The Satanic Temple of Illinois won the right to put on a holiday display in state capitol. Members say it’s about religious freedom

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Minister Adam of the Satanic Temple of Illinois looked ready for the holidays.

He was dressed in a black suit accented with a pair of Satanic symbol lapel pins, his flowing blond locks recalling Robert Plant, circa 1971. He smiled benignly, taking in the Satanic Temple’s latest seasonal display, installed in the rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol, alongside a two-story Christmas tree, a large menorah and a traditional Nativity scene. He launched into an invocation for his assembled flock, recalling foundational beliefs: “Let us stand now, unbowed and unfettered by arcane doctrines born of fearful minds. ... Let us demand that individuals be judged for their concrete actions, not their fealty to arbitrary social norms. ... Let us stand firm against any and all arbitrary authority that threatens personal sovereignty ...”

Then, once finished, he added: “Hail Satan.”

“Hail Satan” came the reply, loud in the silent marble halls.

A moment later, with perverse timing, two tourists wandered over. They asked if this was the group they were meeting. A Capitol staffer leaned in close and whispered something.

“Oh,” a tourist said, then, his eyes widening into understanding, “Oh!

‘Tis the season for understanding.

And who could use it more this holiday than the Satanists of Illinois?

For the fourth time since 2018, the Satanic Temple of Illinois — a statewide chapter with about 100 members, part of a religion boasting half a million followers internationally — was in Springfield on an early December morning, not to worship a devil or perform a ritual sacrifice. Odd as it sounds, the Satanic Temple does not recognize a Biblical Satan. It is a self-described nontheistic group dedicated to the pursuit of religious plurality, free thought and pushing back against any form of conformist doctrine.

It’s not like we’re out here eating babies in the State Capitol rotunda, a Temple member said.

The holiday ceremony, for instance, did not include goat sacrifices. No one condemned the nation to hellfire. The message was religious diversity.

Most of the congregation who attended — about 20 temple members, from across the state — dressed in shimmery blacks and deep cranberry reds. One member wore a leather trenchcoat and a wide fedora topped with one red feather. He had Mephistophelian facial hair, and like others, he and spoke with the kind of chipper, hyper-eloquent, nerdy self-confidence common to autodidacts, fans of the progressive rock band Rush, and Mark Zuckerberg. Satanists come off more like fanboys of education than of Satan.

Most Temple members also didn’t want to reveal their full names. They use a Satanic pseudonym (or “Satanym,” as Satanists prefer) for what they say are safety and professional reasons. “Minister Adam” is itself a Satanym — he said that last summer, the national headquarters of the Satanic Temple, in Salem, Massachusetts, was torched in an act of alleged arson. Satanists tend to be on guard.

The first Satanic Temple holiday display, installed here in 2018 and 2019, was a chilly, black pedestal featuring a hand offering an apple, its base inscribed with: “Knowledge is the greatest gift.” That first year it shared the rotunda with the usual suspects, plus a solstice display from an anti-religion group that included a sign saying, “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” Another year a “Seinfeld”-inspired Festivus pole was in the rotunda.

There was nothing in 2020 because of the pandemic. But then last year, the Satanic Temple installed a sculpture of a swaddled goat-monster baby named Baphomet, often considered a pagan deity. Predictably, some found this grotesque and offensive beside a Nativity; the installation was attended by a mass of praying protesters. This year, the Satanic Temple went a bit less provocative.

Literally softer.

The sculpture — crowdsourced by temple members and workshopped into fruition, Minister Adam said — is a mirrored base holding a leather-bound copy of “On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres,” written by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 and including once-rebellious thoughts on astronomy that later become controversial among theologians. Circling its base is a snake, crocheted by a Satanist, winding upward and resting its head inside of the open book, which is also surrounded by crocheted apples.

Though the snake and apples are an allusion to the Bible’s tree of knowledge, the display is closer, intentionally, to postmodernist sculpture than religious iconography. Just as the Satanic congregation, assembled, silently admiring the display, whispering and nodding, looked more like extras in a Tim Burton film than a religious organization.

One woman wore a red half-mask accented with gnarled antlers. Another wore a floor-length black robe. The young daughter of a follower in Gene Simmons-tall heeled boots sat quietly off to the side, wearing a T-shirt with a pentagram logo and reading a phone.

“Thank you for contributing,” Minister Adam told everyone. “This is just so cool.”

Before the unveiling, they took a group photo in front of the Lincoln statue on the Capitol lawn. Then they stood before their installation for a long time, hands behind their backs. Some stepped up and took pictures with the display, throwing up horns, the classic forked fingers of heavy metal, used by some denominations of Satanism as a salute. They quipped about setting up a snack bar in front of the art work. They cracked H.P. Lovecraft jokes. They small-talked. Someone mentioned that, a day before in Washington, a group of Satanists had joined a rally for religious freedom at the Supreme Court, but another group with “Free Speech For Everyone” signs intentionally blocked the Satanists’ signs.

God, it’s like ‘South Park’ predicted everything,” a Satanist in the rotunda groaned. Someone brought up lunch: Anyone want to get Mexican? They got Mexican last year.

Nearby a pair of Capitol workers passed through metal detectors then stood alongside a police officer, chuckling and watching as the Satanists considered their display. Other Capitol staff members hovered in the rotunda and regarded the Satanists with blank, sober stares. So far this year, there have been no protests. David Druker, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, said he’s fielded some phone calls from citizens wondering why the state would allow this. “I said it’s a First Amendment thing. In the past it’s been hostile. These people are more respectful.” Still, Christmas is two weeks away.

But Satanists are a self-possessed bunch. No more so than Minister Adam, who, in his everyday life, is a longtime fixture in the Chicago beer scene. I asked him if the muttering bothers him.

“The thing is,” he said, “I don’t care. I’m socially perceptive, but I do not care. If that makes you happy, feel free! I would just wonder why you want to make fun of people.”

Again, Satanists, love ‘em or hate ‘em — they’re misunderstood.

Probably more than most religious people. At least in a government building at Christmastime, they are polite, thoughtful and nice. Though they are often accused of not being a religion at all, at least on paper, they are a federally recognized, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) religious organization. “Scholars don’t really disagree with what makes a religion,” Minister Adam said. “Deeply shared beliefs among a group of people. Iconography. Art. A desire to do good. A sense of camaraderie. We have all that. Minus the supernatural.”

Satanists do not believe in a literal Satan but rather a literary Satan. The Satan of the Romantic age, of John Milton and William Blake, less a prince of darkness than an eternal, inquisitive agitator, relentless in the face to oppression.

“There is no devil worship here,” Minister Adam said. “In fact, I’m insulted when people think of us as devil worshippers. Satan is more of a mascot and metaphor for us.”

When I asked why call it Satanism then — wouldn’t they draw more flies with honey, so to speak — he said: “There’s nothing else to call it (but Satanism). There simply is no other mythological character that embodies the spirit of recalcitrance in the face of tyranny. There’s no other character (so in) the spirit of embracing one’s self and being happy with who one truly is.” Besides: “We do not care how you feel about it.” That’s the point of Satanism.

It asks: If we believe in freedom of religion — if we truly believe — who cares what it’s called? Like their installation in the Capitol rotunda (there until Jan. 6), the Satanic Temple resembles at times more of a constitutional stress test than an organized religion.

“I would unfortunately agree with that description,” Minister Adam said. “You call it a stress test. I call it an unfortunate byproduct of people not understanding American history. We are not the only religious minority discriminated against in this country. Irreligious government is baked into our Constitution and the founding words of Madison and Jefferson and Thomas Paine and many others. Yet that message has been eroded over time by those who would enforce their own religion on everyone else. We are affirming Satanic values with this installation. But we are not negating anyone else’s.”

The installation is also a way for the Satanic Temple to recognize Sol Invictus, an ancient Roman winter solstice festival (celebrated on Dec. 25) that Satanists have adopted. Last year, in response to the Satanic Temple display, Catholic Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield (formerly auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago), asked the state not to include the Satanic Temple in the rotunda. He claimed it had no place there “or anywhere.” Protesters (who included then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey) waved signs reading, “Satan has no rights!”

Say what you will about Satanists, they know the Constitution.

Earlier this year the Satanic Temple helped organize an “After-School Satan Club” in a Moline elementary school; they did this in response to the presence of a Good News Club in the school, affirming a 2001 Supreme Court decision (which included Good News, an evangelical youth ministry) that a school already offering religion-based clubs cannot discriminate against other religious clubs because of their viewpoints. Indeed, in Springfield, alongside the Satanic Temple installation this year was a sign, posted by the state, recognizing its legal obligation to allow any religions to be represented in this public space.

Minister Adam said the state has been great to work with. At the ceremony, he was on a first-name basis with some Capitol staff members, even congratulating a police officer on a promotion. When you’re Illinois’ leading Satanist, it pays to be nice. Not that it’s always worked.

Though the city of Chicago has recognized his authority to certify weddings, Minister Adam said City Council has declined years of his requests to give an invocation to aldermen; similarly, his state representative, Lindsey LaPointe, turned down his offers to speak to the General Assembly in Springfield. LaPointe, in a phone call, said state reps are allowed to decide themselves who delivers an invocation, but she disagrees with this, so in the spirit of fairness she turns down all requests from religious groups to deliver invocations to the assembly.

Minister Adam, who is 40 and grew up in Virginia, says he was raised Jewish and attended Hebrew school. Even as a kid, he became a tireless skeptic of religions, and was even offended that he should be sent to Hebrew school because of his parent’s beliefs. (In exchange for attending, he got a new guitar.) He has since come to realize “it wasn’t that I had a problem with religion itself — it’s that I had a problem with specific religions. Tradition is just peer pressure from dead people.” Not surprisingly then, he’s not a fan of the holiday season, but his wife likes to celebrate, so occasionally they put up a Christmas tree.

Actually, Satanism, he says, is compatible with other religions. Some of its core tenets, loosely translated, are to, as with most religions, moral values: Treat people with empathy; that justice is an ongoing pursuit; your body is subject to your will alone; you have as much freedom to offend as I have freedom to take offense; that beliefs should conform to a scientific understanding of the world; that people make mistakes but should work to correct them; and finally, these tenets should work in concert to inspire nobility of thought.

The Satanic Temple’s holiday display in the Springfield rotunda explains none of this. It doesn’t even have a marker that says what it is or who erected it or what that cute crocheted snake represents.

Because it doesn’t need one, Minister Adam argues.

“People will see a Christmas tree, a menorah and a Nativity — and then, something else. But that something else is important. Otherwise we might forget something else exists.”