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Film review: Hail Satan?

22 August 2019

Stephen Brown reviews a documentary about The Satanic Temple, a US protest movement

A still from the documentary Hail Satan?, which shows Lucien Greaves at the rostrum on a lorry, next to the Baphomet statue unveiled in Arkansas

A still from the documentary Hail Satan?, which shows Lucien Greaves at the rostrum on a lorry, next to the Baphomet statue unveiled in Arkansas

HAIL SATAN? (Cert. 15) is far from demonic. This film documentary from the director Penny Lane (Nuts!, Our Nixon) follows a non-violent American cult claiming religious status alongside the predominantly far-Right Christian institutions that it criticises. The Satanic Temple’s co-founder Lucien Greaves and his lively adherents behave more like 17th-century Dissenters than devil worshippers.

Appealing to Milton’s Paradise Lost, they perceive Satan as an angel ousted for non-conformity. Never an atheist, Lucifer, the light-bearer, is a seeker of liberty. Despite the Temple’s claims to be post-Christian, I’m not so sure that its members have shaken themselves free of their spiritual parents. The organisation’s Seven Tenets comply closely with what many a liberal Christian would subscribe to: compassion, justice, respect, etc.

That belief should conform to science is about as radical as it gets. To paraphrase Don Cupitt, Satan becomes a metaphor that they cannot do without to argue their case. That is partly because their 50,000 converts need to demonstrate that they are worshippers to be recognised as a faith. In reality, they are impish post-Protestants who take on some of the more powerful guardians of a disturbingly oppressive brand of Christianity.

The Temple sets up a Satanic after-school club in Phoenix. It holds a rally for “plural prayers” in Florida, lampooning its Governor’s school-prayers advocacy. An obvious target for the Satanists is the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, Kansas, and its hate speech against gay people and pretty much everyone else. Lesbians provocatively kiss the grave of the founder’s mother, and have somehow or other acquired testicles that are dangled over it.

Foregathering at Arkansas State Capitol, they demand the erection of a goat-headed Baphomet statue in the grounds as a response to the planned Ten Commandments monument. “We’re here to spread a message of goodwill and benevolence and open-mindedness and free expression,” its leader says.

This is a delightfully cheeky film, puncturing notions of God as the Ultimate Party-Pooper. It is also instructive of how Christianity was pressed, after the Second World War, into service as an anti-Communist tool. “In God We Trust” has not been the official motto of the United States from time immemorial: it became so only in 1956. As Hail Satan? points out, that is the same year as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments was released.

Penny Lane draws attention to how DeMille, a conservative Republican Episcopalian, promoted the film by placing Ten Commandment monuments as a publicity stunt in cities across the United States. The Satanic Temple and probably many others see the Decalogue as having been arrogated by those wishing to equate God’s holy word with all things American.

This blurring of the separation of powers enshrined in the US Constitution continues into the present era. As such, it feels contrary to The Satanic Temple’s core beliefs, providing them with a raison d’être for their attention-grabbing antics. But the question mark in the film’s title suggests a group not quite sure of itself or its country, rather echoing Paul Simon’s song “American Tune”, in which he thinks of the road that they are travelling on and wonders what has gone wrong.

On cinema release from 23 August.

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