Harmless nuttery, or dangerous smear campaign?
One minor but fascinating aspect of modern fundamentalist Christian culture are the testimonies offered by “former Satanists”, “witches who switched”, and born-again New Agers. For decades, these stories of miraculous conversion were passed reverently from hand to hand via audio recordings made in church basements, grainy VHS tapes shot from the back rows of churches, fireside tales told at Bible camps, and pamphlets Xeroxed by church secretaries. The simple but powerful message imparted by these testimonies is that if God can save a devil-worshiper, He can (and will) save anyone. He’ll snatch you into His arms even as you kneel at a Satanic altar, dripping with the blood of a freshly sacrificed virgin. Before you even know what’s happened, you’re wearing sweater vests and homeschooling your kids so they won’t have to learn about dinosaurs. It’s like Extreme Home Makeover: Jesus Edition.
It seems to have started with Doreen Irvine. In the late ’60s, this mundane-looking English spinster revealed that she had once been “Queen of the Black Witches of Europe”, presiding over thousands of Satanic witches. Her master “Diablos” [sic] granted her powers to levitate, render herself invisible, kill birds in midair just by looking at them, and walk through roaring bonfires without so much as a blister.
However, being Queen of the Black Witches brought absolutely no material benefits to Doreen. She continued to work as a hooker and a stripper until her conversion in 1964. That’s quite unusual, because in most of these testimonies the Devil bestows enormous wealth and influence on his minions. Naturally, they renounce all the goodies after being saved, which makes the testimonies even more powerful.
Anyway, Doreen’s story was published in 1973 as From Witchraft to Christ, and since that time she has been revered in fundie circles as The Witch Who Switched. She gave her testimony on 100 Huntley Street, appeared in Caryl Matrisciana’s documentary Devil Worship: The Rise of Satanism, and became the UK rep for Campus Crusade for Christ.
It didn’t take long for others to follow in Doreen Irvine’s cloven footsteps. And with each testimony that emerged from a Christian publishing house or the office of a recovered-memory therapist, the details got darker and weirder. Irvine’s cult, which supposedly encompassed the whole of Western Europe, took part in nothing hinkier than some rooster sacrifice and the occasional bisexual orgy (who doesn’t, amirite?). But the cults described by Satanist-turned-Christian-comedian Mike Warnke in his 1973 book The Satan Seller routinely sacrificed unwilling human victims. And the African megacult depicted in Emmanuel Eni’s 1987 tract Delivered from the Powers of Darkness pretty much defies description. Eni’s story contains more blood, guts, and WTFery than a horrorcore convention.
Yet not one born again Satanist has been charged with being an accessory to murder, and no one in their faith communities is concerned about that. While this speaks to the beauty of forgiveness and redemption, it would sure as hell make me feel queasy on Sunday mornings. Didn’t that guy in the third pew eat babies and rape corpses a few years ago? Didn’t that lady stab somebody with a crucifix while screwing a goat? And now I’m supposed to eat cookies and drink coffee with them?
Fortunately, as most of us can plainly see, these monstrous cults never actually existed. Whether they were brewed up in the stew of troubled minds or stitched together from B movies seen on late-night TV, we may never know – but we do know there is no empirical evidence for the existence of widespread, homicidal Satanic sects of the sort described by Irvine, Warnke, and Eni. In fact, Warnke’s autobiography was roundly debunked by other Christians.
The value of ex-Satanists’ testimonies lies not in their truthfulness, but in the way they make you feel. Sure, Mike Warnke wasn’t literally a Satanist, but didn’t his epic tale of conversion to Christianity give you a ton of warm fuzzies? Well, then, it’s good enough for God. Let’s not let truth get in the way of Truth, folks.
This tradition carries on today. Take, for instance, the testimony of Mike Leehan (below). It’s quite typical of ex-Satanist testimonies. We don’t know where Mike Leehan resides, where he grew up, or which Satanic group he joined. He vaguely mentions sacrifices, bloodletting, and Satanists’ unquenchable thirst for “power” (in these testimonies, explanations of Satanic beliefs rarely go beyond “power”). Then he tells us the Devil once commanded him to shoot the pastor who is filming the testimony. Testimonials are often custom-tailored to appeal to a specific audience in this way, perhaps unintentionally or perhaps with great guile. For instance, spiritualist-cum-Adventist Roger Morneau claimed in his testimony that his high priest frequently spoke of the sanctity of the Sunday Sabbath. Why? Because Seventh Day Adventism, with its Saturday Sabbath, was deemed as Satan’s greatest enemy.
It would be nice if we could just relegate all these ghoulish, implausible stories to the netherworld of the born-again fringe and forget all about them, but these testimonials unfortunately have a real-world impact on Pagans, Wiccans, Satanists, and other faith communities. Thanks to Doreen Irvine and her successors, millions of Christians believe that witches and Satanists abduct, torture, and sacrifice unwilling victims (including infants and children); that witches and Satanists target Christian leaders for death; that Satanists and witches infiltrate churches to subvert believers; etc. The dissemination of unsubstantiated testimonies like Michael Leehan’s amounts to a smear campaign against millions of law-abiding Pagans, Satanists, and Wiccans. This smear campaign undermines their freedom of religion, their freedom of expression, sometimes even their careers or their standing in their communities (look at the endless ordeals of Michael Aquino for a chilling example). In many ways, the anti-Satanic testimonials of today differ little from the ancient Jewish blood libel that refuses to die among religious supremacists and anti-Semites. The cult stories are just as groundless, just as prejudicial, just as damaging as tales of Jewish ritual murder. In accepting the testimonials as either factual accounts or harmless fabrications, we are helping to brand unknown Satanists and witches as criminals without a fair hearing.
The consequences can be brutal. In many parts of the world, witchcraft hysteria has resulted in the torture, internment, and murder of suspected “witches”. In Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana, elderly women and children are confined to gulag-like “witch camps”. In Papua New Guinea, an unknown number of women and girls have been mutilated, tortured, and killed by their neighbors because they were supposedly possessed by the spirits of evil witches. These panics are sparked and fostered, in part, by fundamentalist teachings that sanction the expulsion and/or mistreatment of “witches” as an act of spiritual warfare.
I’m sorry, Mr. Leehan, but until you produce more evidence of your involvement in “Satanic” crimes, I’ll have to view you as part of the problem.