Satanic Panic Has Featured in American Politics Since the RevolutionRoundup
tags: religion, moral panics, reactionary politics
Zara Anishanslin is an associate professor of history and art history at the University of Delaware, and author of Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World. In 2020-21, she will be a fellow at the Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University.
The devil is popular in the political culture of 2022. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) claimed in April that Satan controlled the Roman Catholic Church and that abortion was “a lie that Satan sells to women.” In May, Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Kandiss Taylor announced that she was “the ONLY candidate bold enough to stand up to the Luciferian Cabal.” That same month, QAnon popularized ideas about the return of the 1980s “satanic panic,” a moral uproar over unsubstantiated reports of satanic ritual child abuse. “Satanic panic” also trended on Twitter in July in reaction to season four of the Netflix show “Stranger Things,” which includes a plotline about “The Hellfire Club” that plays Dungeons & Dragons and is set, like the original satanic panic, in the 1980s.
But the roots of Americans invoking the devil for political purposes go far deeper than the 1980s. They reach all the way back to the American Revolution. Understanding this history broadens our comprehension not just of the revolutionary era, but of how and why connections between religion and politics persist to this day in a nation in which church and state are ostensibly separated. The history of revolutionary era patriot use of the devil as a political device also helps make sense of why the devil remains a popular tool among contemporary politicians with a White Christian Nationalist agenda.
By the time the war for independence began, fascination and familiarity with the devil was widespread, fostered first by Puritanism and then the first Great Awakening. From the early days of European settlement in New England, Christian ideas about the devil fed bigoted stereotypes about Indigenous Americans, entwining fear of the devil with Americans’ sense of their own identity, both as Christians and as settlers. For instance, Cotton Mather proclaimed in 1693 that, “The New Englanders are a people of God settled in those, which were once the devil’s territories.” Later, Jonathan Edwards’s famous 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” warned colonists that “The Devil stands ready to fall upon them and seize them as his own.”
Outside of New England, the devil was important to German pietist sects in Pennsylvania like the Moravians, while evangelical leaders in the South agonized over how to use widespread fascination with Satan to their advantage. The devil was a common, shared symbol across diverse peoples, religions and geographies of colonial American settlers.
And colonists did not have to be evangelical, or even religious, to be familiar with the devil. Satan inspired lowbrow humor as well as fear of hellfire, and he held widespread popular fascination, appearing in folk tales and ministers’ sermons alike.
The devil was omnipresent in anti-Catholic Pope’s Night celebrations in colonial Boston and elsewhere. Pope’s Night (or Pope’s Day) celebrations were colonial versions of celebrations of Guy Fawkes Night, an English holiday celebrating the thwarting of the Catholic “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up the (Protestant) king and parliament. In New England, it was a raucous, alcohol-fueled event. Men paraded in the streets with effigies of the “Pope” alongside that of the devil (who was often tarred and feathered) before being ritualistically burned.
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