Isn’t that special? Satan pays a visit to the Bible Belt (updated)

When the devil issues a press release, the media pay attention.

Satan has stirred a hell of a commotion in my home state of Oklahoma the last week.

The Associated Press produced the first national report on Satanists seeking a spot on the Oklahoma Capitol steps, followed soon by national outlets such as CNN, Religion News Service and Reuters as well as the Tulsa World. (Update: The Journal Record, an Oklahoma City business newspaper, had the original scoop.)

I’m approaching this critique with a bit of trepidation, not out of any fear of the Evil One but because — given my ties to Oklahoma and the religion beat — I know four of the five reporters who handled the stories referenced above. My plan is to make a few constructive criticisms, ask a few pointed questions and pray that no one sticks me with a pitchfork.

Let’s start with AP’s initial scoop:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In their zeal to tout their faith in the public square, conservatives in Oklahoma may have unwittingly opened the door to a wide range of religious groups, including satanists who are seeking to put their own statue next to a Ten Commandments monument on the Statehouse steps.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in this state known as the buckle of the Bible Belt authorized the privately funded Ten Commandments monument in 2009, and it was placed on the Capitol grounds last year despite criticism from legal experts who questioned its constitutionality. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.

But the New York-based Satanic Temple saw an opportunity. It notified the state’s Capitol Preservation Commission that it wants to donate a monument and plans to submit one of several possible designs this month, said Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple.

If I’m the editor, I raise an obvious question about that lede: According to whom? The use of the adjective “unwittingly” particularly seems to cry out for attribution (a named source identifying who provided the information). Otherwise, it comes across as editorialization.

I also wondered about the lowercase “satanist,” particularly since the AP story switched back and forth between lowercase and uppercase versions of the word. In checking my handy dandy AP Stylebook, the journalist’s bible, I found this succinct entry:

Satan — but lowercase devil and satanic

Hmmmm, that doesn’t really answer the Satanists question — or is it satanists?

In reading the AP story, I couldn’t tell if the Satanists/satanists were serious about the monument or engaging in a publicity ploy.

I felt like CNN’s Belief Blog did a much better job of answering that question:

The Temple of Satan is less a religious body organized around rituals and regular meetings than a roving band of political provocateurs, said Greaves. They believe Satan is a “literary construct,” the spokesman said, not an actual being with horns and hooves.

Last year, the Temple organized a gay and lesbian kiss-in at the gravesite of the mother of anti-gay preacher and activist the Rev. Fred Phelps. It also held a rally at Florida’s state capitol in support of a law that allows “inspirational messages” at public school assemblies.

“It allows us to spread the message of Satanism,” which centers around respect for diversity and religious minorities, said Greaves.

While AP’s second-day story focused on lawmakers seeking to ease public concern over the devilish proposal, RNS reported on Hindus following the Satan lovers’ lead by applying to have a monkey god statue placed on the Capitol grounds. As you would expect, RNS did a nice job explaining the Hindu deity:

Hanuman, the monkey king, is an important deity in Hinduism, the world’s third largest faith. He is most popular among devotees of the avatar Lord Ram and others following a devotional path. There are more temples and roadside shrines to Hanuman than to any other deity in all of North India. For Hindus, Hanuman is one of the finest exemplars of a life of love and service of God.

Several days after the AP story, Reuters produced this lede:

(Reuters) – Oklahoma’s decision to allow a Christian monument on its state Capitol lawn has opened the door to almost any other religious display, legal experts said, as Satanists and Hindus look to place their own statues at the site.

A Satanist group has petitioned to have its monument, with an interactive display for children, put up alongside the Ten Commandments. And this week, the Hindu organization applied to have a monkey god statue placed on the Capitol grounds.

Kudos to Reuters for attributing its statement up high to “legal experts” and quoting some in the story. But here’s my nitpicky question: Is it entirely accurate to call a Ten Commandments display a “Christian monument?” Do any other faith groups — I’m thinking of one in particular — identify with the Ten Commandments? Just asking.

The Tulsa World lede, meanwhile, impressed me as perhaps, just maybe, a little, shall we say, one-sided:

OKLAHOMA CITY – Several lawmakers on Monday were highly critical of a proposal by the New York City-based Satanic Temple to build a monument near the recently erected Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds.

“I think it is a joke,” said Senate Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa.

“This is a faith-based nation and a faith-based state,” said Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville. “I think it is very offensive they would contemplate or even have this kind of conversation.”

“It is not something the people of Oklahoma would support, and the people of Oklahoma support the Ten Commandments monument,” said Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa.

“It is not going to get approved here without a court battle,” said Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove. “I can assure you.”

Please weigh in with your comments on the stories referenced. However, don’t forget that GetReligion is a journalism website. We want to focus on the media coverage issues, not on the specifics of whether readers favor a satanic monument or not.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some pitchforks to avoid.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Nora Bradbury-Haehl

    Thanks for this. So glad someone noticed. For all of our sophistication we still get tripped up on matters of courtesy and , yes, freedom. I think my favorite though is the dilemma over capitalization. (I no longer own a pitchfork so your opinions are safe with me.)

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Whew! That’s a relief about your lack of a pitchfork. :-)

      • Nora Bradbury-Haehl

        :)

  • Brett

    Mr. Burke in the CNN report seems to be a little more playful than is best for a news story; even though the Temple’s suggested monument plans don’t propose a statue of one of the representations of Satan he refers to as the Evil One, nor does it seem to my limited knowledge that Satanists proper believe themselves to be worshiping the being Christians call the devil.

    Plus one for him for speaking to a representative of Satanists who think the monument is a bad idea. But minus a dozen for the use of the phrase “center around,” which is a physical impossibility and a grammatical embarrassment.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for your comment, Brett. Personally, I had no problem with the CNN approach. Of course, I took a rather playful approach myself on this critique.

    • wlinden

      And what makes the LaVey wing “Satanists proper”? The “theistic Satanists” in these parts would surely dispute that. (And as far as I can make out, the group in these stories is not event “The” Church of Satan.)

      If a story called ELCA “Lutherans proper”, or the SBC “Baptists proper”, this page would certainly note the inaccuracy.

  • FW Ken

    Interesting group of stories, with the limitations you note. I’m curious as to whether the plan is to place the non-christian monuments literally “alongside” the ten commandments. I haven’t been to the Oklahoma statehouse, but the Texas capitol sits on large grounds with lots of obscure places. In fact, it’s got so many monuments, in plain sight can function to obscure.

    I would also have liked to hear something about the cultural place of the 10 commandments. That’s one of the common arguments in favor of public display, and while it’s a bit of a cliche, it’s also part of the discussion. In fact, the whole discussion is becoming something if a cliche.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      FW Ken, I believe there was some discussion of the cultural nature of the Ten Commandments, as opposed to the religious nature, by some of the sources quoted in a few of the stories.

      • FW Ken

        Bobby, thanks. I’ll go back and look, although I thought I read them all.

        Speaking about the “unwittingly” problem: how could a politician not know about the firestorm that would occur? And how could a journalist think it was anything but a calculated risk?

  • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

    An old friend with whom I worked for several years at The Oklahoman posted this response on Facebook:

    1. For what it’s worth, the Tulsa World story is a second-day follow up focusing on legislators’ reaction to the proposal.

    2. I’m OK with the use of ‘unwittingly’ in the first story mentioned as it’s qualified with ‘May have’. Plus, it’s pretty clear that this is indeed a story of unintended consequences of bringing religion into the Capitol grounds.

    3. You’re right about the point of two religions holding the Ten Commandments sacred. So that’s an omission. However, to explain that, the writer would have go deeper in saying whether or not any Jewish groups or individuals helped push this through or donated. If memory serves me right, no such things happened.

    My response to my friend’s much-appreciated discussion of journalism:

    1. Noted. Still not sure I would have advocated that approach up top.

    2. I’m not a fan of conjecture journalism, and that is what “may have” gives you. I prefer facts and named sources. At the least, I think “unwittingly” needs to be edited out or attribution added.

    3. Excellent insight.

    • M. Scott Carter

      Dear Mr. Ross, I’m sorry to correct you but the Associated Press wasn’t the first outlet to break the story about the Satanic Temple. The Journal Record actually had the story the Friday before the AP. It was only after the AP saw the JR’s story, that it was picked up and then followed up by other outlets.
      sincerely,
      M. Scott Carter
      Capitol Bureau Chief, The Journal Record.

      • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

        Scott, thanks for the correction. I have updated the post to reflect the Journal Record scoop.

  • radiofreerome

    I think these [S]atanists need to be subtler. They should try handing out [D]eviled eggs to participants in Easter parades.

  • gimpi1

    In my opinion:

    I think the Reuters brief did the best job of objectively offering the facts.

    AP should have had an attribution at the beginning, but I personally think the word “unwitting” describes the idea that the groups who sponsored the original monument had no thought that other groups that they might object would now have the same rights they had claimed for themselves very well.

    CNN did a good of follow up, as did RSN’s information about other groups taking similar actions.

    The Tulsa World was clearly an editorial. If it wasn’t on an editorial page or otherwise flagged as opinion, it was poorly done.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Welcome to true freedom of expression!

  • Jacobi Coriolanus

    Since they weren’t Luciferians I just think its the use of “(S/s)atan” as an impromptu euphemism for pluralism and the diminution of Christianity as a de facto state religion by argumentum ad populum which provoked the controversy. Reuters should have placed most of the effort on Christian opposition to alternating points of view rather than the implications of having a monument. That is the story after all, government sponsoring one group above all else under religious freedom which mysteriously disappears when a less prevalent group (i.e. anyone else) claims the same privileges under the law for their own beliefs.


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