Moral panics are nothing new. Collective anxieties over periods of social instability manifest a primal desire to either propitiate, or punish, whatever is causing the ill fortunes. The Biblical ritual of the Scapegoat placed the sins of the tribe upon a sacrificial animal that was driven into the wilderness. Ironically, in the modern era the scapegoat became a human sacrifice. In the Americas, the first documented moral panic was probably the mass hysteria around Salem Village in 1692. Twenty-Seven people would die as a result of that witch hunt. Subsequent moral panics would be even more bloody.
I want to say that I am deliberately excluding the actions of the Inquisition in New Spain, because their witch hunts were part of a larger political project. The Church was engaged in the conquest and subjugation of the Native Americans, changing the power dynamics behind the witch hunts. In New England, the events of King Philip’s War had decimated Native populations. A brutal war, both sides had effectively depopulated the other, but to ensure their victory the British colonists went on to enslave and export the surviving Natives. By the 1690’s, Massachusetts Bay had been pacified and conquered by the English.
Recently, social scientists have proposed that the Salem Witch Trials were a product of the post-traumatic stress induced by King Philip’s War. This observation is supported by the fact that only a few generations earlier in England, the chaos of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms had generated a plague of witch hunters like the infamous Matthew Hopkins, a mysogynistic serial killer who styled himself the Witchfinder General. In the prelude to and aftermath of the catastrophic World Wars, the atheistic Soviet Bloc took on the role of Satan in an era of moral panics known as the Red Scares. Finally, the geopolitical humiliation of the Vietnam War and resulting Cambodian Genocide would induce yet another moral panic tailor-made for the last quarter of the American Century.
The root cause of the panic in Salem Village has not substantially changed over the past four hundred years, American Christianity has a long tradition of belief in a literal Devil. Concurrent with this very Old World superstitious religion has been a powerful thread of secular liberalism. Constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and freedom of religion allowed new ideas and religions to grow and flourish. Jews, Muslims, Quakers, Mormons, Spiritualists, and numerous New Age religions have managed to exist and thrive here due to those freedoms. But in any place where new religions can flourish, it stands to reason this will evoke a reactionary response from the dominant religion. Such was the case here.
In the late 1960’s, Ira Levin’s bestseller Rosemary’s Baby elevated myths of secret Satanic cults into the popular culture. Cashing in on this, Avon Press commissioned Anton LaVey to compose his own Satanic Bible published in 1969. The San Francisco based Church of Satan was in the right place at the right time to inspire a culture-shifting phenomena. A natural showman, LaVey would cultivate his own celebrity throughout the 1970’s.
The existence of LaVey’s Church of Satan gave alienated youth an alternative to their family religions. But, more importantly, it gave reactionary figures within the mainstream religions hard evidence that their favorite Boogieman was in fact a very real active threat to humanity. The anti-authoritarian counter culture that emerged from the helter skelter chaos of the late 1960’s blossomed into a ripe environment for cultist and conspiracy theorist alike.
John Wayne Todd was an evangelical preacher and conspiracy theorist who used fantastical narratives about the Illuminati to obscure the fact he was an inveterate serial sexual predator. Having been expelled from the U.S. Army in 1969 after only a matter of months on the grounds he was a psychologically unstable compulsive liar, Todd spent the early 70’s attempting to establish ministries in various Christian communities, as well as a Wiccan coven. But, he was repeatedly thwarted by his licentious ulterior motives. Todd claimed to have been a Satanic high priest and to have served in Vietnam as a member of the Green Berets prior to being Born Again and beginning his ministry. None of this was true. Todd dismissed those who exposed his lies as being complicit in the cover up. In testimonials at prayer meetings and interviews with credulous journalists he spun impossible tales alleging horrific crimes that would never be investigated or prosecuted because the most powerful men at every level of society were co-conspirators. By the end of the decade Todd’s delusional persecution complex had manifested in the scripts for influential fundamentalist polemicist Jack Chick’s paranoid little comic books. These so-called “Chick Tracts” were circulated by the thousands through churches and street preachers around the world.
In 1972, another irreverent con-artists named Mike Warnke, published his own remarkably similar equally fictional pseudo-auto-biography. In The Satan Seller, Warnke’s self-aggrandizing narcissism inspired an even more phantasmagorical confessional. The lurid account of the Satanic machinations beneath the surface of the New Age movement and hippy counter culture expanded on John Wayne Todd’s delusions. Asserting that he had personally presided over ritual infanticides in his role as a Satanic high priest, and participated in sex trafficking rings in order to obtain the sacrifices for said rituals, Warnke put himself at the center of the global Satanic conspiracy.
Like Todd, Warnke exaggerated his military service by lying about heroic near death experiences that manifested visions of The Christ offering him Salvation. Also like Todd, Warnke relied upon the paradoxical ubiquitous Satanic underground that is secretive and all powerful but apparently not powerful enough to stop him from revealing all their secrets. Following the facile logic that the divine power of Christ protected him from the vengeful Illuminati, Warnke pursued more ambitious objectives than merely grooming and abusing young girls. This allowed Warnke to increase the scope of his celebrity leading Todd to accuse him of stealing his story, the resulting feud between the two frauds attracted the attention of reporters who would debunk them both. Conservative Christian magazines eventually exposed both men’s extensive lies, but by that time the damage was done.
Between testimonies of mountebanks like Todd and Warnke, a genre of fraudulent victim narratives developed. The neurotic hysteria of Michelle Smith and pathological lies of Laurel Rose Wilson, manifested horrific victim narratives to cement belief in the reality of this all powerful network of psychopathic occultists who allegedly rule the world. I am not in a position to determine whether Lawrence Pazner was a craven abuser, or if he was fully in the grip of a folie a deux with Michelle Smith, sharing in her religious delusions. He did make the decision to embark on a highly unorthodox course of hypnotherapy that resulted in his patient becoming alienated from her family and entering into a romantic relationship with her therapist. Given the facts of those circumstances, and the grave breach of ethics those facts portray, the probability that the whole story was invented is very high. Regardless of his motives, or self-awareness, the knock-on effect of Michelle Remembers has been the psychological destruction of thousands of individuals and their families.
Under the alias Lauren Stratford, Laurel Rose Wilson, (aka Laura Grabowski), was yet another incorrigible grifter who published a series of books contrived to cash-in on the popularity of Michelle Remembers. And, cash-in she did. She appeared alongside Michelle Smith on a now infamous episode of the Oprah Winfrey show in 1989, where they were both presented as unimpeachable witnesses. In 1990, she was exposed by a team of reporters from Cornerstone, one of the Christian magazines that debunked Todd and Warnke. The former music teacher had a long history of mental illness and had been hospitalized over forty times since she was a teenager. Before you pity this person, in 1999 she was discovered impersonating a Holocaust survivor in an attempt to defraud the Swiss government’s Holocaust reparations fund.
Despite the vast differences in their theological and dogmatic beliefs, conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants continue to share a worldview ensnared by Medieval superstitions. God sits on his throne in Heaven, surrounded by a host of angels, and the Devil rules in Hell. We mortal humans stand in the balance, fated to be tempted by the Devil and judged by God. This supernatural view of reality demands that believers accept that unseen agents of the Antichrist stalk the Earth. Secular humanists are all too happy to dismiss this as simple-minded, attributing it to a childish understanding of the world. Aside from being paternalistic, the New Atheists’ intolerance fails to comprehend why theism continues to resonate with humanity. Atheism has no answer to why bad things happen to good people, responding that the Just-world Hypothesis is a fallacy.
The Just-world Hypothesis asserts that there is some mechanism of divine justice influencing the course of our individual lives. The theory tends to generalize toward concepts of cosmic justice, but functions consistently within the belief in an all-knowing-all-powerful god. Unlike us mortals, such a god can know the ultimate truth behind any mystery and ensure Justice is done in the end. The chaotic uncertainty of the rational scientific universe can be understood more easily if there is an unseen hand guiding the balance between good and evil. The difficulty of distinguishing between good and evil creates a paradoxical state of moral ambiguity. Pope John Paul II warned that focusing on this paradox produced a danger of moral relativism erasing all distinctions between right and wrong.
Elected by conservative Cardinals shortly after the untimely death of his progressive predecessor, the papacy of John Paul II was explicitly counter-revolutionary. Under his stewardship the Church would become mired in moral relativism, as it legitimized brutal dictatorships in the name of anti-communism and turned a blind-eye to the most venial corruption within its own clergy. Regarding the godless Communists as the ultimate manifestation of evil, the Church adopted a militant reactionary response.
The election of Ronald Reagan echoed the conservative reactionary gestalt that had been festering since the unsatisfactory end of the Vietnam War. Things were falling apart, the center was not holding; the best lacked all conviction, while the worst were full of passionate intensity. The Millennium hung over the future like an omen of certain doom. But, the people refused to stop dancing.