satanism of the Church of Satan, but also traditionally Satanist when rooted in the aforementioned presentation of Satan found in the Romantics.

Now, for many of my students, it has been disappointing to hear that Satan is a myth, or a symbol, for most Satanists. In other words, few Satanists believe they are worshipping a real, metaphysical being. This may lead some to think that Satanism is a parody religion rather than a real religion. Laycock addresses this misconception is Chapter 5, ‘Religion or Trolls: How The Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion’ when he examines The Satanic Temple through the lens of Catherine Albanese’s ‘four c’s’ framework (religion defined as a ‘creed’, a ‘code’, a ‘cultus’, and ‘communities’, all four being possessed by The Satanic Temple). While some theorist argue that a religion must embrace some form of the supernatural (see Christian Smith, Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters), most theorist—including past versions of the Supreme Court of the Unite States—don’t. Therefore, as my students have learned, so readers will see that Satanism qualifies as a religion by most scholarly and legal metrics available.

My favorite chapter in the book is Chapter 6, ‘Satanic Bake Sales: How The Satanic Temple Is Changing the Way We Talk About Evil’. In this chapter, Laycock writes about how Satanists ‘appropriate the discourse of evil’. In other words, they identify with a symbol (Satan) that many equate with evil but they do so in ways that most equate with good—bake sales, charity, care for the poor, defending marginalized groups, etc. These actions scramble our categories of ‘good and evil’ (especially when we see ‘good’ Christians doing terribly oppressive, racist, bigoted things). This chapter will challenge the linguistic, philosophical, and religious ideologies of the reader more than maybe any other chapter in the book.

Anyway, this isn’t a review; just a report. I enjoyed this book. I found it as intellectually stimulating as anything I’ve read in a while. And if you haven’t seen, I had a chance to interview Laycock several days ago. It’s well worth your time but don’t just watch the interview, get the book, and read the book. If you are interested in definitions of ‘religion’, how religion is practiced, questions about ‘religious freedom’, and the like, you’ll find this book is well worth your time.

Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue

Today I mentioned Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue to my ‘Religion in the United States’ students and I’m happy to see that The National Constitution Center’s We The People Podcast has an episode on it already: ‘School Choice and the Separation of Church and State’. For those who haven’t heard about this case that has gone before the Supreme Court, the gist is this: ‘The lawsuit asks whether Montana violated the federal constitution when it terminated a program that gave tax breaks to people who donated to a scholarship fund, which was used by students attending both religious and secular private schools.’ The ruling ‘may have major implications for the free exercise of religion and the future of school choice and public education.’ 

Religion according to the Supreme Court

According to the IRS, religion (or a ‘church’) has some mixture of attributes such as a ‘recognized creed and form of worship’, a ‘formal code of doctrine and discipline’, ‘literature of its own’, ‘regular religious services’, and so forth. This is a type of ‘family resemblance theory’ (see Andrew Henry’s video ‘What is Religion?’, starting about 3:40, for a good explanation) that understands religions as not having all the same characteristics but a limited range of shared characteristics.

More interesting is the chaotic reasoning of the Supreme Court. I was reminded of this while going over the topic with my ‘Religion in the United States’ students this week. The Freedom Forum Institute has a helpful summary of the various cases when the Court attempted to provide a working definition of religion titled ‘Has the Supreme Court Defined “Religion”?’ if you’d like more information but in gist it’s shifted from 1890 to 1972 as this list exemplifies:

  • ‘one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will’ (‘Davis v. Beason’, 1890)
  • ‘a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God’ (‘United States v. Seeger’, 1965)
  • ‘beliefs’ that are ‘deeply held’ and vaguely related to ‘religion’ (see ‘Welsh v. United States’, 1971; ‘Thomas v. Review Board’, 1981)

In spite of (or because of?) these vague definitions that variously require some belief in a Creator God, to beliefs that are as meaningful to the person as belief in a Creator God is to others, to beliefs that are generally ‘religious’ in nature, the Supreme Court, the recent courts this decade has been very friendly to claims that someone’s First Amendment rights are being violated…at least when it concerns religion. For example:

  • American Legion v. American Humanist Association (2019): a cross on public property maintained by tax dollar was allowed to stay
  • Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018): a baker’s choice to not make a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage was upheld as a First Amendment right because of the baker’s religious objections to same-sex marriage
  • National Institute of Family Life Advocates v. Becerra (2018): ‘a pro-life entity’ offering ‘pregnancy-related services’ won their case against California when California attempted to enforce a law where this ‘entity’ has to disclose that weren’t a licensed clinic when advising them regarding contraception and abortion
  • Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer (2017): a private religious preschool was allowed to receive state funds for a playground
  • Holts v. Hobbs (2015): A Muslim man was allowed to maintain a (one-half-inch) beard in prison in spite of the prison’s rules that people in the prison must be shaven
  • Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014): Hobby Lobby was able to opt-out of providing contraception to their employees as required by the Affordable Care Act
  • Town of Greece v. Galloway (2013): a city council was said to not be violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment although they opened many of their sessions with prayer from a Christian clergy

The exception may be Trump v. Hawaii (2018) when it was determined that Trump Administration didn’t intend a ‘Muslim ban’

Most of these cases have to do with actions which shows things have changed drastically from 1890’s ‘Davis v. Beason’ which determined that the First Amendment didn’t protect Latter-day Saints practicing bigamy or polygamy because ‘in the context of the First Amendment, “religion” refers primarily to “one’s views of his relations to his Creator” and “modes of worship” and is not intended to be “invoked as a protection against legislation for the punishment of acts inimical to the peace, good order, and morals of society.”‘