For the meager price of $1,018, you could briefly purchase a pair of sneakers infused with human blood and embossed with a bronze pentagram. Even the price contains a satanic reference: In Luke 10:18, Christ says he saw “Satan fall like lightning from the heavens.” Only 666 pairs of the sneaker ever existed and they have vanished like tears in the rain. Their cultural legacy endures though, and so does the rage they helped provoke.
Designed by Lil Nas X in collaboration with Brooklyn company MSCHF, the shoes accompany an equally provocative video from the singer. In the video called Montero, Lil Nas X seduces and then kills Satan and takes the unholy crown for himself. The sequence is overtly sexual, unapologetically queer, and it upset South Dakota’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem.
“We are in a fight for the soul of our nation. We need to fight hard. And we need to fight smart. We have to win,” Noem announced on Twitter, alongside photos of the Satan shoes. She might well consider the state of her own soul. South Dakota boasted one of the country’s highest infection rates for COVID-19 in the fall of last year; Noem, meanwhile, opposed a mask mandate and lockdowns. There are deaths on her conscience; shoes are merely objects and thus, innocent of any bloodshed.
Nevertheless, Noem is not the only professed born-again to raise hell over the Satan shoes. The pundit Candace Owens attacked the singer on Twitter; pastor Greg Locke, a Trump ally, said he hoped Nike “burned to the ground” over the shoes. (The shoes do feature a swoop, but aren’t produced by Nike, which is suing MSCHF for copyright infringement.) The Federalist has dedicated several articles to the shoes alone, with one decrying Lil Nas X’s turn to “raunchy, Satanic messaging.” Conservative YouTuber Allie Beth Stuckey said she’s disgusted but not mad, actually, because “what Satan means for evil God can always use for good.”
Satanic imagery isn’t new. It’s so common, in fact, that it can look quaint. Netflix’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch played up a diabolical element to twee effect, and the Christian right remained largely silent. Horror movies come and go mostly without outrage. Culture warriors have even made their peace with Harry Potter: Though the series never contained any satanic references, its witchcraft and wizardry once horrified the churchgoing set. Why the furor now, over Lil Nas X? Satan is an angel of light, the great deceiver, a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour — and an excuse. The real problem is Lil Nas X, who is Black and gay. Beneath all the satanic panic lies another older and more familiar fear. Nobody really thinks Lil Nas will turn into children into Satan worshippers. He might persuade them that it’s all right to be gay, though, and that’s what horrifies the Christian right. “In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to see,” Lil Nas X sings. “But here, we don’t. Welcome to Montero.”
That l’affaire Montero occurs alongside an outbreak of trans panic is no coincidence, either. There are tiers to the Christian right, as there tend to be in any professionalized movement; underneath the major organizations scramble a number of individual grifters, like Owens. While she and her company stoke outrage over Lil Nas X, the organizations are focused on a bigger prize. They’re lobbying hard against the Equality Act in Congress, and for a series of state bills targeting trans kids. Arkansas just passed a law banning gender-affirming health care for trans youth; other states are trying to pass bills that would ban trans youth from playing in sports teams that conform to their gender identity. The Family Research Council busies itself with trans kids, not Lil Nas X or Satan shoes, but it shares both an agenda and a set of enemies with the social media stars of the right. All oppose what writer Richard Beck called “the diversification of private life” in his book on the original satanic panic in the 1980s, We Believe the Children. Each stage of that process “has been accompanied by anxious predictions of moral decay, social breakdown and sexual anarchy,” he observed. “Legislators have responded to and fueled these anxieties by passing laws designed to shore up the nuclear family’s crumbling walls.” Bills can only go so far, and the same is true of fear. In the last scenes of The Witch, after destroying her Puritan family, Satan asks the film’s heroine, Thomasine, if she’d like to live deliciously. Of course she does. He transforms her, makes her a figure of liberation, raises her up in the air with her arms stretched out in ecstasy. Against freedom, fear has a limited appeal.
Knowing they are about to lose the war for the traditional family, the Christian right must rely on force. It wields the legislative process like a weapon and the same is true of the social media panics incited by its lesser agents. The goal of shaming Lil Nas X, of trying to turn parents against him, is to make him less powerful or influential. That, too, is a display of force, and behind that display, there is real rage and malice. The Christian right couldn’t make satanic imagery unpalatable to the public. Their very outrage makes Satan perpetually attractive to artists and edgelords alike. They couldn’t save the traditional family, or stop marriage equality. So they’ve turned all their energies on children, the harbingers of a future they do not control. Like Satan, Lil Nas X is a danger to kids; similarly, so-called “transgender ideology” deceived them. Satan is a restless enemy. He walks the world to and fro, the Book of Job says. It’s all the same enemy, all the same war.