A controversy erupted in Oklahoma recently when the Oklahoma legislature erected a privately commissioned stone memorial inscribed with the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Oklahoma state capitol. The Oklahoma ACLU and an organization called American Atheists filed lawsuits in federal court, claiming a violation of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.
But what has stirred the most media attention is a formal application to the state’s Capitol Preservation Commission by the Satanic Temple of New York to place a seven-foot statue of Satan on the capitol grounds. The proposed statue depicts Satan as a goat-headed being with horns and a long beard, flanked by two children with adoring looks.
The legal director of the Oklahoma ACLU has said that he would prefer no religiously themed monuments on the capitol grounds, “But if the Ten Commandments, with its overtly Christian message, is allowed to stay at the Capitol, the Satanic Temple’s proposed monument cannot be rejected because of its different religious viewpoint.”
This issue may crop up elsewhere in the nation since the head of the Satanic Temple has stated, “If ultimately [the Satan statue] doesn’t end up in Oklahoma, we’re going to move on to the next place. This could go on for quite some time.”
How ought one to react to this proposed Satan statue? This is an especially tricky question for Christians who are committed to a pluralist public square, instead of one that favors Christianity or any other religious or secular belief system. Does this mean one should support the Satanic Temple’s application? The Satanic Temple identifies itself as an “organized religion” on its website, and does not principled pluralism insist Christianity is not to be favored over other religions in the public realm?
This is an especially tricky question for Christians who are committed to a pluralist public square.
To answer those questions, we must consider why we erect statues or other monuments on our states’ capitol grounds and in other public places. In addition to the Ten Commandments, the Oklahoma capitol grounds has a statue entitled “Tribute to the Range Riders,” depicting a cowboy on a bucking horse. It also has a statue entitled “As Long as the Waters Flow,” depicting a Native American woman. The Texas capitol grounds has a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments and other monuments commemorating pioneer women and the Texan cowboy. Milwaukee has a statue in a public park of Pere Marquette, the famed Jesuit missionary and explorer.
What all these statues and monuments have in common is that they honor or commemorate persons or heritages that have been important in the history of their states. This can appropriately include a display of the Ten Commandments that honors the role played by the rule of law and the Judeo-Christian heritage in a state’s history and development. To honor and recognize only nonreligious contributions to states’ heritages would falsely imply that religious persons and traditions played no role in the history of those states.
In light of this one can see the absurdity - even with considering the principled pluralist vision of government and society - in granting the Satanic Temple’s application to erect a statue of Satan on the Oklahoma capitol grounds. The Satanic Temple is based in New York, not Oklahoma, and according to The Atlantic, is not much more than a website with some 20 members. Satanists have played no role in the history of Oklahoma, nor are they a significant, contributing part of Oklahoma society today.
Principled pluralism does not mean that any and all religious and secular beliefs and organizations - no matter how small and no matter how miniscule their contributions to society - have a right to be recognized or honored in the public square. They should not be repressed or denied the freedom to follow their beliefs, but neither do they have a legitimate claim to be recognized and honored by the government alongside persons and heritages that have played important roles in the history of the states.