Overview

The use of dehumanizing labels is a time-tested method of preparing the way for violence against religious and ethnic minorities.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

On June 10, 2022, an arsonist attempted to burn down the headquarters of The Satanic Temple (TST) in Salem, Massachusetts. Forty-two-year-old Daniel Damien Lucey took a bus from Chelsea, then walked to the building, arriving around 10pm. He was recorded on a doorbell camera pouring lighter fluid on the front porch and igniting it before dropping his backpack into the fire as kindling and walking away. A property manager and two bed and breakfast guests who were in the building at the time were unharmed. 

This attack comes only one year after an unknown arsonist burned down a historic home in Poughkeepsie, New York, frequented by the Church of Satan—a group founded in 1966 with no relation to TST. In the video, Lucey can be seen wearing a t-shirt that says “God,” which made it easy for police to identify him when he returned to the scene to watch his handiwork—something arsonists often do. Lucey attempted to evade the police, but later claimed he had returned to turn himself in. He was charged with arson of a dwelling, a civil rights violation, and destruction of a place of worship. He initially requested to represent himself, but the judge persuaded him to use a public defender. 

This was not Lucey’s first arson. The Salem News reported he has multiple prior property destruction and burning cases in Boston Municipal Court, some of which he was on probation for. So the question is not why a firebug like Lucey tried to set a building on fire, but why he tried to set this particular building on fire. 

While it is tempting to frame this as the act of a “lone nut,” there is a larger context to this crime. Destructive rhetoric about a minority religion steered Lucey toward his target, and more importantly made him feel he had moral license to use violence. When I interviewed members of TST for my book Speak of the Devil, nearly everyone in a leadership position described receiving death threats. 

Like most situations in which a religious minority is the target of focused hate, perceptions of The Satanic Temple are widely divorced from reality. TST does not believe in a literal Satan but admires the literary figure of Satan as a mythological embodiment of their values of self-determination and resistance to arbitrary authority. Their core beliefs are articulated in The Seven Tenets, a group of moral precepts that most people would recognize as thoughtful and positive.

But reality has never been an impediment to hateful stereotypes, and threats and violence are not unusual when minority religions demand equal rights in communities that have historically privileged Christianity. However, TST’s political actions have elicited especially vitriolic responses. In 2014, after TST announced their plan to build a Satanic statue to complement a Ten Commandments monument installed at the Oklahoma capitol, a commentator on Fox News’s “Don Imus in the Morning” opined, “They should be able to put the statue up and then they should be shot right next to it.” 

On January 10, 2018, actor Corey Feldman re-tweeted a woman who posted an image of TST’s headquarters with the message, since deleted:

I doubt nothing anymore. I have em. In Salem MA. Opened a Satanic Church last year!!! The Witches are evil. And Satanists and Cults are VERY real! W [sic] a church like this Should not exist! Burn it! Blame Hillary I don’t care! It’s gutta go. If anyone likes this idea they r FKed⁠

On January 13, a man attempted to break into the headquarters armed with a sharpened screwdriver. 

There is a direct relationship between reckless discourse and the actions of disturbed individuals. In fact, Lucey seems to feel that this act of arson was the moral thing to do. When Salem Police Detective Wesley Regan interrogated him, Lucey explained, “They’re devil worshippers.” Regan asked him what that meant to him, and he answered, “It means they need to be wiped out,” adding, “It’s a hate crime.” Some have interpreted this statement as Lucey confessing to a hate crime, but Lucey pled not guilty to all charges. More likely, he meant that TST’s existence is itself a hate crime, and that he was therefore justified in using violence against the religion. 

These kinds of pseudo-legal arguments are common among TST’s conservative Christian opponents. The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, a far-right Catholic group that often protests TST, frequently bears signs stating, “Satan has no rights.” Another significant feature of Lucey’s crime was the contents of the backpack he used as kindling. In addition to some sticks and two quarts of lighter fluid, it also contained a Bible and a copy of the Constitution. Singed Bible pages were found near the crime scene. Juxtaposed, these two books likely symbolized an ideology of Christian nationalism for Lucey. So there was a ritualistic dimension to this crime in which Lucey sought to incorporate symbols of his ideology into his act of violence. 

There is precedent for this kind of crime-as-religious act. In 1986, the Manhattan bomb squad successfully disabled a bomb found in a Planned Parenthood. Along with fifteen sticks of dynamite and a timing mechanism, they found a medal of Saint Benedict, which in Catholic tradition is associated with exorcism. Bomber Dennis John Malvasi finally turned himself in after a plea from New York’s Cardinal O’Connor. 

When arsons and bombing are successful, such clues are unlikely to be found. One wonders how often criminals incorporate religious symbols into their acts of terror. The most chilling detail of Lucey’s crime was his response when asked if he knew people were inside the building he attempted to burn down. Lucey answered he was not aware of the occupants but “if they were devil worshipers, [he] would not lose sleep over it.” 

Lucey’s moral viewpoint divides humanity into two categories: Killing people “like him” is murder, while killing “devil worshippers” is a moral action, even if it is technically illegal. This sort of mentality does not form overnight, but metastasizes as a result of dehumanizing discourse about religious minorities. 

The most famous fire in the study of new religious movements is that of the 1993 Branch Davidian tragedy near Waco, Texas in which 76 people died, including twenty children. The Branch Davidians were an apocalyptic Christian sect that could not have been more different from TST, and the cause of the fire that started shortly after the FBI attempted to end a 51-day standoff using tanks and CS gas remains the subject of debate. But actions of federal agents during the Waco siege demonstrated a similar callousness toward human life. Most people would never countenance using tear gas against children and pregnant women or setting fire to a building with bed-and-breakfast guests inside. But in both cases, prolonged dehumanizing rhetoric caused the targets to appear not as fellow citizens but as either “cultists” or “devil worshippers.” 

Catherine Wessinger, an expert on the Waco case, noted that there is a lesson here about dehumanizing language” “The word ‘cult’ dehumanizes the religion’s members and their children. It strongly implies that these people are deviants; they are seen as crazy, brainwashed, duped by their leader. When we label people as subhuman, we create a context in which it is considered virtuous to kill them.”

More broadly, similarly dehumanzing labels have been used to justify killing in wartime (e.g. Japanese soldiers in WWII referred to as ants or rats), slavery (Africans and African Americans referred to as “ape-like”), and the careful development of German national anti-Semitism in the 1930s by referring to Jews as “vermin.” Even the US Declaration of Independence labels Native Americans as “merciless Indian Savages,” a characterization that eased the process of their genocide.  

“When we label people as subhuman, we create a context in which it is considered virtuous to kill them.”

PROF. Catherine Wessinger

Lucey may have acted alone, but he does not bear sole responsibility for the arson. Nearly a decade of hysterical rhetoric claimed that TST are a threat to America, undeserving of constitutional rights, and that they should be “lined up and shot” directly contributed to this crime. So too has the larger context of “Satanic Panic” in America, which has extended continuously from the 1980s into QAnon conspiracy theories about the Illuminati torturing children. 

The silver lining of this situation has been an outpouring of support for TST in the wake of the crime. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll released a statement that the city condemns “this hateful attack.” TST spokesman Lucien Greaves told The Boston Herald, “This whole incident has had the paradoxical effect of making us feel more welcome than we ever have. . . . It would be nice if people took this as a reminder to take a moment to lay off the outrage a bit and take a moment to speak to people they might disagree with.” 

Emerging religions like TST are often controversial, and it is hardly surprising that some people are upset when TST attempts to bring Satanism into the public square or files lawsuits arguing their religious freedom should entitle them to abortion on demand. But whether we like them or not, TST remain law-abiding citizens in a religiously plural society as well as fellow human beings worthy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is a great danger of forgetting this in an environment defined by social media bubbles and overheated rhetoric. 

There is no person, no group, no religion or ethnicity that could not one day find itself on the receiving end of dehumanizing rhetoric from a powerful majority. We all have every incentive to oppose such rhetoric long before it is aimed at us.

Joseph Laycock is an associate professor of religious studies at Texas State University and an editor for the journal Nova Religio. His recent books include "Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple...