The State Capital broke into an uproar as the Satanic Temple of Illinois unraveled its holiday display. First, the temple’s priest shouted, “Hail Satan” as he laid a carved image of Baphomet, the pagan deity, next to the nativity scene. Then, in a scene analogous to the 1973 movie The Exorcist, Roman Catholic Christians began to pray for the destruction of Satan while others shouted, “Satan has no rights.”
Of course, this is not the first time controversy arose regarding the public display of religious symbols. Over the past decade, The United States Supreme Court has heard several cases about public display of religious symbols. However, the provocative nature of the December 23rd incident leaves some confused about the nature of religious beliefs in the public sphere.
The Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield said the temple’s display was “wrong and has no place.” While the Satanic priest argued, “The symbol is one of harmony, reconciliation, and unity.” So who gets to decide what beliefs are permissible in the public sphere?
Some argue that the state should decide the legitimacy of beliefs. But who is the state anyway? And don’t they hold religious beliefs themselves? Can an apparatus designed to regulate the common good distinguish between competing goods?
Moreover, history has shown us that when the state decides which religious beliefs are permissible, the result is catastrophic – think crusades and caliphates. If the state is the final authority regarding one’s religious beliefs, then the state becomes the ultimate authority. It seems there is no better way to get hell on earth than to surrender the power of religious belief to the state.
Still, others contend that religious beliefs should be stripped entirely from all public spheres. Those who hold this view argue that religious belief must be locked up and hidden away, never to be heard or seen in any public arena. But is this even possible? Are convictions really convictions if they can be silenced?
Furthermore, many secularists readily admit that they are not free from religious beliefs. The atheist philosopher Ronald Dworkin is to be applauded for acknowledging that secularism is a religion. In his book, Religion without God, Dworkin said, “Religion is whatever gives a person’s universe purpose and order.” Thus, Dworkin called himself a religious atheist. Dworkin rightly understood that it is dishonest if not impossible to suppress one’s ultimate beliefs in the public sphere.
Religious beliefs are inseparable from one’s personhood because they define how we view ourselves, others, and the world. Therefore, the idea that one’s religious beliefs can be put on a shelf is a fallacy because beliefs about ultimate reality shade every thought – it seems impossible to have a public sphere void of religious beliefs.
So, how do we respond to situations where religious beliefs collide? When competing religious visions clashed in the ancient world, a man named Elijah challenged the priests of Baal to bring their beliefs into the public square. Elijah was confident that when beliefs are publicly displayed, they will rise or fall based on their merits. Ultimately, truth, beauty, and goodness persuade individuals.
The prophet of old trusted in the principle of religious freedom because he was confident in his God. However, some argue that a Satanic display next to a nativity scene and a menorah is distasteful and offensive. And while this may be true, the principle of religious freedom is not dependent upon decorum or on one’s tastes – religious liberty depends upon one’s ability to choose freely.
Religious freedom fosters the power of choice. Individuals must have space to investigate opposing views and evaluate each belief based on its merits. The benefit of religious freedom is that it allows for all beliefs to be put on full display, and those that reflect goodness, truth, and beauty ultimately prove superior.
The Baphomet presentation was a juvenile act meant to rouse offense and anger. And while the Satanic priest insisted the symbol was one of “harmony and unity,” its unveiling next to the nativity and menorah revealed the true nature of their values – mockery, provocation, and aggression which by no means create unity, peace, and charity. Thus, the values of the Satanic temple were put fully on display.
So therein lies the beauty of allowing beliefs to be made public. While the Bible does not specifically use the term “religious freedom,” the principles that support religious liberty are abundant throughout. One must wonder if Baphomet’s principles can support freedom of dissent? Given the provocative nature of its actions, it seems unlikely.
Consequently, the entire incident shows why we should champion religious freedom for all people. The satanic temple sought to flex on the beliefs of Christianity, but to do so, it must rely on the principles inherent to Christianity. Thus, when we allow all religions access to the public sphere, we see them for what they are, and like Elijah, we see that the God of the Bible holds up extraordinarily well.