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Satanic Temple display at Iowa Capitol spurs outrage, debate, prayer

The Satanic Temple of Iowa's display sits in the Iowa Capitol, adjacent to a display from the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers. WHO13 screengrab

DES MOINES, Iowa (BP) – The Satanic Temple’s display at the Iowa Capitol has spurred outrage, debate and prayer as many spar over the boundaries of free speech.

A mannequin depicting the pagan idol Baphomet, candles and the temple’s seven core beliefs comprise the display, adjacent to a less graphic setup from Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers. A Nativity scene is also on display.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds joined others Dec. 12 at the Iowa Capitol in a prayer for peace, accompanied by a Nativity scene that will remain until Dec. 26.

While the Satanic Temple states on its website that it doesn’t believe in Satan and is not a religion, the Internal Revenue Service recognizes the national group as a religion, Forbes.com reported Dec. 13.

Andrew Walker, an associate professor of Christian ethics and public theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, encourages Christians to be vigilant in grasping constitutional intent.

“Rights are never absolute,” he said. “There are always fact-specific and context-specific situations that require us to adjudicate those rights within.”

He stressed the importance of understanding the logic of constitutional principles, which can sometimes work against the purpose of constitutionalism overall.

“These are tricky subjects, granted, but even a Baptist like myself ought to be able to find the breaking point from the absurd reductio that cabins everything under the blanket umbrella of rights,” said Walker, associate dean of the SBTS School of Theology and director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement.

“Perhaps a true viewpoint neutrality or public forum neutrality is principled and generally desirable for the vast, vast majority of most considerations,” Walker said, “but that does not make it morally right or conducive to good rule under all conditions, either.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, responding to requests to remove the display, instead invited Iowans to join her Dec. 12 at the Iowa State House to display the Nativity and pray for peace. The Nativity will remain through Dec. 26, while the Satanic Temple display ends a two-week spree Dec. 15.

“Like many Iowans, I find the Satanic Temple’s display in the Capitol absolutely objectionable,” she said in a public statement. “In a free society, the best response to objectionable speech is more speech, and I encourage all those of faith to join me today in praying over the Capitol and recognizing the Nativity scene that will be on display – the true reason for the season.”

In such extreme circumstances, Walker promotes public order and the “greater good of decency.”

“And at some point in the moral chain of reasoning, one must say, ‘Enough!’ If legislators – and preferably not judges – cannot make reasonable distinctions in differentiating basic decency from exposing the public good to prurience and evil under the First Amendment, what good is the First Amendment in the first place?” Walker posed. “Constitutions exist to protect not just individual rights, but to serve the well-being of the entire body politic.”

Republican legislator Brad Sherman of Williamsburg called on Reynolds to remove the display Dec. 12, calling is “blasphemous,” CBS2 Iowa reported, but other Republicans have defended the display as constitutionally protected. Sherman is advocating for legislation next year prohibiting satanic displays in the Capitol.

This isn’t the first Christmas such displays have gained a seat in the public square near Christian and Jewish displays. Among past displays were those by the Satanic Temple of Illinois at the Capitol rotunda in Springfield in both 2021 and 2022, Capitol News Illinois reported Dec. 6, 2022. In 2014, the Satanic Temple of Florida set up a display at the state Capitol, depicting Satan mid-fall above a pit of fire, the Tallahassee Democrat reported Dec. 22, 2014.

Parents can respond to such displays by educating their children on “the real presence of spiritual darkness in our country and Jesus’ confrontation with them.

“Children should be pointed to passages like Ephesians 6 and shown why the Bible warns against spiritual forces that want to insert themselves at every opportunity into public life,” Walker said. “Ultimately, children should be told that Jesus is sovereign over these powers and He promises to defeat them.”