The erection of and subsequent destruction of the “Satanic” Temple of Iowa’s display in the state capitol presents culture-warring Christians with a learning opportunity if we’re willing to be honest with ourselves. Much like every other flash-in-the-pan, controversy-feeding, ungodly offense turned viral cultural “event,” this incident caused a paparazzi-like rush to keyboards to compete for who could signal the most devotion to Christ in their celebration of (as one voice put it) “decapitating Satan.”
You’ll notice I’m putting “Satan” in quotes because the Satanic Temple doesn’t actually believe in the existence of Satan. They use Satan as a kind of mascot to represent their particular brand of humanism.
Good brothers are disagreeing about the moral and ethical particulars of what happened (almost as if the “Satan” stunt was designed to drive us even further apart), but we can confidently say both that the display was not actually about the real Satan (Isaiah 14:13-14, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Revelation 20:3) and that Iowa lawmakers should never have gullibly approved of its display.
In our free speech legal tradition, citizens are not discriminated against by not having open access to put up displays in a government building, nor are their rights violated by seeing a display that they disagree with or find offensive, even in a government building. Speech is not violence. The “Satanic” Temple’s identity as a religion is itself a lie, and their adoption of Satan (who is real and has a defined moral identity) is itself a promotion of lawlessness and evil. Our country does not recognize a right to lie nor a right to openly advocate for lawlessness, and Iowa lawmakers should have rejected the group’s childish display as the silly stunt that it was.
As believers, we know that idols and idolatrous displays (much like the food sacrificed to them) have no power (Isaiah 44:18). They cannot harm us. In this case, the goofy display of Baphomet put up by the “Satan” group merely joined the chorus of offensive expressions against God that believers are subjected to daily. It is proper that we are offended when we hear or see expression offensive to God, yet in this case we should also be offended by the lack of courage and/or competence of lawmakers who fail to understand that expression cannot be disconnected from meaning.
Much like we are morally obligated to the objectivity of language by insisting (for example) that “male” and “female” correspond to biological reality, a group that identifies with “Satan” should bear the identity of all that Satan implies. They do not get to redefine it, and they don’t get to troll everyone with Satanic idols and then claim “Why you mad, Bro?” non-theism as soon as everyone reacts as if they are truly overtly worshipping Satan. It was a lie, and Iowa lawmakers were stupid for going along with it.
Yet the reaction to the display was also a stunt (I say this as someone who has done a few). The deed was done by Michael Cassidy, a would-be Mississippi politician and Navy veteran who recently decided to brand himself as an “America first” candidate in a failed 2022 US congressional bid that brought to light a host of bizarre and decidedly un-conservative political positions. Now running for a Mississippi house seat, Cassidy saw the “Satanic” Temple display along with the rest of the internet and decided to “awaken Christians to the anti-Christian acts promoted by our government” (his words) by traveling 800 miles to “behead” a silly, powerless display that would have been virtually non-existent apart from its utility to online purveyors of outrage who to this moment remain content to let their audiences believe the display was actually about worshipping Satan rather than trolling Christians.
Incidents like this are far more useful to the enemies of Christ than to his people. We were already outraged at the display and at the lawmakers who allowed it. While less consequential, a conservative Christian destroying property to “awaken Christians to government promotion of anti-Christian acts” (despite the categorical difference between allowing expression and endorsing it) is judicially identical to tearing down a statue of Mary outside a Catholic church or spraypainting “Christ is Lord” on the side of a Mosque. It gives fuel to the enemies of Christ by granting undue influence to those seeking to marginalize the Gospel as a message that needs violence and censorship to advance.
I’ve already heard the “this is why we lose” and “at least someone is doing something” cries from good brothers who pragmatically ignored Oliver Anthony’s thinly-veiled everyman socialism and would likely never literally smash a false idol if it wasn’t low-hanging “Satan” fruit and/or they weren’t running for office. When we see false worship and deception, we decry it, we mock it, and we rebuke the political leaders who fall for it. We don’t adopt the left’s unbiblical, Critical Theory notion that words are violence by responding to powerless, mute idols with violence of our own.