Conservatives can't handle The Satanic Temple's harmless display in Iowa's Capitol
Even Republican lawmakers can't convince their base that freedom of religion applies to non-Christians, too
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UPDATE (12/14): The display has been vandalized.
I alluded to this yesterday, but The Satanic Temple’s display in the Iowa Capitol is creating even more of a stir thanks to conservatives who don’t know the first thing about how the law works.
The display went up earlier this month and features an altar with a mirror-covered ram’s head representing Baphomet wearing a red cloak and wreath. Towards the bottom, surrounded by candles, you can see tiny plaques listing the Seven Fundamental Tenets (e.g. “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason”). The group originally asked permission to use an actual goat skull, but settled for this version after they were denied.
The reason all of this is happening is because Iowa has an open-door policy when it comes to holiday displays in the Capitol. As long as the proper paperwork is filled out, and all rules are followed, just about any group can make a request. And many groups have! As I write this, the Rotunda also features displays from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, and the (conservative Catholic) Thomas More Society. The Satanic Temple’s display is scheduled to remain up for two weeks, and it'll come down after Saturday.
Hell, here’s the schedule for the next few days. You can see how all those groups are making use of the space.
None of this is new. The state has had a public forum when it comes to those displays for years now, and atheists have long taken advantage of it. The fact that a Satanic display is up this year isn’t particular new or interesting… but it’s obviously provocative.
And conservatives have taken the bait.
As soon as the display went up, there were already threats to take it down, like this one from evangelist Joel Tenney, who wanted someone fired over the inclusion and implied (in the comments) that he would personally vandalize the “grossest form of idolatry I have ever seen in my state.” He even asked his followers, “Who’s gonna bail me out?!”
Is that extreme? Yes. But it was hardly unusual. Other right-wing trolls also called for the display to be destroyed. One Christian woman, Shellie Flockhart, called the display “a very dark, evil force” before leading a prayer group… that accomplished literally nothing.
State Rep. Brad Sherman, a Republican, even released a newsletter saying that the principle of church/state separation didn’t apply to this display because the state was inherently Christian. After all, he claimed, the Iowa Constitution refers to a “Supreme Being.”
According to these opening lines of our Constitution, the foundation for laws and continued blessing and success in Iowa is based on these points:
There is One Supreme God.
Blessings over this state come from the One Supreme God
We must depend upon the One Supreme God if we want to enjoy continued blessings.
It is a tortured and twisted interpretation of law that affords Satan, who is universally understood to be the enemy of God, religious expression equal to God in an institution of government that depends upon God for continued blessings. Such a legal view not only violates the very foundation of our State Constitution, but it offends the God upon whom we depend and undermines our wellbeing.
Therefore, based on the laws of God and the Constitution of the State of Iowa, and for the purpose of securing the blessings of God upon our state:
I am calling for our governor to have this blasphemous display removed immediately based on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and offends God upon whom the State of Iowa depends for blessings.
I am calling for clarifying legislation to be adopted in accordance with our State Constitution that prohibits satanic displays in our Capitol building and on all state owned property.
I am calling for legislation to be adopted that makes it legal to display the Ten Commandments in our Capitol, in all buildings owned by the state, and in our public schools.
If we want the blessings of God upon our state, we must demonstrate by our laws and actions that we are indeed depending upon Him and that we are opposed to Satan.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is Christian Nationalism in a nutshell. It implies that Sherman’s religion is the only one that counts, that religions he doesn’t like should be prohibited from having access to the Capitol the same way everyone else can, and urges lawmakers to shove Christianity in everyone’s face.
It’s the same message GOP presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis offered during a CNN Town Hall last night in Des Moines. Asked if the display should be “allowed to remain” in the Iowa Capitol, DeSantis didn’t say “Yes, even though I may not like it.” Instead, he… blamed Donald Trump for the IRS approving The Satanic Temple’s non-profit designation under his watch, as if Trump personally approved it. (He did not.)
He added, of the Satanists, “That’s not a religion that the Founding Fathers were trying to create.” That implied that, under a DeSantis Administration, religious freedom would never extend to non-Christian groups that the Founders didn’t personally support... presumably including Islam, Hinduism, (DeSantis won’t admit that many of the Founders were no fans of his brand of Christianity.)
Gov. Kim Reynolds, another Republican, didn’t get quite that extreme, but she also claimed the Satanic display was “absolutely objectionable.”
Yesterday, after taking part in a prayer service in the Rotunda, Reynolds claimed that was “proof that in the battle between good and evil, good will always prevail.” The insinuation is obvious: The Satanic display, with its promotion of kindness and reason-based decency, is evil.
It’s not just politicians, though! Andrew T. Walker, an associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in the Christian publication WORLD that even though he’s a “staunch [advocate] of religious liberty,” this display shouldn’t be allowed because “a well-ordered society will keep Satanic nonsense out of government buildings.”
Satanism, whether real or pretend, is an outright celebration of evil, darkness, and perversity. So, in my view, there should be no Satanic displays in government buildings.
At some point, though, political communities determine that some moral evils reach a threshold of such harm that they can no longer be allowed and are restricted through criminal punishment. This is chiefly a legislative question before it is a judicial question. The people working through their government determine where those lines should be drawn so that too much liberty does not harm the community and, likewise, that a burdensome legalism does not squelch liberty.
So there you have it: Diplomas from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary are indeed useless.
I have to ask: Which of the Seven Fundamental Tenets does Walker find so damn evil? The one that says “The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word”? Or is it the line that goes, “To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one's own”?
That’s not to say every conservative or Republican feels the same way.
In a rather surprising statement, GOP State Rep. Jon Dunwell said that while he finds the Satanic display “objectionable,” “evil,” and in “direct opposition to my faith,” there was no basis to take it down:
My observation as an Iowan and a State Representative, I don’t want the state evaluating and making determinations about religions. I am guided by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
My faith is never imposed upon others, nor should it ever become a direct part of government. It is always a response to the person and work of Jesus Christ. I don’t want to mix the kingdoms! Government is a poor arbitrator of religion.
He added that, as a lawmaker, he would “Monitor the the number of organizations requesting displays. I don’t want the Capitol to be overwhelmed by displays. In the future, we may need to find ways to appropriately limit the number of displays.”
(Spoiler: Iowa has tried to limit the number of displays before. It backfired. Atheists swiped seven of the eight display spots.)
Still, Dunwell had the right idea. It didn’t matter what he thought about the display; Satanists had a right to the spot and they followed the rules. If anyone’s bothered by that, well, too damn bad. It was only up for two weeks, the display had “no real power” over Christians, and people could always criticize the message.
As he correctly pointed out, the state has the choice of allowing all displays (without discriminating on the basis of religion or ideology) or none at all. If people want a Nativity scene in the Capitol Rotunda, they have to allow for the possibility of other displays there, too, including ones they may not like. The only other option is to prohibit all displays.
The point is: Christians don’t get a monopoly in the Capitol.
Based on the responses to his post, though, it’s clear conservative Christians don’t give a shit about government neutrality or the Establishment Clause. Dunwell said later, “I am SHOCKED so many want to give up their freedom, so they don’t have to see a display they disagree with.”
Dunwell did not respond to a request for comment about whether he would continue defending the right of non-Christian groups to make use of the Rotunda in the wake of all the backlash.
He wasn’t the lone voice of reason on this matter. Another Republican, State Rep. Steve Holt, told the Des Moines Register that, “while I totally hold a total disdain anything that this organization stands for, I nonetheless believe they have the constitutionally protected right to put up the display.”
"I think this is a test," Holt said of the current satanic display. "I think this is really a test of just how, how strong your allegiance is to the Constitution and the concepts of free speech and free religion. It's easy to say you believe in those things when the speech is not that objectionable to you. But when the speech is really, really highly objectionable and offensive, unless it otherwise breaks the law, are you going to stand up for the constitutional rights of others or are you not?"
If we’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that the majority of Republicans don’t actually care what the Constitution says. They prefer dictatorship over democracy.
Furthermore, it’s ridiculous to call the Satanic display “offensive.” What’s offensive about it?! The Tenet that says “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone”? The one that says “If one makes a mistake, one should do one's best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused”? The part about how “The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend”?
What’s so objectionable? Be specific. Stop catering to the whims of Christian bigots who can’t handle differences of opinion by pretending there’s something awful about this particular display.
Better yet, Christians who don’t like the display can take the same advice they always offer when atheists complain about Nativity scenes on public property: If it bothers you so much, just don’t look at it.