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The Christian Right's Deal With the Devil
A democracy haunted by satan is not a democracy at all
It was a frigid desert-winter day on January 15, 1992, when a couple on the run were apprehended by Las Vegas police. They had been indicted by a grand jury in Texas months earlier, and had fled to Nevada, where they’d cut and dyed their hair — the woman went blonde — and obtained false identity papers. Their license plate, however, was still listed in a national offenders’ registry, and the cops chased them through the winding streets to a cheap motel. Later, Fran Keller, then 44, of Austin, would claim that a cop had forced her to stand naked while being questioned. It was the midpoint of a long and terrible year for Fran and Dan Keller, a surreal and extended gauntlet of humiliation that would last for decades to come.
The previous August, the Kellers — proprietors of a small day care in the Oak Hill area of Austin, TX — had become ensnared in a nationwide moral panic that pitted child-care professionals against parents and children, replete with allegations of child molestation, blood-drinking, Satanic rituals, and consorting with demons. The “Satanic Panic,” as it became known in later years, postulated that “Satanic Ritual Abuse” was taking place across the nation’s daycare centers, in a coordinated conspiracy of child-molestation. Day-care owners throughout the United States and Canada were put on trial, some imprisoned for decades, condemned by testimony of child rape alongside a staggering array of wild, Satanic rituals. The Kellers — middle-aged professionals with no prior convictions — were no exception.
It all started when 3-year old, who had exhibited behavioral problems prior to enrolling, claimed that she had been sexually abused at the Kellers’ day care. Over the course of the summer of 1991, two other children — prompted by parents, psychologists, and the Believe the Children network, an organization instrumental in other Satanic Ritual Abuse court cases — began issuing allegations that ranged from the grotesque to the bizarre. Parents with children in the day care connected with groups that purported to have uncovered a vast Satanic network in day-care centers across America. According to a 1994 review of the case by Texas Monthly journalist Gary Cartwright, one group alleged that the CIA had arranged a nationwide system of ritual torture “by which devil-worshipping perpetrators programmed and controlled victims, ultimately turning them into Manchurian Candidate-style robots.”
With these dubious figures’ encouragement, the toddlers made increasingly bizarre and violent claims. In a process stretched out for months, psychologists and parents steered the children with leading questions, and the kids lived in a welter of increasing fear. In addition to repeated sexual abuse, the Kellers were accused of taking the children to a nearby cemetery to dig up graves; of baptizing a four-year-old boy in blood; giving the children blood-laced Kool-Aid to drink; forcing the children to disembowel and skin cats, dogs, and infants as sacrifices to Satan; putting horse manure in a child’s asthma inhaler; burying children alive; dressing them in Satanic regalia; and breaking the wings of doves, “the symbol of Christianity.” The day-care center was a working brothel that trafficked the children, who were sedated with drugs injected in their anuses and between their toes. During the investigation, the sheriff’s department conducted land-air searches of nearby cemeteries, seeking evidence of ritual murder or burials. Nothing was found. One child accused the Kellers of cutting the finger off a gorilla in a nearby park. The park had neither a zoo, nor a free-roaming Texan primate.
In preparing their defense, the Kellers had studied other cases in which day-care providers had been accused of sexually and ritually abusing children. They knew about the mounting accusations against them, the impossibly violent crimes of which they were accused. The statistics were grim. So, after a grand jury indicted the couple in 1991, they fled to Las Vegas. By the time their trial began in November 1992, the ludicrous nature of the allegations mattered little. They had run, and therefore they were guilty — of child molestation on a colossal scale, in the service of Satan.
The Kellers were sentenced to 48 years in prison. After extensive appeals, they were at last released in 2015, after the sole physical evidence in the case — the testimony of an ER doctor who alleged that a three-year-old girl’s hymen showed signs of rupture — was debunked in a cover story for the Austin Chronicle. (The doctor, Michael Mouw, admitted to the Chronicle that he had not had the specialized knowledge to conduct a pediatric sexual-abuse examination in 1991, and that he had subsequently seen images that indicated the girl’s hymen was consistent with “normal variants” of prepubescent genitalia. “I wouldn’t touch that case with a 10-foot pole now,” he told the paper.) By the time they got out, Fran was 63, Dan 72; they had spent two decades behind bars.
The Kellers were among hundreds of day-care workers accused of committing lurid and fantastic crimes, in league with Satan, and among the dozens who spent years or decades in prison. The allegations of “Satanic ritual abuse” leveled against the couple were part of a maelstrom formed by the fervent belief of parents, psychologists, law-enforcement officers, judges, and pundits — like Geraldo Rivera, who ran an infamous, breathless two-hour NBC prime-time special in 1998 entitled “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground.”
“A nationwide network of Satanic criminals exist,” Rivera intoned gravely to an audience of millions. “This is not a Halloween fable. It’s a real-life horror story.”
In the books, articles and studies exploring the phenomenon of the Satanic Panic, scholars and journalists have struggled to pinpoint its origins. The faddish trend in psychological practice of encouraging patients to “recover” purportedly “repressed” memories, often of sexual abuse, led to ever wilder accusations in a kind of clinical folie a deux. Feminist scholars have argued that the targeting of day cares in specific was due to a nationwide backlash against the feminist movements of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which saw more and more women working outside the home — and thus needing professional care for their young children. Others point to America’s perennial fascination with cults; an innate culture of conspiracy theory; and the wild, Manichaean brand of religiosity that casts every part of life in the public sphere as part of a titanic struggle between good and evil.
But the real truth about the Satanic Panic — the war waged by fundamentalist Christian parents and law enforcement officers convinced that the most banal of interactions were influenced by Lucifer himself — is that it never really ended. The same toxic brew of antifeminism, patriarchal Christianity, attraction to conspiracy, and desire to punish those who break with very particular norms around gender is alive and well in the USA, and it continues to influence our nation’s politics, punditry, and policy. Across the country, believers in the doctrine of spiritual warfare — that politics and policy are part of a greater struggle against Satan and his legions — are entrenched in positions of influence and power, with the goal of creating an overt Christian theocracy that forecloses the social gains of the last century. Born out of a religious awakening on the Christian right that arose in the 1970s, this movement has been building for fifty years, and now finds itself represented by a broad and powerful coalition: from wild-eyed self-proclaimed prophets with podcasts to justices of the Supreme Court.
This is a movement that aims to subjugate women completely — a movement so marinated in misogyny that it has earned its political victories with the blood of women denied healthcare, prosecuted for miscarriages, carrying nonviable fetuses to term. It’s a movement that views the “gay lifestyle” as a mortal sin, and one that seeks to eliminate trans people from public life entirely. It’s a movement that paves the path to ideological uniformity by encouraging brutal forms of child abuse — all rooted in a Biblical interpretation that views children as the absolute property of their parents, to be harmed at will. And it is a movement that gains power daily in this country.
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The current operations of the Christian right are those of an ascendant theocracy, with a stark vision of how families should work. In the decade since the Kellers finally went free, it’s become abundantly clear that the devil isn’t done with the state of Texas. Or the rest of the country, for that matter.
Just ask Tania Joy Gibson, a former Miss Illinois turned MAGA influencer. For the past several years, she’s been appearing on podcasts, livestreams and videos alongside key Trumpworld figures like Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn. Years after her son came out as trans, Gibson told a crowd of thousands at a traveling religious revival called the Great ReAwakening that she believed he was possessed by demons — demons who were seeking to control and destroy the nation’s youth. She had, she said, prayed for a curse to inhabit the testosterone he injected as part of his hormone replacement therapy. She hoped it would make him so sick he would return to Jesus. Her statement was greeted with rapturous applause.
Or ask self-proclaimed spiritual warrior Monica Brown, the Granbury, Texas-based mother of nine who has engaged in a public campaign to rid her school district’s libraries of nearly 80 books, the majority of which had queer-related themes. Brown home-schooled all of her children and forbade them from reading the Harry Potter series due to the Satanic influence of witchcraft. She has posted videos alleging that the singer Katy Perry is exerting a satanic influence over American children, encouraging them to embrace homosexuality. In May, 2022, Brown filed a police report with the Hood County sheriff’s office, alleging that the Granbury school’s librarians were providing pornography to minors — prompting a full police investigation; no charges were ultimately filed. Later that year, in a fire-and-brimstone speech at a Granbury school board meeting, Brown declared that the school district had sinned gravely, and “repentance was on her heart.”
Today, there are thousands of activists like Gibson and Brown — feeding moral panics and being fed by them, and working, in the process, to control the minds and bodies of others. The notion that a Satanic conspiracy is controlling the nation’s youth has retained every bit of its ‘80s-era potency. Allegations of pedophilia and child grooming are being leveled against educators at alarming rates, leading to everything from broad book bans to statewide laws regulating curricula to criminal investigations of school librarians. And the belief in a network of Satanic deviants controlling not just children, but the country at large, has broken loose from its grunge-era focus on day cares and wayward teens. For much of the past decade, a deeply engaged segment of the Republican base has believed that the devil isn’t just providing temptation: he’s working his will on the nation’s politics, on a colossal scale.
During the 2016 election, a wild tangle of online rumors arose among the right-wing that Hillary Clinton was not just a political opponent, but a devil worshiper. The conspiracy networks that would later morph into a movement called QAnon alleged that Clinton and her political and social circle engaged in ritualized pedophilia, consumed the blood of children, even skinning them alive. Over the last seven years, these beliefs have spread and mutated, inspiring kidnappings, murders, and acts of terror, and becoming something close to a new religion in and of itself. (Posts from “Q,” a purported government insider who dropped cryptic hints about a world-spanning pedophilic conspiracy, were larded with quotes from the New Testament; insofar as QAnon is a cult, it is a Christian one.)
After the 2020 presidential election, a right-wing base marinated in assertions of nefarious criminality and dark ritual behind the curtains of banal government activity believed, with unswerving fervor, that the election had been stolen from Donald Trump. He encouraged them in that belief; engaged constantly with political and religious figures who drove their flocks into a frenzy; and ultimately presided over a violent storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 that is still sending shock waves through American politics years later.
A belief as rigid as the idea that the 2020 election was stolen doesn’t arise from thin air: beliefs like that are nurtured, chivvied along, fed by other perceived insults, and other sureties. And a belief dangerous enough to risk the future of democracy in America has roots that are far deeper and stranger than they appear.
In political journalism in the U.S., from the New York Times to Politico to Axios and other mainstream outlets, issues are often described as “divisive”. More often than not, the placeless, subjectless language of “divisiveness” and “division” works to obscure, rather than clarify, the moral valence of conflict in the public sphere. It is rare that the principal issue in any given political rift is that “divisions” have been created between factions of the public; more often these conflicts arise between already diametrically-opposed groups, like trans people fighting back against transphobia, or Black authors opposing racist book bans, or Muslims just trying to get by in America. But there is a fundamental division in the United States that rarely makes the headlines, and that is a chasm between the way the most politically motivated segments of the Christian right view the nature of reality itself, and … pretty much everybody else.
The division at hand is this: do you believe that your politics is part of an existential struggle against Lucifer himself? And do you believe that your political opponents are corrupted by demons? Is your politics a reflection of a theology that demands you amass worldly power in order to conquer the Prince of Darkness, usher in the ecstasy of the End Times, and defeat the multitudinous minions of darkness?
If not, you’ve been drafted into a spiritual war you didn’t even know was happening. And like it or not, if you’re not on the self-proclaimed “side of light,” you’re an enemy combatant. It’s hard to have a dialogue, make compromises, or even coexist within a nominally democratic system when your opponents believe you are quite literally in league with the devil.
This may sound as wild-eyed as the notion of demon-riddled daycares — that preschool teachers were flying above the clouds and drinking blood-spiked Kool-aid. But the rise of the fundamentalist Christian right over the last fifty years is as plain and as confining as a prison sentence. Political attitudes and policies that can seem inexplicable and monstrous from the outset always have their reasons, their own internally coherent logic, even if those reasons seem outrageous to outsiders. Surveying the texts, the ideologues, the theology, and the policy operating in concert to create a United States of Christian nationalism presents a stark vision of the future — and engenders an urgency to fight back.
If you’re reading this column, like it or not, you’re already in the fight — a fight that encompasses the sacred and the profane, the heavens and the earth, the Supreme Court and your local school board. The first and most important weapon in any such fight is knowledge. Only through understanding the Christian right can you become better equipped to create a world where no woman has to bleed to death from a pregnancy gone wrong; where every queer, trans, non-fundamentalist, and nonwhite child grows up in a country that sees them as equal citizens; where girls are not taught that submission and subjection are their only destinies; where no child should be subjected to physical and emotional abuse in the name of God. In the end, a democracy haunted by the devil is not a democracy at all. The stakes may not be Manichaean; you may believe in a different sort of God or none at all; but they could not be higher.