The New Satanic Panic

The Midwest suddenly finds itself a hellish hotbed of Satanism—which is a good thing. 

Image Credit: Liv Klassen

Growing up in an overly religious Catholic household, Tim Schmidt knows what it’s like to fear the devil. He also knows what it’s like to be freed by him. 

The devil, Satan, Beezelebub, Lucifer, the father of lies, the beast, the Evil One—whatever you call him, he was always a looming presence over Schmidt. He was a cudgel used to remind Schmitt to always be good, to follow the rules, or the devil will getcha.  

And in the ‘80s, when Schmitt was growing up, the devil was everywhere. It was the era of the Satanic Panic. Conspiracies hung in the air. Cults were supposedly abusing children, engaging in ritual sacrifice. Metal bands like Slayer, Iron Maiden, and Motley Crue were blamed for corrupting the youth of America. And the Church of Satan, led by the creepy Anton LaVey, was somehow pushing people toward the darkness. Politicians ranted about how the devil was among us. The media kept frightened parents up to date about any satanic activity in the area. It wasn’t until a decade later that Schmidt revisited the religion, reading up on The Satanic Temple, unlearning everything that was projected onto him. 

“The understanding that it was a non-theistic religion really hit home to me,” Schmidt says.  “That it was based on science and freewill and bodily autonomy.”

It’s that last bit that surprises most people. Satan, and subsequently Satanism, is tied to Chrisitanity, the fight between good and evil, God and the devil. But really, the religion as preached by the Satanic Temple—which is distinctly different from LaVey’s Church of Satan—isn’t anything like that. It’s about compassion, equality, and personal responsibility. Its seven guiding principles are “designed to inspire nobility in action and thought,” according to the group’s website. That’s miles away from sacrificing goats. 

In recent years, members of the Satanic Temple have been putting those principles into action, often in public ways. They’ve protested anti-abortion legislation. They’ve posted billboards against school-sanctioned abuse. They’ve fought for first amendment rights. They’ve launched afterschool programs to protest the inclusion of Christianity in public schools. And they’ve fought to be included among other religious displays in public spaces.

It was one of those displays that put Satanism back in the spotlight recently. Last winter, a Satanic altar placed in the lobby of the Iowa State Capital was destroyed. According to NBC News, the altar was placed there in accordance with the application requirements for the display. The altar, which depicted a winged creature with a goat’s head named Baphomet, was damaged beyond repair by Michael Cassidy, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Mississippi’s legislature. He appeared on Fox News and called his actions “Christian civil disobedience.” Polk County, Iowa, prosecutors have charged Cassidy with a hate crime. 

Not to be outdone, in March right-leaning Iowa politicians pushed bills to stop Satanic altars and displays on state property, as well as ritualistic sacrifice of animals and humans. The basis for the bill was that Satanism isn’t a real religion because they don’t worship a God or deity. 

According to Joseph Laycock, Associate Professor of religious studies at Texas State University, that’s not exactly right. He has written two books about the religion, Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion and Satanism (Elements in New Religious Movements), both of which focus on the rise and persecution of the religion. He says their idea of Satan comes from Romantic poets, a poetic movement that occurred in the late 18th century that was used to rebel against the conventional rules of the time. These poets view him as a rebel, which explains the Satanic Temple’s rebellious nature.

“A misconception is that this is all a big joke or that they’re just trolls,’” Laycock says. “I don’t think that’s true. Some of their leadership have dedicated their entire lives and personal safety for this. An arsonist attempted to burn down their headquarters while people were sleeping inside. I don’t think anyone would make these kinds of sacrifices for a big joke.”

So, if Satanists don’t actually believe in the devil or a ‘Satan,’ can they be called a religion? Politicians say no but most academics agree that actually, they can.

“The definition of religion gets really complicated,” says Brad Crowell, a religious studies professor at Drake University. “But we tend to look at elements. If they believe in some form of supernatural power, some way of connecting with each other—to be able to say that these people gather in some way—and probably a code of ethics that tries to distinguish them. That’s why for the most part government entities don’t want to define it.”

These politicians have made it their mission to put an end to the “Satanic craze”—and it’s affecting everybody. 

“In my opinion, the legislative push is a direct response to the Iowa attack,” says Minister Adam of the Satanic Temple of Illinois. “This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an altar put up. Illinois has had plenty put up for the holidays. But this is the first time we’ve seen one destroyed, and following the destruction, a national conversation was had by some political figures questioning if we were a religion or not.” 

In fear of the vitriol against Satanists, Minister Adam’s congregation had to amp up security measures for their “Meet a Satanist” community event, in which a Satanist goes to sit down and chat about misconceptions with the general public. 

But despite what these Christian politicians might tell you, Satanism isn’t about sacrificing your children to the devil himself. It’s about rebellion.

“When [Satanists] are inspired by Satan to challenge arbitrary authority, it’s a bit like how someone might be inspired by Batman to study hard and take some karate classes. Something can be fictional and still represent your values,” Laycock says. 

Perhaps this is why we’ve continuously seen them show up for recent “controversial” protests—abortion-rights, pro-LGBTQ+, among many others. In recent years, Iowa has gained a reputation for consistently pushing anti-LGBTQ+ bills and hateful rhetoric against the community. In protest, we’ve seen communities like One Iowa, a queer advocacy group, rally against these bills—and Satanists have continuously pledged their support for the community. 

Is this purely in the spirit of rebellion? Some may argue that, but some of the core beliefs described in the Temple’s Seven Fundamental Tenets are rooted in showing up for these marginalized groups. The first two seem to go hand in hand with this: “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason,” and “The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.” Satanists are simply executing their core beliefs when protesting. 

“I think most varieties of Satanists have long supported the LGBTQ+ community,” Laycock says. “They see conservative Christianity trying to tell people what they can and can’t do in the bedroom and they present Satanism as an alternative religion that offers people the freedom to be themselves.” 

Especially in the Midwest, where conservative Christianity runs deep, it makes sense to see Satanists intrinsically tied with the LGBTQ+ community and marginalized groups. Laycock says it’s often the very places that oppose Satanism that drive people to become Satanists. Plus, Satanists are very welcoming. 

“There’s space for everyone to sort of have their own beliefs,” Schmidt says. 

Because Satan doesn’t care what you believe. Everyone is welcome in hell.


  • Victoria Soliz

    As one of the Senior Editors for Urban Plains, I pull from my wide range of experience. From Allrecipes’ recent Editorial Apprentice, YourTango’s Editorial Intern, and my many years of work with Drake Magazine, I’m passionate about the way our words make us feel! I love telling stories. A fun fact about me is that I hope to one day blend my love of storytelling and my love for horror into one as a career one day.

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