illustration by joe waldron
The little town of Belle Plaine, between Mankato and St. Paul, never made national headlines before the devil came to visit.
On a hot summer Saturday morning, more than 100 Christians convene in the town’s Veterans Memorial Park. They drop to their knees on a grassy hill under the park’s military flags. Rosaries dangle from their balled-up hands; they mutter St. Michael’s prayer for protection. Facing a quiet adjacent street, fellow protestors hold signs: “Honk Against Satan.” “Keep It One Nation Under God.” Of the Virgin Mary, “‘She shall crush thy head and thou shall lie in wait of her heel.’”
A couple young cossack-wearing priests look toasty in the 90-degree heat while, a few yards behind them, the threat lounges: dressed in black, what appears to be a Satanist slicing into a watermelon. Ten or so members of Minnesota’s Left Hand Path Community, formerly associated with the Satanic Temple, spread out on a blanket in the shade of a tree.
The Christians pray to protest a Satanic monument planned for the park. The Left Hand Path Community picnics to celebrate it. And Belle Plaine provides the backdrop for this Edward Scissorhands-via-Robert Altman set piece, following months of discord over what kind of art the U.S. Constitution allows in public space.
The controversy started earlier this year when the Belle Plaine Veterans Club placed a very different monument in the city-owned area—a silhouetted soldier kneeling before a cross. The Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison complained that it breached First Amendment separation of church and state. Belle Plaine removed the overtly Christian “Joe,” as locals had named the steel cutout. Then, backlash over its disappearance moved the city council to set up a “free-speech zone.” Anyone could express partisan beliefs there. Joe returned. But the Satanic Temple of Salem, Massachusetts, heard about the no-man’s spot. Committed to equal representation, the group submitted its own monument. With that, the country’s first Satanic statue on public land loomed over this unassuming Minnesota town of 7,000. Veterans removed Joe again before the protest.
Bedewed with sweat, Brother Conrad Richardson, a member of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace in St. Paul, points out that if the country protects free speech, it was still founded on Judeo-Christian values. We still recite “under God, indivisible” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Protesting veteran Michael Steger says that when he swore his Navy oath in the ’80s, it was by God. And since many associate Satan with evil and damnation, Steger questions placing a Satanic symbol in an area devoted to those who might have risked their lives for the country.
Ideas represented in the monument’s design skew arcane: inverted gold pentagrams on a black cube, topped with an upturned army helmet. The artist described it on Facebook as “a sort of somber Kabaa [sic] stone with a soldier’s helmet as a chalice.” (The Kaaba is a cube-shaped building in Saudi Arabia and Islam’s most sacred site.) It’s black for mourning, he wrote, the upside-down helmet a “Baphometic bowl of wisdom” to collect memories of the fallen (Baphomet a goat-headed pagan idol).
A protestor wearing a “Got Mary?” T-shirt says he sees the inverted army helmet as simply disrespectful of the troops. But likewise, the Freedom From Religion Foundation described the lone Joe as “disdainful of the sacrifices made by non-Christian and nonreligious soldiers.”
Spokesperson for Minnesota’s Left Hand Path Community and Minneapolis resident Koren Walsh came out to support the to-be monument and veterans of all beliefs. “There are atheists in fox holes. There are Satanists in fox holes,” she says, disputing the aphorism “There are no atheists in fox holes,” which implies that war turns everyone to God. Many Satanists, Walsh says, turn to the Biblical nemesis as a metaphor championing rebellion and free thought. In a televised interview following the monument’s proposal, Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves links Satanism’s values to the Enlightenment, a science-centered movement that influenced some of the Founding Fathers. “And believe me, we would fight to the teeth so that these people would also have the right to gather and worship and wear their crosses around their neck,” Walsh says, imagining the Satanic monument beside a Muslim monument, and a Jewish monument, and an atheistic monument. “We hope they bring Joe back.”
After about an hour, the Christians rise. Singing a Catholic hymn, they trail four men carrying a statue of Mary out of the park. None tried the cake-mix cookies, iced with Satanic crosses, that the Left Hand Path brought from Devil’s Food Bakery.
Without resolution, without conflict, the event still “portrayed our city in a negative light,” the Belle Plaine City Council says in a statement three days later. They nix the free-speech zone. No Satanism. No Joe. Just the military flags.
The Belle Plaine imbroglio marks one of a few recent battles in Minnesota between general and private interests. Offended Minneapolis residents appealed to poor taste when a poetic art display proposed for Nicollet Mall earlier this year used slang to refer to female genitalia. The public arts administrator agreed it would have spent city money too liberally. Then, a one-man show about the life of a pedophile embroiled the Fringe Festival in an ethical quagmire. The open-minded fest famously accepts all shades of theater but last year scratched the play following outcry. This year, a lawsuit secured its debut.
The public, in the end, determines what’s appropriate—and that changes over borders and with time, says Jack Becker, founder of a St. Paul-based public arts nonprofit. Pointing to recent demonstrations against Confederate monuments in the South—its history today largely associated with shame rather than pride—Becker sums up Belle Plaine’s lesson learned: “You don’t know where the line is until you cross it.”