SATAN: AMERICA’S MOST INCONVENIENT REOVLUTIONARY LEADER
This week’s blog comes late on account of Independence Day, the July 4 holiday where Americans briefly forget how much we hate revolutions and revolutionaries.
The American Revolutionary war of 1775-1783–yes the war actually predates the country by some months, go figure–is the perfect kind of uprising for modern American sensibilities. That is, one that will forever remain safely in the past.
That’s why we steep ourselves in anachronistic (and silly) 18th century imagery and rhetoric every July 4; that keeps the idea of subverting and overthrowing a bankrupt system safely in the theater of history instead of current events.
Although I’m hardly unbiased on this point, it seems to me that if Americans really took our revolutionary fetishes seriously, more of us would have charitable attitudes toward Satan, the original rebel. But our religion get in the way. Which is to say, the religion of being Americans.
In 2016, Andrew Shocket wrote in Salon, “We seem to be the only country whose citizens want to be in conversation with our founders, as though men dead for two centuries would still have much to tell us.”
You’d think we could just do it the old fashioned way and slaughter a black lamb at the Washington Monument on the night of a New Moon and ask directly. Why else did they build it, after all?
But this is a very old con in this country. In 1967, sociologist Rober Bellah diagnosed Americans with a “civil religion,“ through which both dead and living men (almost always men, of course) are made holy and tied indelibly to the ruling class’ spiritual agenda.
“This public religious dimension is expressed in symbols and rituals,” Bellah wrote. “The inauguration of a president is an important ceremonial event in this religion. It reaffirms, among other things, the religious legitimation of the highest political authority.”
To Bellah’s reasoning, the United States is not a government and a country but instead, effectively, a godhead and a cult. He phrased it less provocatively than that, but then, he had to; the worst thing to be in the eyes of a civil religion is a potential heretic…
This prognosis explains, for example, the baldly dishonest American approach to freedom of religion, which quite clearly means something totally inverse in practice from what it says on paper.
“Freedom of religion” actually means freedom to practice the religion of being American. This includes allusions to Christianity, but also the canonization of leaders and institutions. We even refer to this culture in colloquially supernatural terms with phrases like “American spirit,” “revolutionary spirit,” the spirit of 1776,” etc.
Historian David Sehat, author of The Jefferson Rule, notes that “the deification of the Founding Fathers began really upon their death”–presumably, when they could no longer pester our assumptions about them and their values with the reality of themselves and their values.
“You see that also in someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., in the March on Washington. The entire event was designed to call up the Founding Fathers,” Sehat says. Of course, King, too, has now been adopted as one of the saints of the America cult–but only after he was safely gone and his own, more threatening gospels scrubbed away.
“Many who tweeted about my father today would have hated him 50 years ago,” Bernice King said on Martin Luther King Day in 2018. Indeed, so divisive a figure was King that in 1964 the FBI itself sent him a threatening letter calling him “an evil, abnormal beast” and alleging “Satan could not do more.”
America doesn’t much like its revolutionaries when they’re in the midst of the revolution. Today’s anthem kneelers, antifascists, BLM bolsterers, gender nonconformists, socialists, sex workers, shooting survivors, and, yes, sometimes Satanists, are equally inconvenient, and can’t be sanitized into weird, dead martyry figures or just scrubbed out of history.
And of course it’s no coincidence that King’s detractors compared him to Satan then. Satan is always “alive” and thus always a potential problem.
On paper, Satan is the perfect “founding father”: a soldier, a revolutionary, a leader, a philosopher, a radical, a reformer, and a patron of equal rights in American for a century before anyone else. All things we say we prize in supposedly “great leaders.”
As community organizer Saul Alinsky (who was not a Satanist, no matter what the Fox News crowd says) put it in his 1971 book Rules For Radicals, Lucifer is “the very first radical known to man, who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom.”
But the one thing that Satan does not have in common with the country’s revolutionary mummies is that he’s not an artifact of the past. His myth remains contemporary, vibrant, dynamic–and thus worrisome. He can’t ever be commodified into the American civil religion, the way real people are.
Which I guess means long after we’re all gone, Satan will still be at it. “All is not lost; the unconquerable will and study of revenge, immortal hate, and courage never to submit or yield,” as he counseled in defeat.
Someone please carve that into my tombstone. Or, in the even that I’m cremated, your hearts instead.