Black Magic

Why American Christians Love Satan

Just like their historical forbears, American believers like to blame bad things on the devil. But what if he’s just a convenient way to hide from the truth?

Dave Martin/AP

In America, much like God, Satan works in mysterious ways. Just how mysterious depends on who you talk to.

For instance, a good number of Christians became convinced that Satan made an appearance at last month’s Grammy Awards. While Christians detecting Satan’s presence at large music gatherings is hardly novel, the fact that Satan showed up right smack in the middle of a performance by Katy Perry and Juicy J. caused this particular sighting to be deemed more buzzworthy than most. Some evangelicals even speculated about whether or not Perry, while singing “Dark Horse,” had enacted an ancient satanic ritual, one that had actually summoned the Prince of Darkness to join her on the Grammy stage.

So, did Perry & Co. really usher in forces of demonic destruction? Nobody knows for certain. The presence of Satan is difficult to confirm. Besides, among most Satan-fearing Christians, things like confirmation and proof are overrated.

That said, not only did Perry’s alleged invite to Satan cause a gnashing of tweets, but the spectacle was demonic enough to send one well-known Christian artist in attendance darting for the exit, tweeting to her fan base as she bolted. One religious broadcaster called the performance satanic and then blamed the Beatles. Jesus-loving conspiracy theorist, Mark Dice, called Perry a “Babylonian bimbo” and then went on to declare her a “slithering servant of Satan.”

In 2013, a poll conducted by YouGov found that nearly 60 percent of Americans believe in a literal Devil. It’s no surprise that, of those surveyed, believing in Satan was most popular among those who identified as Protestant, Catholic, or Christian. Eighty-six percent of the participants who identified as the latter answered “yes” to believing in Satan. But much like belief in God is weaved throughout our country’s history, so to is our national history intertwined with a strong belief in the Devil.

In 1638, according to John Winthrop, mysterious ways meant that the Prince of Darkness caused several “rebellious” Puritan women to give birth to stillborn monsters, babies Winthrop described in his diary as having “horns, hard and sharp,” a “back full of sharp pricks and scales” and “on each foot three claws, like a young fowl.”

To Jonathan Edwards, the man that many call America’s greatest theologian, Lucifer was an almighty “counterfeit,” one who could mimic even the “graces of the Spirit of God” with miraculous precision. A mouthful, even for a Calvinist.

Billy Sunday, America’s favorite preacher in the early 1900s, used Satan as a comedic device. Sunday’s most famous sermon—a fundamentalist ditty called “Fighting the Devil” —was an almighty one-two punch of hardcore preaching and aw-shucks sensibilities. Nonetheless, Sunday’s message not only convinced thousands of people to become very afraid of the devil; the action-packed boxing match with Satan that Sunday performed in the middle of that sermon also entertained them, often concluding to thunderous applause.

In the 1950s, as popularized by a wide range of American preachers and evangelists, Satan became the mastermind of popular culture, especially music. Not only was the Great Tempter deceitful, dangerous, and hoping to help us reserve our spots in hell, the devil was also extraordinarily creative. And quite connected, too. From Elvis to the Beatles to even Pat Boone, according to one preacher or another, Satan was using most popular singers and musicians to coax us into sexual promiscuity, alcoholism, recreational drug use, and dancing. In the late 1970s, a Louisiana preacher named Jacob Aranza proclaimed that Satan had began hiding devilish messages on some of Rock & Roll’s most popular albums. According to Aranza, the subconsciouses of America’s youth were being controlled—or at best negatively affected—by short Satan-laced messages that bands were “backwards masking” into their songs. For instance, Aranza believed that Satan had hidden the message “Satan move in our voices” in the song “Snowblind” by Styxx.

But who is Satan among today’s American Christians? W. Scott Poole, a professor of history at the College of Charleston and author of Satan in America: The Devil We Know, told me, “In the United States over the last forty to fifty years, a composite image of Satan has emerged that borrows from both popular culture and theological sources.” Most of America’s Christians, according to Poole, don’t or can’t “separate what they know from the movies from what they know from various ecclesiastical and theological traditions.”

Poole is right: today’s Christians do seem to have a wide and varied understanding of who Satan is and what role he plays in people’s lives. According to today’s believers, Satan can be anything from an evil spirit who gets called up from hell by Katy Perry to one that dwells in the heart of President Obama to one that is warring against men via feminism to one who possesses the bodies of Beyonce, Oprah, Denzel Washington, and Nicki Minaj to one that leads American media in revolt against Russian policies. Faith-based prophet Bob Larson made a mighty good living casting out Satan and demons from the bodies of the possessed—sometimes via Skype. Even John Piper, one of Reformed theology’s chief American cheerleaders, seems to possess an entire theology about Satan, a spiritual thinking that makes Satan not only a scholar of the Bible but positions the Evil One as basically God’s fall guy, the force that gets bad things done.

“Our culture turns to [Satan] for language of evil because he’s much more fun than real-world social problems,” Poole writes. Rather than becoming weighted down by real issues, most Christians would rather “read about Lucifer in all his lurid majesty instead.”

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If that’s true, then what, pray tell, are we supposed to do with Latoya Ammons’s encounter with Satan, a “true story” that sounds more like something I’ve watched on the CW than what I’ve read in the Bible? The way Latoya tells it, shortly after she and her family moved into a rental home in Gary, Indiana, Satan started harassing them, scaring them with ghostly shadows, unexplained noises, muddy footprints, and horseflies. But then, she says that Satan began inhabiting her children's bodies, causing them to turn uncharacteristically mean and violent, giving them seizures, stomach aches, bruises, and causing them to bleed from their noses, ears, and gums. On a couple of occasions, Satan took full control of her kids’s beings, levitating one child above her bed during a birthday party and causing another to walk backwards up the side of an emergency room wall and perform a backflip overtop of his grandmother’s head. “[Satan] picked up my oldest boy and threw him off the porch,” Latoya said, “[and] flipped him over…”

And that's just the beginning of Latoya’s battle with the Devil. Her encounter with Satan has not only accumulated nearly 800 pages of official documentation—a report that includes testimonies from medics, police officers, social workers, and priests—but she also lost custody of her children for several months.

Despite all the supernatural horror in Latoya’s story, the part that is perhaps the most revealing about American Christianity’s relationship with Satan came when she explained her reason for going public with her unbelievable narrative: “I want this message to go out to non-believers because if you have witnessed the demon you have to know there is a Higher Power…”

Is that the true lure of Satan, the real reason that so many of America’s Christians are seemingly in love with “seeing” and “encountering” Satan? Sure, the average Christian’s encounter with Lucifer is child’s play compared to horseflies and levitating kids. Still, the human need to prove our way of life might explain why so many Christians are a bit Satan-happy, seemingly ready to turn any event that we deem evil, frustrating, overwhelming, or contrary to our moral codes into credentials of the Unholy One. For many of us, finding the devil in the details of our everyday lives is to offer proof, to others and perhaps even ourselves, that God and Jesus are real and to bring greater weight and relevance to the practices of church and ministry.

Do we Christians need Satan? Can our God and faith exist without demons and devils? According to Poole, “there have been a number of Christian thinkers (Reinhold Niebuhr most prominently in American thought) who have not only not needed the idea of the demonic, but that actually find it as a kind of shell game, a very gothic and theatrical way to talk (or not talk) about the problem of evil.”

But for many of us, whether we would admit it or not, Satan is as important to our American Christianity as is God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. Is there any other group of people in America more fascinated and intoxicated with Satan than those of us who believe in Satan, fear Satan, proclaim Satan, speak for Satan, and bring Satan the most publicity?

For John Winthrop, Satan became little more than a name that he dropped whenever somebody dared to disagree with his perspectives about God, morality, and the way forward. Living constantly in fear of change, Winthrop often wrote in his journal statements like “the devil would never cease to disturb our peace.” As much as he feared Satan, he also needed Satan. Because as much as he believed that Satan wanted to disrupt his peace, he also used Satan to vilify his enemies or those he deemed enemies to bring himself peace of mind.

Today, many of us Christians do the same. Satan is an easy go-to device for making villains out of people with whom we disagree. Satan is a name we drop when we are afraid of change. Satan is a big scary demon that we see when our logic fails to explain what’s in front of us. Satan is an excuse we use when we aren’t willing to face our own demons.