The Biggest Religious Panics in US History

Religious panics have been part of US history since the first Puritan settlers set up camp. Puritanical fears of witches led to the Salem Witch Trials, killing two dozen innocent people. These fears eventually transformed into evangelical Protestant conspiracies against Catholics, various moral panics related to Satan, and even a crusade against rock music.

Today's society is similarly afflicted with religious hysteria. Anti-gay and anti-trans laws around the country have been pushed by evangelical politicians and preachers, and Islamophobic fears of sharia law and terrorist collaboration are rampant. Even conspiracy theories about the Illuminati are tinged with religious panic, as proponents believe the group intends to overthrow Christianity and replace it with Satan worship.

Here are some of the worst and strangest religious panics in American history.
Photo: CBS / Geek & Sundry

  • The Salem Witch Trials

    The Salem Witch Trials
    Photo: Joseph E. Baker / Wikimedia

    The devoutly Bible-based Puritan society of early America went witchcraft crazy in the 1690s. When several girls in the village of Salem began acting erratically, having fits, and making strange sounds, the people suspected witchcraft was to blame. Multiple women were immediately arrested, including several members of a family feuding with the family of one of the afflicted girls.

    The show trials the women were subject to fueled the frenzy, which in turn led to more trials. When the scare finally died down in 1693, 20 people had been executed, with another five dying in prison. At least two young children died, and even two dogs were executed.
  • The Satanic Panic

    The Satanic Panic
    Video: YouTube

    In the 1980s, parents around the country were gripped by an overpowering fear that their local preschool was actually a haven for Satanic sex abuse. Beginning with the McMartin Preschool in California, said to be in the clutches of perverted Satanists, parents and religious leaders spoke of occult rituals, secret underground tunnels, massive payouts, and thousands of abused children.

    But none of it was real. The allegations made by the children involved in the "sex abuse" were imagination-driven stories. But when guided by bogus science and leading questions, they turned into logic-defying claims like teachers flying through the air, and kids being flushed down toilets. There was no compelling evidence to support any of these wild claims. The McMartin trial itself dragged on for years and cost millions of dollars - without obtaining a single conviction.
  • Rock and Roll Backmasking

    Rock and Roll Backmasking
    Video: YouTube

    Ever since rock and roll hit the airwaves, authority figures have pushed back at it. As far back as 1958, Congress was holding hearings on rock music, with no less than Frank Sinatra calling it lewd music for "cretinous goons." In 1985, the parents of two kids who attempted suicide blamed backwards messages hidden in the music of metal band Judas Priest for brainwashing their kids.

    A group of Christian DJs got in on the panic, and analyzed virtually every prominent record of the time backwards and forwards listening for Satanic commands. Confirmation bias dictated that they found them, even if they sounded like gibberish. As for the Judas Priest trial, the band reasoned that telling their fans to kill themselves would be bad for record sales, and the case was thrown out in 1990.
  • Dungeons and Dragons Hysteria

    While the popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons had been around since 1974, it was in the mid-'80s that the religious right suddenly decided that it was a vehicle for Satan. Religious activists, anti-occult figures, and concerned parents put forth a variety of reasons why D&D was evil. These included an increase in mental illness and suicide among players, an emphasis on the supernatural, anti-Christian messages about the accumulation of wealth, and even that rumor that members were forming violent gangs.

    The media went crazy with breathless talk of Satanic rituals and murders. But virtually all of these accusations were based on bogus science and confirmation bias. In fact, studies showed that gamers actually had lower suicide rates, and that the game taught valuable social and strategic skills.
  • Gay Recruitment

    Gay Recruitment
    Video: YouTube

    For decades, evangelical Christians have openly expressed their concern about the LGBT community "recruiting" new members through indoctrination and the normalizing of the "gay lifestyle." It became a moral panic in the late '70s, after popular singer and Christian activist Anita Bryant campaigned against a Florida anti-discrimination law by declaring in her 1978 book At Any Cost that "homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children." Religious leaders flocked to join her, and a religious panic was born.

    Even now, Billy Graham's son Franklin believes gay recruitment is going on - through the process of same-sex adoption.

  • The War on Christmas

    The War on Christmas
    Video: YouTube

    While not as dangerous as other religious panics, the so-called War on Christmas is an example of how an actual debate can be turned into false persecution. Debates about the proper way to celebrate Christmas have raged among Christians for centuries, but there is no organized secular attempt to destroy Christmas and turn it into a non-denominational winter holiday.

    Yet every year, religious zealots and conservative pundits rend their garments about the supposed
    banning of religious symbol and persecution of outwardly practicing Christians - while Christmas itself continues to be popular, widely celebrated, and lucrative for retailers.