"Be virtuous and you will be eccentric."
— Mark Twain
"Hatred Is a Poison" — the wonderful essay by hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, was still kicking around in my head when I finally got around to reading this month's Harper's. That's where I encountered the following:
From a calendar of satanic rituals inadvertently distributed last December by a police officer to seventh-graders in Pearland, Texas, during a presentation on gang activity.
July 1. Demon Revels. Sexual, druidic.
July 20-36. Grand Climax Preparation. Abduction, holding and preparation of sacrificial victim.
July 27. Grand Climax. Sex, human sacrifice. Female child or adult.
August 3. Satanic Revels. Oral, anal, vaginal sex with females, ages seven to 17.
September 7. Marriage to The Beast. Sex, sacrifice, dismemberment. Females, infant to 21.
September 20. Midnight Host. Dismemberment, esp. of hands for "hand of glory" ritual.
September 23. Fall Equinox. Group sex. …
That's a rather astonishing calendar and agenda. Horrifying stuff. Evil. Very, very bad.
Except, fortunately, that it's not true.
Some would disagree with that, of course. They would disagree that this is not true, and they would disagree that it's not being true is fortunate.
The strange thing about believers in "Satanic Ritual Abuse" is not just that their belief persists despite an utter lack of evidence, but that they seem so eager for these things to really be true. They seem to want it to be the case that a vast, secret, predatory network exists that abducts, abuses and murders tens of thousands of children every year as part of its ritualistic worship of Satan.
This is not a healthy thing to want to believe is true. And yet, despite the fact that no actual practitioners of Satanic Ritual Abuse have ever been found, thousands of people believe in it because they somehow want it to be so. These believers fail the test that C.S. Lewis speaks of in Mere Christianity:
The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?
The dates and activities in our police officer's handout almost certainly came from one of the many books detailing the sex, abuse, torture and dismemberment allegedly practiced by these alleged worshippers of the Christian Satan. (See this helpful list of " Satanic holidays, as viewed by conservative Christian authors.") These books were written mainly by evangelical Christian authors writing for Christian publishing houses like Word, Zondervan and Broadman & Holman.
As with most urban legends, it's difficult to determine precise origins for many of these stories. But it certainly appears that some devout, Christian writers sat down and devised elaborate rituals involving group sex, dismemberment and the rape of infants. That these writers ran this material by the devout Christian editors at these publishing houses. And that these publishing houses packaged these claims, bound them attractively, and shipped them out to the local Mustard Seeds, Wellsprings and other devout Christian bookstores across the country.
These writers are, like H.P. Lovecraft,* engaged in the business of writing horror stories. Yet where Lovecraft saw horror as horrifying — as something from which to recoil — these writers seem strangely heartened and encouraged by their bloodcurdling tales.
"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things," Philippians 4:8 says. So why, one wonders, do evangelical Christians in America have such an enthusiastic appetite for tales of alleged perversity and depravity?
The answer, I think, has to do with what I've called "evangelical anxiety." This anxiety arises in part from the never-quite-wholly conscious recognition that we Christians don't seem to be all that different from everybody else. We know we're supposed to be "a peculiar people," yet we seem to spend our time, our money and our lives pretty much the same way that everybody else around us does. We have the same things, we do the same things, we want the same things as those unsanctified others.
One way in which evangelicals contend with this anxiety is by latching on to symbolic behaviors that set us apart — not just the teetotalism and the prohibition against dancing, but the whole subcultural apparatus which, for those not already familiar with it, would take me volumes to describe and explain. These things come to function as a kind of symbolic surrogate for actual virtues.
But the more pernicious response to evangelical anxiety is the literal demonization of our neighbors. We can make ourselves relatively more virtuous simply by exaggerating the viciousness of others.
It's fun to see other people being vile and to set yourself in opposition to them. It's inspiring to go on a crusade. Of course, there is always a crusade at hand and an enemy to be fought, if your tastes run that way: the struggle to be a genuinely decent person, and the fight against your own worst self. But that requires that you actually give up your vices, which can be tiresome. A crusade against other people, like most of the pleasures of fantasy, has none of these drawbacks: it's all exhilaration, and none of that tedious business of recognizing your own faults and trying to correct them.
… morality, which we ought to use to make ourselves better people and only secondarily to judge others, turns into a tool we use to excoriate those we hate, and to demonstrate, to ourselves and to others, how very, very different we are from them. Crusades are fought by the righteous, and if you need to believe that you are on a righteous crusade, you will of course need to conscript morality to the cause of maintaining your belief that you are on the side of the angels.
I'm still chewing on this idea, but I think this anxiety and this response to it helps to explain many evangelicals' oddly ferocious approach to political engagement. It illuminates the devout belief of so many that they are simultaneously the moral majority and a persecuted minority.
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* I would be remiss if I mentioned Lovecraft without linking to this classic parody.