A Satanic panic over church and state in Hail Satan?

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      A documentary by Penny Lane. Rated 14A

      The question mark in the title Hail Satan? is less about devotional doubt than it is a satirical eyebrow raised at the role of religion in modern politics.

      At the centre of this satire is the Satanic Temple, mostly devoted to thumbing its collective snout at authority in general and religious hypocrites in particular. In the past five years, this bewitching band—based in Salem, Massachusetts, no less—has chipped away at Christian hegemony by asking for equal time at legislatures and town councils that routinely include godly invocations. Most famously, they’ve taken on the nutters of the Westboro Baptist Church and challenged legal institutions displaying the Ten Commandments—contradicting the separation of church and state built into the U.S. Constitution.

      Written and directed by Penny Lane (her real name), the cleverly assembled doc includes a brief overview of the relatively recent infiltration of religion into public life, at the behest of Billy Graham and other Cold War fundamentalists. (“One nation, under God” didn’t enter the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954.) We also get a taste of Anton LaVey (born Howard Levey), an occultist and relentless self-promoter from the Playboy era. He cannily mixed nudity and nonconformity with antichristish nose-tweaking—a pattern followed by Lucien Greaves, a pseudonym for the Satanic Temple founder, who has a bad eye and sharp tongue, as evidenced with a lot of screen time here.

      Greaves studied neuroscience at Harvard, with a specialty in false-memory syndrome, and his own history with abuse survivors suggests conflicted motives. We get his take on the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, when Jimmy Swaggart (first cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis, lest we forget) and others attempted to tie weird crimes to society’s more liberating directions and, as SNL’s Church Lady would put it, “I don’t know… Satan?”

      The Temple members we meet here certainly represent a wide cross-section of lifestyle proclivities, but almost all manifest positive beliefs in society-building, through clothing, book, and food drives, and even adopt-a-highway programs, which include picking up trash with pitchforks.

      The Temple itself, given tax-exempt status just last month, has been riven by some conflicts, with Greaves kicking out spokeswoman Jex Blackmore for veering towards violent sensationalism. But this isn’t explored in depth. There’s more time spent with the construction of an eight-foot statue of Baphomet, a satanic stand-in who has yet to stand in any public spaces. We see the statue righteously opposed by an Arkansas preacher turned politician named Jason Rapert. That’s his real name, and it fits well with his dedication to Christian monuments and to denying women basic reproduction and adoption rights. Whatever happens next in America, the devil’s got his work cut out for him.