Alarming, inspiring and yes, laugh-out-loud funny, “Hail Satan?” is a delightful documentary dissection of America’s favorite anti-religion, The Satanic Temple.
Director Penny Lane (“Our Nixon,” “Nuts!”) traces the group from its hoaxer origins, coming to life as political protest performance art, growing into a national movement battling the ever-blurring lines between church and state advocated — adherents say — by evangelical activists intent on creating an American theocracy.
It might be the funniest civics lesson you ever see on the big screen, as clear an assertion of American freedoms as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — and with more laughs.
Lane captures moments of origin, the “church” forming as Florida’s “Tea Party” governor, Rick Scott, called for bringing religion into the state’s schools.
Fine, the future Satanists said. We see them find an actor to be their spokesman, with an earpiece allowing founder Lucien Greaves (not his real name) to feed him lines. They dress him and several followers at a costume shop.
We watch the actor rehearse lines and a special effect (fire flying out of his fingers) for a rally at the Florida State Capital in Tallahassee. A PR person alerts the Florida media.
And then the big day — “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!” It is, our actor declares, “a Great day to be a Satanist!”
Sure, a heckler yells, “You’re gonna go to HELL!”
“I believe it,” our spokes-model improvises. “And I’m very excited about it.”
The idea was to “show the hypocrisy of what Rick Scott is doing,” singling out a religion his backers support for special treatment and enshrinement in Florida law.
Scott, already nicknamed “Governor Voldemort” by much of America, did not realize it. But his efforts to “bring prayer back to public schools” had just launched a global political movement that mocks superstition and super-naturalism, appeals to reason, civil rights and the “religious pluralism” that America’s founding fathers decreed.
All this as they rally, stage self-invented rituals, file civil rights lawsuits and stick a joking thumb in the eye of Evangelical America.
Lane uses interviews, images of protests and rallies, snippets of religious and patriotic films and archival news footage to tell this admittedly lopsided story of The Satanic Temple’s quixotic pursuit of the secular America that, as scholars and historians remind us, only was seriously unraveled by the rise of Billy Graham and political evangelism in the 1950s.
The Satanist’s secret weapon? Demanding, and getting equal time and the equal treatment ensured under the law. Here’s Chris Hayes of MSNBC summing it up nicely with, “Basically, the argument being ‘You open the door to ‘God,’ you open the door to ‘Satan.'”
Want to put prayer in your schools? The Satanists want to lead the prayers, on occasion. Allowing Bible study clubs to hold meetings on campus? The Satanic Temple has comic book reading matter your kids would just love. A prayer opens Phoenix city council meetings? Let a Satanist into the rotation of religious leaders brought in for that.
Lane’s film traces the “Satanic scares” of the 1980s and 90s, when “Satanic rituals,” sacrifices and other boogeyman threats were trumpeted in the supermarket tabloids and local and national news (and didn’t actually exist) to the invention of this new “church” as “a counter-balance to the dominant religious privilege in America.”
Christianity’s Satan, whom the group’s members allow they don’t actually believe in, “is the symbolic embodiment of the ultimate rebel against tyranny.”
“Blasphemy is a declaration of personal independence.”
Satan, in other words, “was the original ‘troll.'”
And they’re out to puncture superstitions, expose hypocrisy and ridicule religious groups that inject themselves into American life and American politics. That “Satanic scare?” “Transference” and projection, one interviewed member declares, comparing it to the then-ongoing Catholic Church pedophilia scandal, covered-up until about the time the “Satanic scare” withered away.
The group, many of whose members appear interviewed in shadows or with their faces blurred, admit to quickly learning how to grab media attention — a rally here, a “pink mass” right there.
That’s how they went after the Westboro Baptist Church’s hate-mongering leader by performing a ritual at the grave of Fred Phelps’ dead mother. Twisting Mormon reasoning, they declared her a “lesbian in the afterlife” announcing that “Satanists…turn the dead gay.”
A Salem, Massachusetts headquarters and gift shop, and bigger protests against a sudden mania for installing religious monuments in state capitals all over the Bible Belt followed.
“I don’t mind when people are offended,” Greaves, the face of an organization of former Goths, outsiders, tattooed metalheads and agitators, says. They want to “force people to evaluate their notions of the United States as a Christian nation. We’re not.” We are, he reminds us, and a scholar or two backs him up, a “secular nation of religious tolerance.”
Where Lane’s film and the group morph from amusing to moving is in their biggest ongoing fight, attempts to put The Ten Commandments into statehouses and courthouses, something a historian traces back to Cecil B. Demille’s promotional efforts for his movie, “The Ten Commandments,” in the Billy Graham-mad, anti-communist 1950s. The producers of the modern “God’s Not Dead” movies would like to do the same.
As we meet cynical legislators and devoutly monomaniacal true believers — some toting Christian and Confederate flags to rallies, and hear the shouting from Christians who get neither the joke nor irony, it’s hard not to take Satan’s side in all this. The alternative just might be, as the Satanists say, submitting to “Christian Supremacy” and the theocracy that implies.
As they create statues of Baphomet (see the photo at top), modeled on the punk rocker Iggy Pop (not the goat’s head, mind you) and demand equal billing next to whatever Ten Commandments this or that cynical politician wants to arouse his base with by placing a religious monument in a public space, as they deal with shouting, protesting mobs at every public appearance, “Hail Satan” gives you a stark choice — the devout, or the jokers who have a point.
“The more hate that was thrown at us, the more important this seemed,” lawyer Stu DeHaan realized.
However it began, whatever some of its more loopy adherents “believe,” American democracy needs the outliers, the agitators, to evolve and weather the regressive changes in the political climate.
As one wag in this church of wags reminds us, “The Devil’s work is never done.”
MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, and some language
Credits:Directed by Penny Lane. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:35