More Sympathy for the Devil, or The State of Satan in The Age of Obama and Trump

Fifty years ago this weekend in the year 1966, according to lore and legend, San Francisco showman, musician, and self-professed huckster Howard Stanton Levey a.k.a. Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan, proclaiming at the same time the advent of the Age of Satan (coinciding roughly with the immense popularity of the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil”).

What LaVey meant by the Age of Satan was anybody’s guess, since Christian orthodoxy has always insisted that Satan had reigned on earth ever since the expulsion from Eden, only to be dealt a potentially lethal blow on Easter morning, which would however not be fully realized until either the Second Coming itself or the end of Christ’s millennium.  Interestingly, this now iconic gesture of “black” theater was contemporaneous, give or take few years, with Time magazine’s famous cover story announcing that God was dead and the rise of the hippies with their own “eschatology” of the dawning Age of Aquarius.

From what we can tell from the drift of historical events over the last five decades, the Age of Aquarius did not pan out so well.  At the same time the Age of Satan, with the exception of what some academic nabobs of newspeak have have  come to refer to as the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and a small group of contemporary costermongers out of Detroit with far less talent and imagination known as the Satanic Temple, seems to have gone the way of the Big Hair Bands and the mush-minded “morning in America” politics of the Reagan era.

However, even with death of the Laveyean “theater of cruelty” (Antonin Artaud’s term), perhaps corresponding to the Black Pope’s own demise in 1997, one thing that does not appear to disappear are a generation of sociologists of religion, and one or two religious theorists, who not only want you to continue to take Satanism seriously, but to remind you how misunderstood and wrongly maligned are these people, who have been sounding off with the greeting “Hail, Satan” over the years.

The latest in this seemingly relentless procession of titles with a distinctive ideological axe to grind – which tailed off around the turn of the millennium, but now are coming back a quarter century later with the same retrofitted, single-message, mono-dimensional tedium as any hypothetical remake of the Eighties hits of REO Speedwagon –  is The Invention of Satanism by Asbjorn Dyrendal, James R. Lewis, and Jesper Aa. Petersen.

The publisher, Oxford University Press, , which on its website describes the book as “the first synthesis of scholarship done on modern Satanism to tell a unified story on the subject,” is also keen on profiling the volume as the tell-all, if not the end-all and be-all, to commemorate the soon-to-be-realized semi-centenary of the Archfiend’s apocalyptic eon.  It further commends the book as “timely given that the 50th anniversary of the Church of Satan is coming up in 2016.”

What exactly is the “unified story” The Invention of Satanism, which actually seems to be several shorter books slapped together (which is not atypical when you have multiple authors), purports to lay out before us?  The “unified story”is actually a rather tiresome rehash of what has become a kind of Lyotardian grand récit, which numerous other academic authors such as Jeffrey Victor, Bill Ellis, James Richardson and David Bromley, David Frankfurter, and Arthur Versluis have hammered into the public consciousness since the mid-1990s.

The narrative goes something like this:

  • In the 1980s and early 1990s there occurred, first in America and then throughout the world, a “moral panic” that engulfed American society and spawned a virulent epidemic of unfounded and irrational fears about the threat of satanism and satanic crime, which was either non-existent or wildly exaggerated, but somehow came to be blown up in the inflamed popular imagination as a gigantic conspiracy.  As Bromley sums it up in his 1991 essay, the agents of this “satanic panic” link together “phenomena through an assertion that a nationally organized, underground, hierarchially structured cult…[as] the ultimate source of these form of deviance.” (49)
  • At the same time, these alleged assertions of conspiracy were, and continue to be, perhaps part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” (to use Hillary Clinton’s famous words from that era) to spread hysteria, manipulate the population, and suppress legitimate social deviance.  Once more Bromley:  the anti-satanists have been “led by family-based groups and conservative religious interests with strong support from some mental health professionals and local law enforcement officers.” (49)  The same authors routinely – and ritually – compare the “panic” with the Catholic Inquisition of the late Middle Ages as well as the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s (and to a lesser extent the McCarthy denunciations of the 1950s).
  • Like earlier “witch hunts,” the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s left a trail of many victims unjustly accused, or even doing jail time for crimes they obviously never committed.

Dyrendal et. al. continue to replicate this account in most of its familiar details, even in the face of more recent research which completely explodes this line of argument – for example, The Witch Hunt Narrative by Brown University political science professor Ross E. Cheit.   Cheit, by the way, actually had a whole squad of research assistants meticulously examining and empirically analyzing those specific episodes, such as the McMartin pre-school trials in Southern California or the trial of the so-called West Memphis Three (who were accused of a brutal murder with occult overtones, convicted, and served time before they were released without actually being exonerated as the result of some eventual legal plea bargaining) that constitute the conventional, rhetorical cannon fodder for the “Satanic panic” storyboard.

It is indisputable that during the Eighties and Nineties there were sensationalists (mainly on cable television and religious talk radio), fear-mongers, and self-appointed “authorities” from a range of backgrounds (which critics like the authors of The Invention of Satanism appropriately term “moral enterpreneurs”), who whipped up a frenzy within certain constituencies about the dangers of satanism.

It is also beyond question that the bizarre, horrifying, and even to this day not adequately explained tales of “Satanic ritual abuse” told by numerous patients to their psychotherapists under hypnosis, or by children to child protection case workers, became a three-ring circus in its own right.   The brouhaha in the late 1980s over “recovered memories” was trotted out in the mass media, and fatefully complicated the efforts of researchers to acquire a full and detailed picture of what was actually going on.

The barrage of shaming of, not to mention vindictive litigation against, these “survivors”  and their clinicians – a phenomenon that those on defensive called the “backlash” –  during the 1990s by much of the same media that had sensationalized their spiels a decade earlier even further muddied the waters.  And the rise during the Clinton era of various credentialed advocates of a pseudo-explanatory theory called “false memory syndrome” (which was never really countenanced by the psychiatric establishment),  who at the very same time were often paradoxically serving as expert witnesses in court cases to plump for the reality of “cult mind control”, made the growing farce even more memorable.

The phony, skeptic-staged, and critic-“invented” controversy over alleged claims of “national satanic conspiracies” and “baby breeders”, which were only made in a few, highly sensationalized instances by people with suspicious motives and were never given any credibility by the vast majority of Bromley’s conspiratorial “coalition” of “anti-satanists”, turned into a permanent whipping boy for those like the authors of this book pushing the “moral panic” button.

All the while serious law enforcement personnel continued routinely to find – and continue to this day to find – sacrificed animals, or animal parts, along with inverted pentagrams, altars riddled with occult symbols, and poetic inscriptions touting murderous fantasies which in a few cases have actually been realized.

Disclaimers, Anyone?

Before concluding this article, however, I need to perform a full disclosure here and let the reader know I myself have been part of the grand récit from early on, although I am surely not considered by the authors of this book, or others like it, as playing a legitimate part.  I (not Lucifer) am, as it turns out, in the minds of a certain clique of “Satanism experts” the bald-faced, black-hatted bad guy, the utterly wrong-headed, a little-too-obsessed and all-too-serious, just-not-comprehending-what-Satanism-is-really-all-about (in contrast, of course, with the unquestionable fair-minded authors), perennial bogeyman from a 25-year-old controversy about the meaning of satanism that swirled around the publication of my own book Painted Black (taken of course from the title of another tune by the Stones) in 1990.

The authors of The Invention of Satanism devote not an inconsequential portion of their present work bashing me for supposed academic failings and episdoes of folderol found in Painted Black.

use of quotations could have just been a sign of bad academic practice. What makes an until-then well-reputed academic like Raschke interesting is that he did so much more than quote LaVey out of context; he participated in constructing an ‘Anton LaVey’ that was more the supervillain of a grandiose conspiracy than a human being. This construction was presented in sections of Painted Black where he discussed an interview with “Eddie,” the pseudonym of a young shopping mall clerk who was somehow able to convince Raschke that he was a sinister satanic cultist. Eddie informed the gullible investigator that LaVey was the ‘head of the satanic movement’— but that the ‘movement’ in question was much more than the Church of Satan; it included a vast, influential satanic underground of which LaVey was also the leader: ‘If LaVey says jump, you jump,” according to Eddie. ‘There is nobody in the world more powerful than LaVey’.”

Now this well-honed polemical trick of completely distorting, overdetermining, or hyper-inflating while crudely de-contextualizing what a single, minor passage in a book such as Painted Black actually said to make me, or other reputable professionals who do not have the luxury of defending themselves in print, look like Illuminati-chasing, conspiracy-obsessed fools is simple tradecraft for these kinds of “Satanism specialists.”

Aside from the entirely gratuitous, baseless, ad hominem attack on my reputation in the opening sentence of the above quote, the whole implication is highly comical, if not absurd.  Nowhere does the book even imply I gave any credence to what “Eddie” told me, which is summed up in just about two sentences.  My own treatment of LaVey himself in Painted Black is not far afield from what the conventional wisdom at the time held, and still holds, about LaVey – namely, that he was a brilliant stuntmaster who happened to have a very significant impact on pop culture, mostly then but perhaps still now.

The only difference is that in Painted Black I sought to document through news clippings, police reports, and court records how, even if LaVey the carnival-barker with his eye-popping claim that he had a million or more avid followers, did not take himself seriously, many of the people who read his book (and technically never even thought about joining his Church of Satan) did do so, and why, whether in keeping with what LaVey intended or not,  probably because in their abject form of low-lifery which LaVey famously mocked, did seek to “do evil” in his august name, largely because unfortunately they just didn’t get it.

One of these misguided, feeble-minded, backwoods morons from Southern Missouri, who can be excused for  taking Satanist rhetoric at its face value (as COS sophisticates are not supposed to do), was “Eddie” himself.  Eddie, as it happens, was a close friend of Pete Roland, who was tried and convicted murdering another corny with numerous blows from a baseball bat as a “sacrifice to Satan.”  I was called in by attorneys not to help with his prosecution, but with his defense, which was he didn’t really know what he was doing because he actually took that stuff seriously.

Actually, Roland’s, and “Eddie”‘s, brand of Satanism was, as the former testified in his own court defense, was just an icing-on-the-cake sort of emotional high to go along with the mind-altering drugs the kids regularly took in their musical head-banging ecstasies.  It was Satanism as an epiphenomenon of an increasingly violent drug underground that Painted Black was largely about.  Adolescents can now join ISIS and channel their violence into banging real heads.

The State of Satan in 2016

But, of course, that of course all happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

If one takes time to indulge oneself in what might be described as the kind of academic pulp fiction for which The Invention of Satanism is the latest iteration, one could easily draw the conclusion that there never was a problem (and it was of course ridiculously overblown by gullible people from all walks of life and their foolish professional fellow-travelers), and there can still never be a problem.

Of course, the real menace constantly stalking us is that coiled, covert, ever dormant phalange of fundamentalist preachers, manipulative shrinks, overzealous social workers, and persecuting cops on the beat who on any day, if social and political conditions are ripe as they were in the Eighties, will all be flushed out of the brush and re-ignite the Satanic Panic to the detriment of innocent impresarios of certain “new religions” like LaVey himself, or his self-style neo-Nazi admirers such as as the Werewolf Order, reputedly named after the last-ditch resistance fighters against the Allies organized by the Nazi SS in the final weeks of the Second World War.

The well-documented cozy relationship between contemporary satanists, known neo-Nazis, and the taste-makers for fascist chic over the past thirty years is beside the point for those who tell us, as in The Invention of Satanism, that we have been far too “hysterical” about this essentially “harmless” trend.

If we have not embarked on the Age of Satan in the way LaVey envisioned it, we have certainly entered the Age of Rage, as this year’s Presidential election keeps impressing on us.  And that may indeed be what Satan is all about anyway.

Carl Raschke, as a no longer “well-reputed academic” for the last quarter century, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  Having published over twenty-five books, including Painted Black, during his career, he is the author of Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012) and most recently Force of God:  Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015).  His newest book Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis will be published this fall with IVP Academic.

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