A Very Satanic Xmas: Freedom of Speech or Just Plain Provocation?

Over the 2016 Christmas period, Boca Raton’s traditional Christian Nativity scene gained an unlikely neighbor: a satanic display in the form of an inverted blood-red pentagram. It was put there by a member of the FFRF (Freedom from Religion Foundation), a middle school language arts teacher named Preston Smith. And he’s planning to repeat the operation in 2017. It will be embellished with captions to the tune of “In Satan we Trust” and “May the Children Hail Satan.” Mr. Mark Boykin, Senior Pastor at Church of All Nations, threatens to dislocate the six-foot-tall structure with a sledgehammer. He can’t believe the city is going to allow such an anti-Christian display.

Well if nothing else, it’s certainly gaining media traction. An outburst of this nature can not go unnoticed in this southernmost city of Palm Beach County, whose population is 54% religious. Last year’s pentagram and slogans sent a ripple of outcry through the community, inciting comments from local religious figures and parents of kids in Smith’s school. The president of the Parent-Teacher Association even called for Preston Smith to resign from his teaching post. Even the mayor of Boca Raton, Susan Haynie, finds the whole thing “extremely offensive” and city council member Scott Singer has stood up and said “this is not consistent with my particular values.”

So what “influence” has enabled Mr. Smith’s application to receive endorsement in the red-tape labyrinth of local bureaucracy? Two words, four syllables: First Amendment. As Scott Singer puts it: “free speech means people have an opportunity to express themselves, whether government likes it or not or whether individuals like it or not.” The atheistic Satanist erecting this pentagram is quite within his rights to do so no matter how many feathers he’s likely to ruffle.

As disturbing as Mr. Smith’s manifestation of satanic worship may seem, maybe it’s just a petty attempt at ideological expression by an outnumbered few.

This begs the question: law is one thing, but how far should we allow ourselves to go in the name of accommodating expressions of opinion when they are deemed morally unfitting—not to say shocking—by a large proportion of the population?

If a giant swastika were to be graffitied on a wall adjoining a synagogue, it would be seriously decried, and rightfully so. And yet, the flip side of the coin gives us precious liberties such as Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where anyone can take to the soapbox and vent their thoughts (as long as there is no profanity involved, in which case the bobbies are lawfully entitled to intervene).

A sketch of Satan vs. an angel
Photo by Strels/Shutterstock.com

These matters are debate material for the philosophical arena and not likely to be resolved in the blink of an eye. But for anyone who is disturbed by Mr. Smith’s pro-satanic goading, I have my take on it, for what it’s worth: throughout history, constructive human endeavors or concepts have constantly been counterbalanced or even made mockery of by an opposing force—positive thinkers versus “pathological” naysayers, religious adepts countered by nihilists, etc. Social media platforms are literally teaming with examples of positive or banal comments being mocked, slashed or nitpicked by the more argumentative tweeters. If the former, constructive category prevails it’s because Man is basically good and is willing to stick his neck out to defend his values.

Besides, isn’t that what the game of life is all about? There has to be some kind of a challenge to overcome in order to triumph, in the end.

So, as disturbing as Mr. Smith’s manifestation of satanic worship may seem, maybe it’s just a petty attempt at ideological expression by an outnumbered few. Let’s put it in perspective: yes, the pentagram will stick out like a big red sore thumb as it struggles to stand tall amid spires, statues, scriptures and well-meaning passers-by. And, as per the First Amendment, it’s legally entitled to its “15 minutes of fame.” So be it. But when the holidays come around and the “Seal of Satan” is secured in Boca Raton’s Sanborn Square, don’t be surprised if it goes down “not with a bang but a whimper.”

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