As he is a Jesuit priest, I am not necessarily surprised that Father James Martin believes in (and fears) Satan. Martin is "Best Catholic in the World" Stephen Colbert's favorite priest, and appeared on that iconoclastic show many times. But I don't think that even Colbert's ultra-hipness could dilute the very dread component of satanic anxiety that Martin exposes in a recent post in America Magazine. Martin shares a few stories about fellow Jesuits who battled the devil, including one who was involved in the exorcism case that served as the basis of "The Exorcist." These men truly believe they were battling a being that exhibited a "sameness" that became recognizable to the clerics. So far, kind of a "he said, it said" story.
Martin's concern starts with the story of a group of satanists in Detroit who had erected a statue of goat-horned Baphomet being adored by small children. The Detroit satanist's idea is to challenge the often-unquestioned habit of vote-hungry politicians to erect statues of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn or hang a copy of the document in the building itself -- separation of church and state be damned. Martin's critique is that these people -- the satanists, not the pols -- are "playing with fire."
For my money, worries that the citizenry are on the verge of worshiping Satan are way overblown, I suspect that most people calling themselves satanists are doing it mostly to tweak we believers about our superiority, our tendency to freak out about the supernatural and our ardent desire to have government legislate our beliefs into law. I actually find the satanist presence on the national stage to be rather useful. Nothing shows the idiocy of placing the religious statues on public land than having the satanists want to put their own monument there as well. Suddenly, even the devout (yet fuzzy-headed about the Establishment clause) understand the issue.
Government spaces need to be resolutely neutral about advocating for one faith or another, or none. But we Christians have become so numb to the special majority privilege we have long enjoyed that any backing off seems like persecution. We begin to hyperventilate when our displays (crosses, Nativity scenes, Madonnas) are "taken away" when they never should never been allowed on public property in the first place. Opposing the supposed War on Christianity may be good for a few votes or to boost your cable ratings, but it is laughingly wrong-headed when put in the context of national founders so repelled by religious wars in Europe that they crossed an entire ocean to be free of them.
Satanists, as far as I know, do not pose a threat to children, and are not violent. Aside from a few wild (and debunked) stories about satanic day cares and suchlike, it's hard to think of a verified tale of devil worshipers doing much more than scaring themselves and their nervous neighbors. Can we say as much for our own believers, let alone our clergy and bishops? We Americans has done ourselves more damage -- in the form of anti-Muslim bullying, near-useless (but intrusive) airport searches and a trillion-dollar debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan -- by overreacting to the terrorist threat since 9/11. Similarly, Christians have done more evil in the name of fighting Satan than not. The Salem Witch hysteria comes to mind as one signal case -- 19 innocents executed because terrified villagers thought the Devil was causing a few unbalanced girls to scream and twitch.
We may feel that objectifying evil makes it easier to counteract by personifying it as a terrifying and monstrous presence. But that gives Satan far more power than he actually wields, don't you think? Father Martin, for all his legitimate worry about the source of evil, is not helping matters by keeping alive the silly notion that Lucifer is equal in strength to God, and with the same ability to draw witless human beings toward him. Let's keep our wits about us and remember that the story of a supposed celestial battle between loyal angels and fallen angels is not even biblical. And that the idea of a dark force balancing God's forces of light originates in the 6th-century BCE Jewish sojourn in Babylon, whose dueling gods or good and evil seemed irresistible to the imagination.
It should also be embarrassing that we still find ourselves in thrall to a mindset that is so out of step with our discoveries about diseases of the mind and body. After all, we don't bore holes in people's skulls anymore to let out the bad spirits; we medicate and provide psychotherapy. And no one that I know has left a church ceremony freed of the "demons" of addictions or self-abuse. Priests might like to keep us thinking there are quick fixes that require no effort on the part of the sufferer -- that removing a person's evil ways is little more complicated than pulling out a splinter. Evil is real, whether it is a habit formed from selfishness and greed, or a disembodied lump of matter that irradiates all with malign rays. But evil takes work to remove -- not a splash of holy water and the wave of a crucifix from a credulous prelate. Evil is embedded deep in our genes, our cultures and our choices. It is born of the too-human traits of low intelligence, power-hunger, avarice and ambition. Rooting out those old habits is the work of a lifetime, not an afternoon.
Let's keep the current hysteria under wraps and discern whether these supposed devil worshipers are for real--and dangerous--or are just a bunch of mischievous brats eager to give their pious brethren an early Halloween scare. To do more is to play right into the hands of the Adversary.