Of Satanism and Religious Freedom

There has been unmistakable growth in satanic activity in the United States. And we cannot be indifferent to the fact that Satan – through his followers – has gained a greater foothold by arguing that religious freedom requires it.

Using religious-freedom principles, Satanists have won several victories, including afterschool programs in Washington State to rival the Good News Club, and Satanic curses to open a city council’s business in Alaska. And every day, news of greater satanic activity multiplies.

But do our laws require that Satanism be protected as a religion?

The short answer is no. Never in our history, tradition, or philosophy of government has Satanism ever been accorded such protection. Indeed, protecting Satanism reflects a thought process foreign to the logic of religious freedom in the U.S. Constitution.

As James Madison famously stated in his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia”:

It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.

In other words, conscience rights or religious freedom are not abstract freedoms applicable to whatever spiritual reality you seek to embrace. It is rooted in obligation to God. The freedom of religion found in the First Amendment is a freedom to worship God according to the dictates of one’s conscience – not the license to disparage or deride Him.

In contrast, Satanism – either the old-fashioned allegiance to Old Scratch or the modernist atheistic version – is irreligion or anti-religion, meant to deny devotion to God. Its goal is to produce a society where religion is no longer viewed as a duty or unalienable right. Thus, granting Satanism religious-freedom protections undermines rather than strengthens religious-freedom rights by directly attacking their foundation: the existence of a Creator who is the source of unalienable rights.

There is no evidence that either our Founders or founding citizens understood freedom of religion to include irreligion. Nor would such a right even make sense. The very basis for recognizing religious freedom – our common duty to worship God freely – cannot support the right to become His enemy.

Job’s Sons and Daughters Overwhelmed by Satan by William Blake, c. 1810 [Morgan Library, New York]

As George Washington warned in his Farewell Address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.

Some are concerned that failing to recognize Satanism as a religion would put all religious freedoms at risk. But this is simply not true. This approach seeks the allegedly safe refuge of sincerity of belief as the grounds for granting religious-freedom protections. But this fails to provide any compelling argument in favor of religious freedom. The relatively recent focus on sincerity of belief has reduced religion from a reasonable, moral duty of all men to an idiosyncratic, unintelligible exercise of self-expression.

Following this reasoning, it becomes impossible to distinguish between religious-freedom claims made by the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Satanic Temple. It is a form of relativism that is arbitrary and cannot create a coherent jurisprudence. For example, why are the claims of a sincere Satanist – if there be such a person – better than that of an insincere Catholic? What moral proposition is being invoked? What is it about religion that entitles it to legal protection? Why does sincerity matter?

These are serious questions that must be answered, if the American polity is going to be convinced that religious exemptions should be allowed. Coming generations will not be convinced that you should get to do something evil because you really believe it. Slave owners in the South also sought justification in sincere religious beliefs. Yet no one now thinks the Confederates had a right to keep slaves or secede.

Religious people today need to show that they are not seeking the freedom to do evil under cover of “sincere” religious beliefs. We must show that we seek the freedom to do right not wrong. Throwing in our lot with Satanist will hurt that effort because it concedes that all religious truth is relative – so much so that we cannot even tell the difference between God and the Devil.

Nor is excluding Satanism from religious-freedom protections some sort of unfair targeting that undermines the rule of law. Proponents of including Satanism within religious-freedom protections usually quote A Man for All Seasons, the passage where St. Thomas More spars with young Master Roper:

This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.

But that argument is not convincing in this case. In the context of the play, More was merely talking about giving everyone the benefit of the law. He did not claim that the Devil was entitled to rights qua Devil. Thus, if a Satanist wanted to enforce his rights under labor laws, of course he would get the benefit of the law – like any other laborer.

But as a Satanist, he can make no claim to a benefit, because the Devil qua Devil has no legal rights – and neither does his irreligion. To quote Lincoln, you “cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.” Accordingly, our laws should give the Devil and his followers their due when it comes to rights claims invoking religious freedom: nothing.

Gunnar Gundersen is an Affiliated Scholar of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. His areas of research include religious freedom, property rights, and jurisprudence.