Interview with Lucien Greaves

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TWH – The Satanic Temple (TST) since its founding in 2013 has been on the front lines of fighting for religious freedom, women’s reproductive rights, debunking pseudo-science, and fighting for sexual equality. TST is not a Pagan organization and does not pretend to be.

Their mission clearly offers insights into who they are “The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will.”

Some would argue that Satanism represents a fourth branch of Abrahamic religious thought. But that statement does not describe the TST either. They are non-theistic. The TST’s work centers on the defense of secularism and their literary canon shows an alignment with Enlightenment principles with Satan as a metaphorical rebel against oppression.

Lucien Greaves. Credit : Jason Caz [Courtesy]

The TST however, is not universally welcomed in Pagan communities. some have argued that the TST’s demonstrations has resulted in new hazards to Pagans and polytheists. Their use of the Baphomet statue and its presence in shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina with a connection to Witches and Wicca have fostered some public confusion about who is who, especially in conservative religious communities.

Indeed, the TST is not championing Pagan rights. Nevertheless, their work aligns with many Pagan and polytheist worldviews about equality, personal sovereignty and personal responsibility.  Its work against patriarchal structures, its reproach of religious oppression and defense of  the First Amendment in the US Constitution is adjacent to the work of many Pagans and polytheists.

We caught up with Lucien Greaves, co-founder of TST to ask him about the TST and the recent changes it has experienced.

TWH: Welcome to The Wild Hunt, Lucien.  Since the founding of TST you said publicly that TST would not seek tax-exempt status, but after the election in 2017, TST reversed its position on that. Can you explain TST’s original stance and the reasoning behind not seeking tax-exempt status?

Greaves: For one thing, at our inception, we imagined that the issue of whether or not we were a “real” religion in the eyes of our opposition would have little to no impact upon our legal claims for equal access and Religious Freedom. This was not an assumption made from mere naiveté, rather the courts have been fairly consistent, historically, in refraining from adjudging the authenticity of an alleged “deeply-held belief,” and they have been very circumspect as well in trying to impose any hard definitions of what legitimizes a religious claim.

With Burwell v Hobby Lobby, in which a corporation was making a claim for religious exemption against health care standards that required coverage for contraceptive options, the Supreme Court never considered the question of how it was that a corporation operating as a public accommodation could even claim to hold a religion, or whether their aversion to contraceptives even had credible doctrinal support within that religion itself. Religious claims, it seemed, were taken at face value. That generous attitude toward religious claims disappeared when The Satanic Temple would file suit, and we found that the same legal groups that fight hardest for the inclusion of religious expression in the Public Square were openly dedicated to ensuring that The Satanic Temple not become beneficiaries of their campaigns on the grounds that they saw fit to define us out of the protected class of “religion.”

In fact, the entire defense in Arkansas against the religious discrimination suit we filed in response to their rejecting our Baphomet monument while accepting the private donation of a 10 Commandments monument on public grounds was built upon the idea that we were merely “satiric,” and therefore “beneath the dignity of the Court.” The IRS is the only Federal agency that has any type of test to determine the legitimacy of a religious organization. Having passed that test, we no longer have to fight that battle case-by-case in the courts.

TWH: Besides the 2017 election, were there any other concerns that prompted the shift to apply for tax-exempt status?

Greaves: The theocratic coup in the United States has been in motion for generations, and its encroachment into politics is not unique to the Trump administration, though the Trump administration has proven very openly allied with theocrats. Mike Pence is an openly superstitious medieval-minded gynephobic theocrat with designs for bringing us back to a brutal dark age of ignorance. Many of the Trump administration’s cabinet picks are no better.

When we saw that our opposition was going to challenge our religious legitimacy in court, and we also began to see that the courts themselves were going to take such challenges seriously, even in the face of all the recent precedent that gives religious liberty claims a carte blanche, we began to rethink our position on IRS tax exemption.

However, it wasn’t until Trump announced that he was going to kill the Johnson Amendment that we decided we could no longer justify allowing ourselves to be more disadvantaged than we already are in this asymmetric Culture War. That was when we actually decided to apply.

TWH: How do you think being recognized as a non-profit, faith-based organization will help TST in its future projects?

Greaves: Somewhat embarrassingly, I am woefully ignorant regarding the full ramifications and potential benefits of this new IRS status held by The Satanic Temple. I felt a real urgency to apply for our religious recognition when Trump announced he was targeting the Johnson Amendment, rendering the IRS status all benefit and no loss — entirely removing our ability to claim political rights unavailable to tax-exempt churches — but I was also concerned when he expressed an interest in revoking the IRS recognition of the Church of Scientology.

It made us feel that we were potentially close to a situation in which the administration would seek to narrow the definition of Religion in a manner that would benefit their theocratic base. Such a narrowing of definition would, no doubt, be contestable as unconstitutional, but we believed our position would be stronger if such attempts to define us out of the religious class came following our recognition as a religion, rather than before it. In fact, had religion been redefined to exclude The Satanic Temple before we sought and obtained religious recognition, we might not have legal standing to contest the change in standards at all.

[Courtesy Magnolia Pictures]

TWH: The documentary Hail Satan? was screened at Sundance earlier this year and received favorable reviews. What factors prompted TST to agree to being the subject of a documentary?

Greaves: We had been approached many times throughout the years by people working with various production companies pitching documentaries, reality series, and other potentially high-profile media projects. Few people recognize how discerning we have been, and just how many offers we have turned down. I simply do not subscribe to the notion that all press is good press. In fact, sometimes good press — meaning press that is willing to look at The Satanic Temple in a positive light — can even be bad press if it fails to accurately represent who we are, what is important to us, what we do, and why we do it.

Oftentimes documentarians would approach us enthusiastically offering to “humanize” us to a broader audience. We weren’t interested in that. We are not interested in being normal or being normalized. We are an outsider movement, and we are not here to make the general population more comfortable by appeals to banality.

Many of the pitches were far more insulting than that — requests to explore the everyday lives of Satanists in a reality TV-style format. The Satanic Temple has always been very careful to only seek media when there are specific issues that demand public attention. We do not accept media merely for the purposes of aggrandizement, and we have a general prohibition against leveraging The Satanic Temple as a vehicle for personal exposure.

So when Penny approached with the idea of doing a documentary, I tried to persuade her to construct a documentary that would primarily focus on our Grey Faction campaign, which I think is our most publicly under-discussed campaign.

However, it was her narrative to explore and construct, I could only set certain limitations: we would not do re-enactments, we would not do biographical vignettes. It needed to be about The Satanic Temple, not about me or anybody else. Most filmmakers will not accept such “limitations” because it is a lot more work and it requires actually learning something along the way, rather than merely fabricating interpersonal controversies. Penny was the first filmmaker who really seemed to understand who we are and what is important to us upon approaching us, and that is why she is the first filmmaker amongst an army of them with whom we agreed to work.

TWH: What was the filming, production, and screening process like?

Greaves: It can be very difficult, even as a subject. It required constant planning and communication. Things can happen really fast within The Satanic Temple, and we have chapters throughout the world that are engaging in consequential activities. I would have weekly meetings with the director and producer. Now that those meetings are over, however, I have come to miss them. They are both incredible people, and I grew to value discussing internal business with interested outside parties as a way of articulating current events, helping me to mentally digest, decompress, and contextualize all that was happening around me as we continued to expand at such an alarming rate of membership. I miss having that.

TWH: What, if any, impact has the documentary had for TST?

Greaves: Mostly, and so far, the response has been really good, and the impact has been positive. Many more people are aware of who we are, and they have a clearer idea of what we do and why. With sudden growth, however, there are always some drawbacks, and chapters are starting to see an influx of people who saw the film, developed some rigid ideas of what they think The Satanic Temple is, can, or should be, and they aren’t always well apprised of our actual interests and/or limits.

TWH: Moving forward, what do you see as the vision for TST?

Greaves: My own primary concern is that the organization can be self-sustaining to the point that if I get shot, hit by bus, or decide to finally go entirely recluse, as is my inclination, The Satanic Temple can carry on seamlessly without a difficult transition, and I think we are pretty much there. Our National Council is amazing, and the amount of work these volunteers have put in for so little reward — in fact, they have all attracted more negative returns, in every possible way, rather than positive — is outright heroic. We are establishing a religious identity and community that will long outlive the current Culture War, whatever the result of the Culture War might be.

TWH: How has TST evolved from when it originally began?

Greaves: It is a bit annoying to see all these reviews of ‘Hail Satan?’ that summarize The Satanic Temple as having evolved from a joke into an authentic religion almost entirely against the will and expectations of those of us who founded it.

The film was very clear in showing that while we were engaging in prankster activities at the outset, without the expectation that we would expand into an international movement, I myself clearly identified with Satanism long before that, and we did not invent our philosophy merely to justify our antics. That seems to be the hardest part for the general public to grasp, and some people are even disappointed to learn that we genuinely identify with nontheistic Satanism, and it isn’t just some clever legalistic ploy.

The narrative that describes our evolution from “mere prank” to authentic religious movement creates a lot of misunderstanding. If anything, our evolution came in resolving to put forth a completely forthright and clear message, not muddying our actual beliefs in an effort to play Devil’s Advocate.

For example, you would never find us endorsing an asshole like Rick Scott again, as we did in the beginning to present him with an unintended consequence following his passage of a Religious Liberty bill clearly meant to benefit his Christian base alone. We have resolved to be completely clear regarding what we actually stand for and what we stand against.

TWH: Any new projects or planned actions on the horizon that you would like to share with our readership?

Greaves: Keep watching. We have a lot of things on the way.

TWH: If there was one thing you want people to understand about TST, what would it be?

Greaves: We are a religious group that engages in activism when public policy is seen to inhibit our practice or otherwise diminish our ability for equal civic engagement. We are not an activist group waving the banner of religion as an afterthought. We are Satanists first.

TWH: Lucien Greaves, thank you for taking time to talk with us.