On Religious Liberty and Satanism

The Missouri Supreme Court will be hearing a case on whether the state’s abortion laws violate the religious rights of a woman who is a member of the Satanic Temple. The Satanic Temple is an activist and religious organization started in 2012 that employs Satanic imagery to bring attention to its actions. Similar to the Church of Satan, the Satanic Temple is atheistic and rejects any notion of the supernatural, including the idea of a devil. Its beliefs are very similar to that of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.

One of its central tenets is, “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone,” and they take a decidedly pro-choice stance, rejecting that life begins at conception. The plaintiff in the Missouri case argues that the state’s abortion laws, ostensibly restrictive, come out of Christian religious motivation, and are therefore imposing one religion’s values on the adherents of another faith.

And of course the plaintiff is right, though the laws may not be unconstitutional. This highlights the cracks in the ridiculous attempt to have a secular nation (i.e. separation of church and state) or society: it is assumed that morally neutral positions can be arrived at by reasonable people (as the Satanic Temple teaches) apart from being religiously informed. Laws reflect values, which are held by people. Secularism is the shared, assumed, values of a culture. There will be legal conflict over the enforcement of those values when people’s convictions differ or change. In a society that constitutionally prohibits showing preference to one religion over another, the arbiter of whose values prevail will ultimately be the currently dominating sentiment, because it will be seen as the neutral, reasonable position.

The legal history around escaped slaves, forced sterilization, the Civil Rights Era, illegal immigration, and gay marriage show how this plays out.

If the First Amendment’s prohibition of establishing a state religion is understood as forbidding allowing religious values to inform legislation, it prohibits using values in legislating, the whole basis of the case out of Missouri. Which is an absurd position, but one we inevitably arrived at, though surely it will be practiced inconsistently. This is part of Lesslie Newbigin’s critique of the American experiment of institutional, “neutral” secularization in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.

As President in 1798, John Adams delivered a speech on the U.S. Constitution and identified its weakness in restraining the passions of wicked men, unbridled from morality and religion. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The Constitution assumed a world where the values shared by its creators would prevail. The First Amendment does not function as intended when that is no longer the case, spectacularly short-sighted on the part of the founders.

This case in Missouri is not the first of its kind, but it does serve as a bellwether of more to come.