It might be tempting to laugh off the zealous veteran who yesterday vandalized a display put up in the Iowa Capitol by the slightly tongue-in-cheek Satanic Temple.
However, a presidential candidate who clearly believes “Satan” really exists has now vowed to contribute to the defacer’s legal defense. And that’s no laughing matter — but rather a sobering indication of the chokehold Christian nationalism has on our society.
Not since the wacky Rev. Pat Robertson ran for president in 1988 have we seen such theocratic pronouncements — the difference being that Robertson was a televangelist, not an elected official. It is deplorable that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis lost no time in making his pandering announcement stating, “Satan has no place in our society and should not be recognized as a ‘religion’ by the federal government. I’ll chip in to this veteran’s legal defense fund.”
That a U.S. governor in the 21st century sincerely believes in “Satan” is an embarrassment.
But it’s far more than that. All Americans should recognize that his belief that the government may censure unpopular or minority viewpoints on religion is positively un-American — and must be condemned.
The veteran who defaced the display, Michael Cassidy, a former congressional candidate from Mississippi, turned himself in after the vandalism, saying he wanted to “awaken Christians to the anti-Christian acts promoted by our government.” He added, “The world may tell Christians to submissively accept the legitimization of Satan, but none of the Founders would have considered government sanction of satanic altars inside Capitol buildings as protected by the First Amendment.”
Clearly, DeSantis concurs with Cassidy’s ignorant views. Yet public forum law is well-settled: When Iowa opened up its Capitol grounds to religious exhibits in December, it could not censor or choose sides. The Freedom From Religion Foundation proved that point this year when it won its lawsuit against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott after he denounced and removed FFRF’s Bill of Rights nativity display from the Texas Capitol while permitting a Christian nativity to remain. An appeals court solidly found Abbott had violated FFRF’s rights and public forum law. It is difficult to conceive how DeSantis made it through Yale Law School and passed the bar, given his misinformed understanding of such a simple principle of law. It is chilling to imagine the clamp down on free-speech rights that would occur in a DeSantis presidency.
Other elected officials deserve censure, as well. Culpable for condemning the display is Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. Speaking out of both sides of her mouth, Reynolds denounced the satanic display while claiming that the answer to bad speech is more speech. Yet in urging Iowans to pray in support of the Christian nativity scene in the Capitol, she lent the authority of her office to the majority religion over dissenters. Some other Christian legislators demanded the display’s removal or even “sledgehammering.” It’s not surprising a fanatic came out of the woodwork to act after such reckless encouragement from elected officials. Encouraging property damage against displays in a public forum, and then offering to pay the legal bills of offenders, should have no place in American governance.
In a postscript that is genuinely amusing, DeSantis used the controversy to attack his opponent Donald Trump. DeSantis complained to Jake Tapper on CNN that the “Trump administration gave them [the Satanic Temple] approval to be under the IRS as a religion. So that gave them the legal ability to potentially do it.” (Of course, the IRS had no choice but to recognize the Satanic Temple as a religion when it met the criteria, and it wasn’t necessary to be an IRS-recognized religion in order to place a display in the Iowa Capitol in December anyway.)
This political catfight gives us something to smile about — even if it doesn’t completely lift the seriousness of the issues at stake.
FFRF Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) organization that develops and advocates for legislation, regulations and government programs to preserve the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. It also advocates for the rights and views of nonbelievers, endorses candidates for political office, and publicizes the views of elected officials concerning religious liberty issues.