May 2, 2014

Satanists are making Oklahoma safe for the Ten Commandments

Satanists are not going to get a monument at Oklahoma's state capitol.

Though they've raised more than enough funds for the proposed statue, and the Baphomet-with-children sculpture is nearly complete and ready to be cast in bronze, it's not going to get approved by the state.

Satanic Temple's proposed monument in progress. Photo by Jonathan Smith.
Appeals to the federal court will undoubtably be filed but just as undoubtably they will be turned down. The Supreme Court ruled on a similar case in 2009. There are no new legal issues here, and this case is different than the case of the atheist monument in Starke, Florida, in legally important ways. It doesn't seem that the Satanists have much room to maneuver in the courts.

That might not matter to the Satanic Temple, the group behind the monument proposal. Though they are interested in getting their monument up in Oklahoma, the real point of the statue was to make a point. The point was that religious monuments don't belong on public property, because the government is constitutionally prohibited from respecting an establishment of religion.

Lucian Greaves, leader of the Satanic Temple, has been clear about the group's goals and tactics.

"We play upon people's irrational fears in a way that hopefully causes them to reevaluate what they think they know," he said in one interview. "I believe that where reason fails to persuade, satire and mockery prevail."

The question, really, is whether the Satanists will successfully make their point. There is an argument to be made that Satanists are inadvertently making the opposite case than the one they intend.

The proposed monument can be seen as an argument that religious statues don't signify religious establishment.

Mockery and satire can be tricky rhetorical tools.

This type of argument is what the Satanic Temple does, though. Specifically, they go after Christian privilege, especially legal privilege. As Greaves has said, talking about the founding of the New York-based group,
The idea was that Satanists, asserting their rights and privileges where religious agendas have been successful in imposing themselves upon public affairs, could serve as a poignant reminder that such privileges are for everybody, and can be used to serve an agenda beyond the current narrow understanding of what 'the' religious agenda is. So at the inception, the political message was primary, though it was understood that there are, in fact, self-identified Satanists who live productive lives within the boundaries of the law, and that they do deserve just as much consideration as any other religious group.
The application to erect a statue honoring Satan on the Oklahoma capitol grounds fits this mode of activism exactly. The idea of the statue is supposed to unmask the argument that a religious statue at a state capitol is not an endorsement of a religious establishment. It's ridiculing the idea that religious monuments don't convey religious messages, that they don't communicate respect for an establishment. The mockery makes the argument that a statue at the state house -- whether it's of Satan or of the Ten Commandments -- cannot be religiously neutral.

When people see it, they see government identifying with a religion.

This is especially true when people who disagree with the represented religion see it represented in that space, in that way. This is the argument that the American Civil Liberties Union is making in the courts as it attempts to get Oklahoma's current religious monument removed. In the court papers suing the state over the statue of the Ten Commandments, the ACLU argues that the monument disenfranchises citizens who do not share the represented beliefs. Atheists citizens are in effect coerced into supporting the Ten Commandments, since it was approved by their state representatives. They are, at the same time, reduced to second class citizens, since the monument communicates to them that the state identifies with the religious beliefs of the monument.

The Satanists proposed their statue in support of the ACLU's case, a kind of public stunt to supplement the legal argument. Where the ACLU is saying there should be no religious monuments on the government ground, the Satanists are hoping their statue will move people to that same position.

Oklahoma argues, on the other hand, that monument to the Ten Commandments at the capitol not evidence that the state government endorses the Ten Commandments. Rather, it's historical.

The bill authorizing the monument was very specific about the meaning of the monument:
the Ten Commandments represent a philosophy of government held by many of the founders of this nation and by many Oklahomans and other Americans today . . . in order that they may understand and appreciate the basic principles of the American system of government, the people of the United States and of the State of Oklahoma need to identify the Ten Commandments, one of many sources, as influencing the development of what has become modern law.
The bill further clarified that "The placement of this monument shall not be construed to mean that the State of Oklahoma favors any particular religion or denomination thereof over others."

In actual practice, it's not that simple to proscribe how a work of art is construed. One can't really legislate how people will understand a statue.

Even legally, this is a tricky question. There's a very active debate around the question of monuments' communication. Some have argued, for example, that a religious monument communicates respect for an establishment of religion when a reasonable observer, seeing the monument in its setting, thinks that's what it communicates.

But does it matter if that observer doesn't know all the relevant facts? What if the observer is at a distance, and doesn't stop to read the plaque that explains the intended purpose and meaning of the monument, e.g., that it was erected by private citizens? What if the observer only sees the one monument, and doesn't note that it's in a park where there are many monuments? Some have argued that the meaning of a monument ought to be measured by what it means to an informed observer. This was one of the arguments in the Texas Ten Commandments case that Ted Cruz successfully argued before the Supreme Court. The reasonable-observer standard doesn't fully take context into account, even though context matters a lot to what a statue communicates.

Part of the relevant context, for example, is whether or not one assumes that the state government, a notable portion of the population, or of their legislative representatives are interested in establishing a religion.

Think about the Satanist's monument. If one went to the Oklahoma statehouse, and found there a statue of Baphoment with children, would one assume that the state had established Satanism as its religion?

That seems unlikely. At most, it would seem, a reasonable observer would wonder if maybe there were lots of Satanists there, or if there was a history of Satanism in the state, or some other reason for the statue. Maybe the reasonable thing to do would be to ask, "why is there a Satanist statue at the capitol?" It would seem unreasonable, though, for the observer to see the proposed statue, if it were actually erected, and think, "Oklahoma has endorsed Satanism." That would be jumping to conclusions. It would seem unreasonable to see the statue and then feel disenfranchised, like the representatives were only going to hear your concerns if you were a Satanist.

By itself, the statue wouldn't communicate all that.

But then isn't the same also true for a Ten Commandments monument?

It seems clear that some non-religious Oklahomans feel alienated from their government. The statue surely reminds that minority that they're a minority. That, however, would seem to be more a product of the context than of the monument alone. Sine another religious monument, of another religion, would not communicate "establishment," it would seem that it's not monuments that communicate establishment. What matters is not the statue, but the specific cultural context where the statue is identified with the religion of the overwhelming majority of citizens, many of whom are concerned that certain majority privileges are being taken away. The statue can be taken as a sign that the minority is not welcome by the government only when that minority daily experiences itself as unwelcome.

But that's not the statues' fault, is it?

Greaves and his group aren't going to get their monument up at the court house. They're trying to make a point, though, about pluralism and the separation of church and state. The proposed Satanist statue is a prank, intended to provoke people into opposing religious statues in public space. But it seems like it might actually illustrate an opposite point that religious statues don't go that far it communicating a state's endorsement of religion.

If the statue were to be put up, would it be seen as an establishment of Satanism by the reasonable person passing by? Or would it seem, rather, just curious?