Lucien Greaves does not like to discuss his eye.
It is not, as some online truthers have posited, an embellishment, like the president’s hair or hue, but the result of a mysterious wound. “That’s too personal or biographical for me. It’s scarred, right, it’s an injury, but that’s as far as I go with it,” he tells me.
It is the only question the long-winded, black-clad activist won’t answer during our chat.
Greaves (not his real name) is the spokesman and co-founder of the Satanic Temple, an activist group that doesn’t so much believe in Satan, but rather uses it to reinforce the separation of church and state. They consistently argue on behalf of reproductive rights, challenging the religious argument against abortion by invoking their own, and have garnered headlines for their on-the-ground activities in Oklahoma and Arkansas, where they fought for their right to erect a Baphomet statue—their goat-headed, angel-winged mascot sitting in a throne underneath a pentagram—next to monuments of the Ten Commandments.
He, along with the Satanic Temple, are the subjects of Hail Satan?, a new documentary by Penny Lane that premiered to standing ovations at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival (it will premiere in theaters on April 19, or Good Friday). Lane shot the film over a year and half, and found Greaves and his fellow nonbelievers so convincing that she became a member as soon as the picture was locked.
“There were so many people who felt they’d never find a tribe—that they were the lone weirdo who’d never join a group—until they found the Satanic Temple. To see what it means to them to have this movement, it’s changed so many lives,” she says.
The Satanic Temple was co-founded by Greaves and Malcolm Jarry in 2013, and began as an elaborate troll before evolving into something deeper: a religious hypocrisy-exposing operation guided by seven fundamental tenets (e.g. empathy, bodily autonomy, science), and boasting 13 chapters in the U.S. and membership hovering around 100,000.
“How could we imagine that in six years we’d be at Sundance, and people would be applauding our actions in the film? I’m a very pessimistic person, and I never could have envisioned this,” says Greaves, flashing a mischievous grin.
The Daily Beast sat down with Greaves at Sundance to discuss the documentary and his mission.
So, the Satanic Temple officially debuted in 2013. I read that it was inspired in part by the George W. Bush administration’s “faith-based initiatives.”
It depends on where you place the beginning of the Satanic Temple. If you’re asking me, my exposure to Satanism began with the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s and ‘90s, where a lot of people went to jail and their lives were ruined based on these bogus conspiracy theories. And my friend in Cambridge [Malcolm Jarry] was interested in doing a video project inspired by the Bush administration. With “faith-based initiatives” and this idea that you’d get government sponsorship for these religious programs, so the question naturally comes up: What religions qualify? Bush was very much a sweetheart of the evangelicals, and “religious freedom” in their minds typically just means special privileges for them and nobody else. It took us to come in and exploit these open doors that the evangelicals had kicked open and thought that nobody else would walk through, and the funny thing is, they set the precedent, and now they don’t know how to stop us.
There’s a scene in the film where Greta Van Susteren, who is a Scientologist, is seen on Fox News openly mocking the Satanic Temple. It certainly seemed a bit hypocritical.
We see a lot of hypocrisy just from the standard Christian identifier who feels that our religious arguments are ridiculous, even in the context of supporting reproductive rights, and that kind of inadvertent hilarity. These are important issues that we take very seriously, but you can’t help but laugh at the hypocrisy—as what happened in Missouri, where we were arguing against abortion restrictions and litigated it, and the Thomas Moore Society, a theocratic organization religiously opposed to abortion, wrote an amicus brief for the court arguing that our claim that we could call for an exemption against abortion restrictions in the name of our religion was ridiculous because this is not a religious question but a scientific one, and they were saying that, because the fetus has unique DNA—they’re setting goalposts wherever they want trying to call it ending a human life. But the argument that this was not a religious argument and was scientific… it shows you how ludicrous the cultural war has become.
We currently have a president who feigns religiosity yet still receives massive support from evangelicals.
And they don’t care! What it does in the context of the Satanic Temple is, hopefully it makes people realize that all the questions they’re asking of the Satanic Temple—our authenticity, whether we hold to these deeply-held beliefs—are more salient points for our adversaries. At what point do you start asking, what does this have to do with your scriptural beliefs? Where in the Bible do you find scriptural support for the idea that abortion is a sin or a criminal offense or anything of the type?
When we talk about Donald “Two Corinthians” Trump and his feigning religiosity, this is a man who conducted an extramarital affair with Marla Maples while Ivana took their three children to church.
Bush was a true believer; Trump doesn’t even really try. But I think the evangelicals are happy with Pence, and happy that he’s assigning the appointees into the cabinet positions. Trump is too stupid to predict. The guy has no concept of his own limitations. The thing that makes me most comfortable with Trump is the fact that he has no vision; Pence really scares me. Pence has a clear, theocratic vision for the United States.
This is the point where people might judge he as “hysterical” or “fanatical,” but I think we are in a dire state of affairs not much different from Iran around 1979, and people just don’t realize how quickly things can take a turn, and our lives can completely be changed—how quickly our lifestyles can be restricted in ways we never could have imagined because the wrong government takes hold. That’s a very difficult thing to walk back from, and the federal judge appointees are really scaring me right now.
Bernie Sanders is likely to announce his presidential candidacy any minute now. Because he’s an atheist, is he the preferred candidate of the Satanic Temple?
As a matter of principle, we will not support specific religious candidates. You might say that sounds hypocritical given how deeply involved we are in politics, but we feel there’s a certain limitation here. We’re not trying to tell people who identify as Satanists that they also identify with one political party or another, but it would be really difficult for us to pretend, when we claim that our battle is against arbitrary authority and theocracy, that we could support the agenda of Trump, who ran on an authoritarian platform and has theocratic appointees who are working to overturn liberal democracy. At that point, we can’t stay silent when our own affirmative values are under such assault. But beyond that, we’re not comfortable saying we endorse one candidate over the other
Not even Bernie? You’ve got the first big atheist candidate in quite some time.
Oh, that’s great. I’m comfortable saying I’m happy with that aspect of it, for sure, but I think there are limits to what a religious organization should do when trying to appeal to people’s politics.
You did endorse Rick Scott in 2013—as a troll, of course.
We wouldn’t do that today. We wouldn’t play those games today. That was our first moment where we were trying to show people the hypocrisy of what the evangelicals were doing, but right now you won’t find us pulling the kind of stunt where we’ll endorse somebody to hurt their odds. We don’t want people to misunderstand where we’re coming from by endorsing some Tea Party evangelical, because people do take seriously now our positions on things and do look to us for direction on how to contextualize things, and that’s not something we take lightly.
I also think six years ago you wouldn’t remove a member for making a threat on Trump, which is in the documentary. I’m curious what the reasoning was behind that decision, to boot Jex from the Satanic Temple.
Don’t get me wrong, when we say that somebody was removed for threatening execution on the president, that’s not to say that anybody in our group would cry if Trump died from choking on a ham sandwich tomorrow. We wouldn’t say we “lost a great man” or anything like that—nobody feels that way. But because we’re publicly Satanists, we’re very vulnerable to accusations, and we’re also a grassroots movement that can only finance so much of our litigation, and so much of our legal defense. If there’s a concerted effort by the state for us to shut us down, it might be tough to keep up with legal bills.
Just to be clear, we felt that irresponsible commentary like that can imperil the entire organization. We are a nonviolent organization, and it’s imperative that people know this about us. We are not going to be planting bombs, shooting people, or advocating for any type of violence whatsoever, so we felt we really had no choice at that point. She and I were very close, and it was a painful experience, but I don’t think we did the wrong thing.
Where does the money come from? Who bankrolls the Satanic Temple?
In all this time, even I, in my pessimism, have been thinking that any moment now we’re going to get that old, rich benefactor that sees how much we’ve done, and how effective we’ve been with so low of a budget—because we really do things on no budget at all. We crowdfund for these things, have consistent small-scale donations coming in, and our merchandise sells well, but that’s it. It’s genuinely grassroots right now. But I gotta tell ya: I have no shame in saying that I hope that turns around, and some big benefactors step up and say, “I’m throwing in with these guys,” because I think they’ll see that we’ll put all those finances into the mission, even while we’re scraping by to pay our rent. That’s how much we believe.
You did get some money from Netflix, right? Due to the lawsuit over the unlawful use of the Baphomet statue in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina?
I can’t confirm or deny that. We do have the rights to the Baphomet monument, a design we made. But that’s really as much as I can say about it. All I can say is that, with settlements, that’s… how they work.
I know it was in jest, but Christian Bale did thank Satan at the Golden Globes after winning for his portrayal of Dick Cheney in Vice.
It was done in jest in a way to suggest that Satan helped inform him of the character of Dick Cheney, and we want to make clear that the autocratic tendencies that Dick Cheney displayed are really quite contrary to what we believe in. So while it’s amusing, it’s not entirely a victory for free thinking that Satan’s name was evoked that way.
You said we’re in “a dire state of affairs,” but is there anything today that gives you hope?
I’m optimistic about some things and pessimistic about others. I’m optimistic sometimes when I see how many people realize we’re in a dire state, and I get pessimistic sometimes when I see the ways they go about confronting that, which aren’t entirely helpful. Something that makes me pessimistic is the way that people fail to make a difference between protest and activism. Your protest should be supplementing some kind of activism. I am happy going on the record in saying that the Women’s March was futile, poorly thought, really didn’t achieve anything, and squandered a lot of energy. They did that because they made no specific demands. They weren’t promoting legislation, they didn’t get people marching to sign any petitions, and when you have someone as ignorant and arrogant as Trump in office, he didn’t even feel the need to comment on it, and in a day they’re gone, and he goes about business the same way as before. You need to have a real targeted plan for real tangible change.
And the Women’s March has fallen apart over the BDS issue, which as to your point, doesn’t seem all too related to the issues they’re fighting for.
I think that’s really a symptom of not understanding why your protest isn’t leading to tangible change. They don’t understand that their protest does not equal activism, so at a point they’re realized that all their efforts are futile, so they begin casting a broader net. That’s part of the reason why the Satanic Temple doesn’t make long-term alliances with other organizations. We’ve seen so many of them fold under the pressure of faddish politics and go off in different directions that seem to undermine the very missions that they first set out to confront.
I think the Satanic Temple has stayed very on target during some of this political faddism that has started as a response to the Trump administration. What makes me pessimistic now is the rejection of nonviolent protest—we see a lot more talk now that we need to punch our opposition—and a lot of talk related to free speech, and how we need to regulate offensive speech and target certain kinds of speech. It becomes a very difficult conversation because people feel, and they’ve expressed this to me sometimes to the point where it’s become a conspiracy theory now on the far left that the Satanic Temple is actually secretly alt-right, which is just as ridiculous as the conspiracy theories on the right that we’re funded by George Soros.
As the face of the organization, you’ve put your life on the line a lot. In Arkansas, you’re seen wearing a bulletproof vest. How serious are the threats you have to deal with?
You never know. Nobody shot me yet but it just takes one person to do it. Will they send an email first? I don’t really know. Maybe it will be one of these people who keeps sending me them in capital letters. But I’m kind of numb to it. My mindset now is, I know I have increased odds of getting shot when I do something like the rally in Arkansas, where a lot of people sent us messages that they were going to shoot me, and there were a lot of people around the perimeter with guns just milling about, because it’s an open-carry state. That was intense.
What’s next for the Satanic Temple?
There are a lot of challenges. One thing we should push for is the right for our membership to have Death with Dignity standards—whatever state they live in—given our belief in bodily autonomy. What we’re doing now is seeing what the disposition of the law is coming up, as these assaults on reproductive rights and religious liberty come to the fore during the Trump administration. How much damage is done? We might not know for a while. He could be out of office and the Supreme Court is still fucked.