“They’re demonic. It’s sickening, some of these books,” said Cain Young of Task Force Freedom during a Jan. 24 presentation at Message of Life Ministries in Loveland. The purpose of the meeting was to present “actions you can take to fight to remove pornographic literature from school libraries.”

Young’s description of books as “demonic” is the latest example of how some Christian conservatives are using their faith to wage “spiritual warfare,” casting their political enemies — anyone perceived to be a part of the political left — as an agent of Satan, an enemy of their lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

In addition to books, the list of “demonic” elements in American politics is long and growing. Colorado Rep. Scott Bottoms (R-CO Springs), a pastor for the Church at Briargate, has called critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and transgender people “demonic.” Republican congressional candidate Tim Reichert, who lost the Republican primary to Erik Aadland, compared abortion to sacrifices to the Old Testament demon Baal.

It’s not just Satan and demons that are a danger to Christian conservatives, but occult practices like gnosticism, as well.

“Secular progressivism, this alternative religion, is built on an old church heresy called gnostic dualism,” warned anti-abortion activist Seth Gruber during an event at Colorado Christian University in August, 2022.

James Lindsay, a conservative cultural critic and regular Turning Point USA speaker, warned in a Jan. 6 tweet that transgender people practice “queer gnosticism.”

“It’s called a ‘deadname’ because adopting a trans identity is a ritual of death and rebirth in Queer Gnosticism,” he tweeted. “Technically, it’s a crude, external (simulated) step toward Hermetic ascension to the level of self-begottenness so that one’s gender soul might actualize.”

With renewed concerns about Satanism and gnosticism, telegram channels and right-wing influencers are accusing various politicians, like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), of secret memberships in Masonic orders. Greg Pappas, cohost of Joe Oltmann’s Conservative Daily podcast, recently tweeted a meme showing the connections between big tech apps and Masonic imagery. Conservative media has yet to revive the 2015 story of then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris aide Brandon Kiel’s membership in the Masonic Fraternal Police Department.

According to Rev. Mallory Everhart, a pastor at Vista Grande Community Church, United Church of Christ, in Colorado Springs, this isn’t just an affectation or campaign rhetoric, it is a firmly held religious belief in a literal Satan.

“They look at it as spiritual warfare,” she says. “They take some of the stories of Jesus casting out demons — which is a metaphor in the Bible — but they take that extremely literally. For some people, the Satanic panic never ended. It just isn’t mainstream. They literally believe that if they were not praying and they were not working as hard as they are working to turn the tide of secularism, they feel — literally — that demons are going to overrun the Earth.”

One of the groups combating the encroachment of Christian nationalism into realms of public policy and governance is The Satanic Temple (TST). Founded in early 2013 by Lucien Greaves as a mockumentary about Satanists, but quickly morphing into a vehicle for religious advocacy, TST has built a name for itself by insisting that public institutions give it the same deference and consideration as Christianity. In 2014 TST crowdfunded a statue of Baphomet, the androgynous goat-headed demon whose origins — just like those of the Masonic Fraternal Police Department — can be traced to the Knights Templar, to be placed next to a Ten Commandments monument, which was donated by a Republican legislator, at the Oklahoma State Capitol. A lawsuit brought by the ACLU resulted in the Ten Commandments monument being ruled unconstitutional. In 2018 TST brought the Baphomet statue, which now resides in Salem, Massachusetts, to the Arkansas State Capitol to request it be placed next to their Ten Commandments statue. Additionally, TST has been working to start After School Satan Clubs to compete with Christian Good News Clubs in elementary schools and has been involved in litigation challenging abortion bans.

TST’s advocacy, which relies in part on media coverage generating outrage amongst Christian conservatives, is hitting its mark. “You know who [TST] is targeting, right?” said Martin Mawyer, founder of the ‘pro-family, pro-religious freedom and pro-traditional values’ Christian Action Network during an appearance on the Chuck and Julie podcast in December. “The kids that [TST] wants to go after are the conservative, religious believing household kids that are out there. And what did they want to do? Well, ultimately, they want to unbaptize them because they have all these unbaptism services on their Facebook pages.”

The Satanists of TST claim that theirs is a nontheistic religion. “We don’t believe that there is like, a Satan down below that’s sitting there with pitchforks and fire and waiting for our souls,” says June Everett, a member of the Colorado congregation’s triumvirate and the national campaign director for the After School Satan Club, and a Minister of Satan.

“We all define our Satanism really differently on a personal level, which is one of the great things about Satanism as a religion, is that it’s a very personal religion,” explains Persephone Gray, also a member of the Colorado congregation’s triumvirate and a Minister of Satan. “A lot of our beliefs come from self-empowerment. We don’t look to an outside source like a god or a deity to get through life. We look for our own self-determination, which is one of the things I love about Satanism personally.”

The Colorado congregation performed an unbaptism during their Dec. 17 Saturnalia event at the Marquis Theater in Denver. For many TST members, the unbaptism ritual is a step on the road to recovery from religious trauma.

Everhart, who grew up in a fundamentalist religious community, is familiar with the concept of religious trauma. “It’s twofold,” she explains. “The experience of intense shaming, social isolation, loss of community, and other forms of retribution after expressing doubt or disagreement within a religious community, and retraumatization after a traumatic incident when, after disclosing within religious community, the person is met with harmful, inadequate, or otherwise incongruous responses.” 

According to Everhart, LGBTQ people, victims of sexual abuse, and those with mental health issues are particularly vulnerable to religious trauma.

A ceremonial Baphomet.

TST’s unbaptism ritual is heavy on Satanic imagery. The stage is decorated with a makeshift altar featuring a miniature statue of Baphomet, a gong, candles, a container of liquid, and ceremonial chalices, next to a throne decorated with a pentagram and human skulls. A fog machine fills the club with mist, and black-robed figures in goat masks take the stage while a performer representing Baphomet sits on the throne.

“On this night, we honor those who survived the cruelty committed against us in the name of God,” intones one of the robed figures, as the other robed participants take turns filling their chalices. The robed figures descend into the crowd, dipping their fingers into the chalices and marking the foreheads of participants with bloody inverted crosses.

“We never use real blood because half of us are vegan,” says Danger, another member of the Colorado triumvirate and a Minister of Satan.

“We do all sorts of rituals,” explains Gray. “One of the things that’s really great about belonging to a nontheistic religion is that, without supernatural belief systems, we recognize that religion has existed for a long time, and it’s done good things for communities. It’s also done very bad things for communities. One of the good things it has done is it creates a sense of community where people belong and you can involve yourself in practices with other people, like a ritual that offers a way to create a deeper bond with the people you’re practicing with and even with yourself as well. One of the things we like to call it is ‘psychodrama,’ because we believe that you can, you know, put your head in a certain mindspace … Having you put your brain in that space where you have a very specific intention, and you think about it and you want to feel something about it. Using stylized wording and if you do it with the community as well, having that positive interaction with other people about that specific thing is really cathartic for a lot of people.”

An unbaptism.

Though they deny adherence to a literal Satan, TST’s name, rituals, and their first amendment-protected advocacy generate outrage and consternation from Christian conservatives, and even moderates, who are troubled by their Satanic imagery and overtones. “That is definitely something that we have experienced over the years,” says Chalice Blythe, Minister of Satan and a media relations specialist for TST national, which oversees the state-level congregations. “We have this other campaign, Grey Faction, that specifically addresses the satanic panic within the mental health field. We know that hysteria and fear of people’s misunderstanding of what Satanism is and what that means, what religious satanic religious practices [are] can completely ruin people’s lives, even if they’re not self-identified Satanists. All you have to do is just tell the world that somebody is a Satanist or make accusations. People can go to prison for just an accusation, so when it comes to the association between what people’s ideas of what Satanism is and how that can have a major impact on how we are treated, not only socially but also in the justice system. It’s something we live with all the time.”

The Satanic Panic
The so-called “Satanic panic” refers to the period starting in the mid-70s and continuing through the 80s of widespread allegations of occult crime and Satanic ritual abuse. It is often considered out of context, and dismissed as simply a moral panic, but the “Satanic panic” did not evolve in a vacuum.

The news stories of the era regularly featured bizarre and horrible violent crimes interspersed with equally concerning scandals in the government. The rise of serial killers, the Church Committee’s disclosure of the CIA’s MKUltra mind control program in 1975, the wave of bizarre cattle mutilations across the Midwest starting in the mid-70s, the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s, the Savings and Loan Crisis, and the growing concern among law enforcement agencies over occult crime and claims of Satanic ritual abuse, coupled with the growing political and cultural influence of evangelical Christianity, created an environment of fear and paranoia that persists today.

The most glaring contemporary example is the QAnon movement. A distillation of nearly every conspiracy in the 20th century, it combines the anti-government paranoia of Bill Cooper with the bizarre conspiracies of UFO figure John Lear and elements of Pat Robertson’s 1991 book New World Order, tied to anti-vaccine sentiment and election conspiracies. QAnon suggests that a cabal of Satan-worshiping elites are involved in the widespread ritual murder and sexual abuse of children and a vast conspiracy to control and enslave the entire population of Earth. QAnon adherents have been involved in a variety of violent crimes related to these fringe beliefs, such as the 2016 “Pizzagate” shooting at Comet Ping Pong in Washington D.C. and two murders by fathers who became obsessed with the conspiracy.

What makes conspiracy theories so compelling for many is their basis in some kernel of truth. From UFOs, to the Kennedy assassinations, to 9/11 or COVID-19, conspiracy theories attempt to offer explanations for bizarre, horrifying, or traumatic incidents that lack transparency or a coherent official explanation. The “Satanic panic” is no different.

Ross Cheit, a professor of political science and professor of international and public affairs at Brown University, conducted a systemic examination of many of the publicized cases of satanic ritual abuse allegations at daycare centers in the 1980s for his book The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Cheit argues that while there may be scant evidence of Satanic cults abusing and sacrificing children, there is evidence to suggest that child sexual abuse was, in fact, occurring in many of the Satanic ritual abuse cases. Cheit also critiques the involvement of experts from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), who were often used to discredit children’s testimony and question the validity of testimony stemming from “repressed memories.” The FMSF was founded by Peter and Pamela Feyd, after their daughter accused Peter of childhood sexual abuse. The testimony of FMSF member Ralph Underwager was frequently used in “Satanic panic” cases, until Underwager resigned from FMSF’s scientific advisory board after his interview with a Dutch pro-pedophilia magazine was published in 1993.

Like the FMSF, TST’s Grey Faction warns of the dangers of the kinds of therapies that were used in the prosecution of “Satanic panic” cases. In a 2021 letter in response to a NY Mag article critical of FMSF, that mentioned TST and Grey Faction in passing, Greaves wrote, “The character of the Freyds, one way or another, does nothing to validate Recovered Memory Therapies or refute the existence of false memories. … Recovered Memory Therapies, and the false narratives propagated by their practitioners are at the root of dangerous Satanic Panic conspiracy theories, now on the rise in a disturbing, militant right-wing movements.”

Colorado’s Satanic ritual abuse case is a prime example of sensational claims of Satanic ritual abuse muddying the waters in the prosecution of actual child sexual abuse.

On May 22, 1988, the Denver Post ran a story with the headline, “Satanism feared in eastern Colo. child-abuse case.” Parents of children at a daycare in Akron, just 30 minutes east of Brush, which was the epicenter of Colorado’s cattle mutilation epidemic in the 70s, reported the same kinds of macabre details as those in the McMartin, Westpoint, and Presidio sex abuse scandals.

Courtesy Washington County Sheriff’s Office

“One youngster repeatedly has described vivid details involving a ceremonial decapitation of a young boy named Bobby,” wrote the Post. “The children’s stories include tales of rape and sodomy inflicted by masked and hooded adults during ceremonial torture sessions. One 4-year-old identified a pentagram — a common Satanic symbol — and associated it with the daycare home. Beyond three or four primary suspects, [Washington County Undersheriff Steve] Vosburg said, a dozen more could be involved.”

While the sensational Satanic elements of the story were never substantiated, the child sexual abuse was. Hazel Riggs, owner of the daycare, was charged and convicted of accessory to a crime. Her grandsons, Phillip and Michael Riggs, were each charged and convicted of sexual assault on a child. 

The Presidio sex abuse case in San Francisco, in which four children contracted chlamydia, involved noted Satanist Michael Aquino. Aquino, a psychological operations officer who took part in Operation Wandering Soul during the Vietnam War, was a practicing Satanist, working with Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan until 1975, when he founded the Temple of Set, an occult order grounded in Satanism. In 1983, Aquino performed a solitary rite at Walhalla, part of the Wewelsburg castle in Germany that was utilized as a ceremonial space by the Nazi SS during World War II. In 1987, Aquino was investigated as part of the Presidio sex abuse scandal, in which a group of parents claimed as many as 37 children may have been sexually abused at an Army daycare center. According to author David McGowan, “One child positively identified Aquino and his wife, Lilith, and was also able to identify the Aquinos’ private home and to describe with considerable accuracy the distinctively Satanic interior décor of the house.”

Michael Aquino

Neither Aquino nor his wife was charged with any crimes in connection with the Presidio case, but his name emerges in discussions of evidence of Satanic pedophiles working within the U.S. government ever since.

Gary Hambright, a teacher at the Presidio Child Development Center, was twice charged, but both times the charges were dropped.

Aquino’s one-time commanding officer, Paul Vallely, would go on to become a figure in the QAnon movement. In August, 2022, Vallely endorsed Republican congressional candidate Erik Aadland, who lost to U.S. Rep. Brittany Pettersen (D-CO).

While QAnon adherents and election deniers often ignore Vallely’s connection to Aquino, they are willing to discuss cases like the Franklin Scandal.

“Why all this fraud?” asked failed Nebraska Republican Secretary of State candidate Robert Borer during his August, 2022 appearance at MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s Moment of Truth Summit. “I’m going to throw a bucket of cold water in your face here. Omaha is not only home to the super-secret black box vote-counting company, but it’s also home to a huge, horrific pedophilia and child-trafficking network. If you don’t believe me go to franklinscandal.com. … I listened until I couldn’t take anymore and all I wanted to do was cry. You’ve got human trafficking — and we’re talking children — and we’ve got drug trafficking. All of this out of Omaha. This is why they need to corrupt our elections. They need to elect weak people and corrupt people who will not investigate this stuff.”

Robert Borer

The allegations made in the Franklin Scandal, described by a grand jury as a “carefully crafted hoax,” are a kind of proto-QAnon. In 1988 it was alleged that Lawarence King Jr., described as “the fastest rising Black star in the Republican party in all of the 80’s,” who owned the Franklin Community Federal Credit Union in Omaha, was leading a ring of pedophiles who engaged in Satanic ritual abuse, the sacrifice of infants, and trafficking children and drugs to high-ranking members of the Republican Party in Washington, D.C. Gary Caradori, an investigator hired by the Nebraska legislature, died in a plane crash on July 11, 1990, a day after reportedly informing Rep. Loran Schmit, a Republican, that he had found conclusive evidence of the allegations. Schmit doubted the official explanation for the crash of Caradori’s plane, writing in 1991 to NTSB inspector Bill Bruce, “There have been entirely too many violent deaths associated with this investigation for me accept the conclusion that Caradori’s aircraft simply came apart in the sky.”

Though King was never charged for the Satanic child abuse allegations, he was indicted on 40 counts that included conspiracy, fraud, and embezzlement in connection with the theft of $39.4 million from his credit union. In 1989 the Washington Times reported on a homosexual prostitution ring whose clients included “key officials of the Reagan and Bush administrations.” Craig Spence, a lobbyist known for his lavish parties, was named as a client. He told the Times, “All this stuff you’ve uncovered, to be honest with you, is insignificant compared to other things I’ve done. But I’m not going to tell you those things, and somehow the world will carry on,” months before his death by suicide.

Aside from the horrifying and sensational stories of Satanic ritual abuse in daycares, the rise of occult crime contributed to the panic around Satanism. Richard Ramirez, the infamous Night Stalker who terrorized California in the mid-80s, was fascinated by Satanism and the occult, and left pentagrams at his crime scenes. Maury Terry’s 1987 book, The Ultimate Evil, investigated connections between New York’s Son of Sam killer, David Berkowitz, and a Satanic cult of serial killers. Larry Kahaner documented the efforts of law enforcement agencies across the country to address crimes with links to the occult and Satanism in his 1988 book, Cults That Kill.

In the 80s, Denver Police Department Detectives Bill and Cleo Wickersham became regional experts on occult crimes after investigating a juvenile prostitution ring in the Capitol Hill neighborhood with ties to Satanism in 1982. William Acree, the owner of a halfway house, was charged and convicted of prostituting children and sexual assault on a child.

Cleo, now in her late 70s, emphasized that law enforcement focused on crimes, not the religion. “We didn’t want to create a panic because it’s so easy to do that,” she says. “We respected the fact that they had the right to worship the way they wanted to, but they didn’t have the right to commit crime in conjunction with it. That was all that we monitored was the fact that they didn’t commit crime.”

The Acree case was one of the only Satanic cases the Wickershams investigated directly, but they shared their knowledge of the occult with other agencies, including the FBI and Interpol. Cleo retired from law enforcement in 2002, and admits to concerns about the “Satanic Panic” cases involving daycares.

“There were people who did get panic-stricken about it,” she says. “They did things that kind of made everybody’s work look stupid. The [McMartin Preschool] case out of California, that was somebody panic-stricken and pushing children to say and do things that I thought was ridiculous. You could tell from the beginning that when they started talking about those cases, that that is what was going on. Somebody was walking these kids through and having them say and do these things. That was pretty sad, I thought.”

Despite the historical baggage and stigma of Satanism, members of TST’s Colorado Congregation see the organization as a force for good.

“I went to my first meeting and after that I was just in love with the people that I met,” says Everett. They were so open and nonjudgmental and welcoming and loving. I started going to the meetings and I just found, like a church family, which sounds kind of corny. I was raised in a very secular household, so I didn’t know what that felt like. All this time I’ve been like, ‘You know, it’s not a big deal.’ Going to church, like, I don’t really quite get it. When I found TST Colorado, I was like, I get it. I get why people go to church. I get why they have their church family.”

Not all the Satanic congregants feel the same way. In 2021, Newsweek covered TST’s defamation lawsuit against former members of the Washington congregation, which sought $140,000 in damages over claims from the former members that “TST mismanages funds, harasses dissenters, tolerates anti-Semitism and abusive leadership, and is a cult-like group masquerading as a religion.”

In 2018, TST weathered an internal crisis over the group’s relationship with Mark Randazza, a lawyer who has represented Alex Jones and Neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, in a lawsuit against Twitter. In 2018 TST also settled a lawsuit against Netflix for its depiction of their Baphomet statue in the series “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”

Thus far, TST efforts against its former members have failed. According to a Jan. 6 press release from the Queer Satanic, the collective of former Washington TST members, “For the second time in nearly three years of litigation, a federal district court in Washington State dismissed all claims made by The Satanic Temple against four of its former members.”

According to Queer Satanic’s news release, the initial defamation suit was dismissed in 2021 citing First Amendment protections, but refiled in March 2021. As of December 2022, Queer Satanic members have spent over $100,000 in legal costs.

“This has been a strain on our families, on our personal relationships, on our financial security, and on our physical, and mental health,” said defendant Leah Fishbaugh in a news release. “I’m ready to finally have my life back.”

TST is appealing the Washington ruling. 

“You’re talking about former members who not only admitted to engaging in the behavior that got them at the center of the lawsuit, but they also were very open about the fact that they were never Satanists to begin with,” says Blythe. “So, you know, they were motivated by their own. They had their own motivations for what they did. When we push back on their behavior, they acted the way that they did. They were given every opportunity to stop what they were doing, no harm, no foul. They decided to keep doing what they were doing, so whatever’s happening to them now is just a consequence of their own behavior.”

TST’s legal actions are not just for Twitter, Netflix, and former members, however. Its willingness to use the courts to prosecute First Amendment cases and religious freedom are part of the group’s appeal. 

“I think it is a corrective for how invested conservative Christianity has gotten in U.S. politics, which is incredibly needed,” says Everhart. “So much of Conservative Christianity has become synonymous with the Republican Party and is synonymous with being against abortion or being anti-queer. All of that rhetoric has continued to get worse. …[TST] is using some of the laws, or specifically case law, that conservative Christians use, saying ‘Hey, this is freedom of religion,’ and then using the same rhetorical and legal precedents to then start to push back on what it means to to be a religious person in in the United States, and start to try to put some limits on what has kind of ran unchecked for the last 50 years. … As someone in the more mainline [Christian] tradition, we don’t necessarily believe in Hell and we don’t necessarily believe in Satan as such, but as someone who’s like politically invested, I see what they’re doing, and I’m actually all for it.”

This is Part One of a multi-part series on The Satanic Temple. Read Part Two here. Read Part Three here.