Great post by Fred Clark on the 1980s fundamentalist moral panic about D&D and Satanism. It all reads like ancient history now, like something out of the Salem witch trials.
Newitz’s account details one tangential battle of the Satanic Panic that arose in the 1980s — a moral panic that resulted in students being expelled from schools, young people being bullied by their peers or institutionalized by their parents, and dozens of innocent people spending years in prison for crimes that never even occurred.
The astonishing thing, as Newitz says, is that today, a few decades later, “D&D-influenced stories” are a noncontroversial part of mainstream American pop culture. That’s not what anyone would have predicted back during the Reagan years, when Satanic baby-killer politics first arose, bringing with it a whole host of demonizing delusions — a diabolical conspiracy of black-robed ritual abusers, fears of backward-masking messages in rock music, the presumption of a suicide epidemic among RPG enthusiasts. If you remember the 1980s, it’s jarring to step back today and realize how much of that has simply faded away and lost its power. The same folks who were able to bully D&D to the sidelines in the 1980s found themselves steamrolled when they later tried the same tactics against Harry Potter and his fans.
But, as Fred Clark explains, Dungeons and Dragons really was a threat to the world-view of a certain kind of authoritarian fundamentalism. It wasn’t the magic, or the monsters, or the made-up pantheons of gods.
It was the alignment system.
As I’ve explained before, D&D’s alignments have two axes forming a three-by-three matrix of ethical stances. One axis is Good vs. Evil, the other is Law vs. Chaos, more or less as defined by Michael Moorcock in his Eternal Champion saga. Law is all about following the rules and obeying authority, and it’s easy to see why some fundamentalists might have a problem with making that independent of Good and Evil. Despite it actually being true, as evidenced by every totalitarian regime in history.
But, as Fred Clark correctly points out, denying the existence of Lawful Evil or Chaotic Good isn’t actually very good theology.
It says something about the sorry state of biblical understanding among biblical “inerrantists” that we were left to learn this from Gary Gygax rather than from Galatians, Isaiah, Amos or the Gospels. But once we learned it — once we came to see the possibility of it — then the whole ideology we’d been taught came into question.
But when the fundamentalist faith is as fragile as a soap-bubble, just about anything can not only be seen as a threat, but can actually be a threat.