"Hail Satan?" Review: A Blasphemous Ball Of A Documentary

Future opposition researchers will have a field day with anyone who writes about Penny Lane's documentary Hail Satan?. So I might as well lean into it and say –  here goes nothing – I was shocked to learn how much I agreed with the Satanic Temple. Not as a religion, to clarify, but as a political movement. Like probably far too many people, I reflexively scoffed and laughed off the antics of the Satanic Temple when seeing their name mentioned in a headline. But as an organization devoted to holding America's feet to the fire on honoring the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which maintains that the government is not to enact policies or laws that show favoritism towards a single religion, the group makes many a savvy maneuver.

Lane, a documentarian who finds her films in subjects and stories that seem too kooky to be true, revels in the presence of these contemporary Merry Pranksters and their press-garnering crusades against Christian supremacy. The film opens on an event that encapsulates the group's approach: a faux rally to honor then-Florida Governor Rick Scott's new bill to expand the purview of religious messaging and prayer allowed in schools. Lawmakers clearly designed the provision for the benefit of Christians, but the Satanic Temple, as a "religion" itself, exploits the bill as a chance to advertise its own tenets. In doing so, they shed light on the essential hypocrisy motivating so much of the politics surrounding "religious freedom," which is that it only applies to one religion: their own.

Much of Hail Satan? follows the group's recent counter-crusade against the Religious Right's charge to install Ten Commandments statues outside of state legislative offices, including a particularly galling instance where the production PureFlix of God's Not Dead fame assists in the restoration of one such figure. Yet Lane also zooms back outside of the now and puts both sides in historical context. Contrary to their self-perpetuated mythology that overt Christian symbolism has long been a part of the American landscape, the film shows how much of this visible iconography arose in direct response to the threats of the Cold War. This projection of the United States as a paradigm of virtue provided a convenient foil against Russia. Not to be outdone, the Satanic Temple also arose out of a reactionary impulse against the "Satanic Panic" of the '80s and '90s, a movement that produced a convenient scapegoat in devil-worshipping teens to excise their anxieties about cultural liberalism and globalism.

What the Satanic Temple offers its members, as the documentary shows, is a form of affirmative atheism. Rather than defining their beliefs by what they are not, the Temple grants its members an ironic, countercultural totem behind which they can rally. The group allows them the chance to ascribe a higher calling to their ideals of pluralism, equality and justice. Without such a deity or sacred figure to center one's worldview, it becomes difficult to arrive at a conclusion other than the one Nietzsche reached (and twentieth century fascists took all too literally): life is will to power.

The sociologist in me wished Lane were more willing to interrogate the premises on which the Satanic Temple is based, specifically in regard to how it addresses concerns about grand cosmic matters to which religion often speaks (or doesn't). But Lane is not out to make an academic study of the group, and it would be unfair to judge it as such. Hail Satan? serves as a cheeky investigation of political provocateurs, and looking at them more in the vein of the Yes Men rather than the incanting dancers at the end of The Witch leads to a more rewarding experience. For those who might be inclined to agree with the Satanic Temple's guiding tenets – which is probably more people than you realize – there is real joy in watching them troll misguided lawmakers and zealous faith-based outside actors. The flashes of inspired mischief, often led by Temple founder Lucien Graves, more than make up for some of the less exciting stretches where Lane dwells on internal divisions within the religion.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10