black mass

A scene from Hail Satan?

Documentary, rated R, 95 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles

“The founding aspect of Satanism is that you troll people. That’s the original troll, isn’t it?” says The Invention of Satanism author Jesper Aagaard Petersen. His insight drives home the point of the documentary Hail Satan? a cogent, witty exploration of the recent activities of a much-misunderstood activist organization.

The Satanic Temple (TST), which was founded in 2013, has made headlines for its initiatives to enforce the separation of church and state. The organization is not to be confused with the Anton LaVey-founded Church of Satan — devil worship doesn’t even enter into the temple’s tenets. Rather, as TST spokesman Lucien Greaves argues, “We’re a secular nation. We are supposed to be a democratic pluralistic nation. We are supposed to be a nation that doesn’t allow the government to dictate what is appropriate religious expression.”

The best example of TST’s penchant for inventive trolling is Baphomet, the 8½-foot-tall bronze statue with a goat’s head and angel’s wings that TST crowdfunded in 2014. It’s based on Eliphas Levi’s 19th-century image of the Sabbatic goat deity, but it’s livelier: Sculptor Mark Porter based Baphomet’s impressive abs on those of Iggy Pop. The temple petitioned to mount the statue at the Oklahoma State Capitol as a retort to the Ten Commandments monument established onsite in 2012. After the State Supreme Court ordered the removal of the monument, TST withdrew their formal request to install Baphomet at the Capitol. They weren’t done with Baphomet, though; they toted the statue to Arkansas, where Capitol grounds are graced by another Ten Commandments monument.

That’s generally how TST operates: Co-founders Greaves and Malcolm Jarry find a case that blurs the line between church and state, then plant TST firmly in the center of the fray, forcing lawmakers to rethink Christian impositions on the law. Director Penny Lane (The Pain of Others) tells the stories of the organization’s misadventures with a breezy charm, highlighting the personalities behind TST as free-spirited, Gothic libertarians who embrace Satanism by focusing on the Hebrew definition of the word “satan,” which is “adversary.”

Hail, Satan? is at its best when it tunnels deep into the Christian right’s sway over America, which it traces to the conservative evangelical awakening spearheaded by minister Billy Graham in the 1950s. (The film firmly underlines the nondenominational bent of the Founding Fathers in crafting the U.S. Constitution.) The “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and ’90s is detailed, too, in which several daycare providers were accused, and later exonerated, of child abuse said to be driven by Satan worship. With this grounding, it’s easy to see how the roiling political tensions between atheists and holy rollers got to this point — with TST holding a “Pink Mass” in 2013 that featured two gay men kissing over the grave of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps’ mother.

By the hour-or-so point in Hail Satan? we get the gist of TST — that they’re infusing a very serious mission with a sacrilegious, over-the-top sense of humor. That leaves another half hour for at least two interesting diversions: We learn just how to get ousted from TST (call for the execution of Donald Trump, as spokesperson Jex Blackmore did), and we find out how Ten Commandments monuments began to proliferate across America (as part of a promo tour for the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille paid to install more than 200 tablets in public spaces nationwide). It’s all part of a lesson in the highs and lows of contemporary political absurdism — and we don’t even need to pledge allegiance to the flag, “one nation, under God,” in order to get it.