For reasons unbeknownst to me, I’ve not been completely familiar with the hateful motives of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas; perhaps I’ve chosen to ignore the disturbing; I’m not exactly sure -- until now -- when last week I received an email from a member of my boys’ soccer club in Lexington. It was this communication that brought the odium-filled beliefs of the Westboro Church in to my view. My findings were so unsettling; it was inevitable that I impart them to others. In the email, those who could were asked, “if your conscience guides you to do so,” to come out to help the people of Lexington and Pelion with something incredibly important; to help these communities as they honor two of the three S.C. Guardsmen killed in Afghanistan on June 20th. We were asked to line the streets, and to not only salute these American heroes as their funeral processions passed, but to “block out those Westboro people” as well and to protect the mourning families from this ominous group. Some may wonder why such the unease. I will give up as few words as possible to describe the WBC, as they are not worthy of anything.
The WBC is a radical, self-proclaimed Christian church headed by Pastor Fred Phelps. The fringe cult-like “church” receives most of its publicity from its ill-famed protests at funerals of our military returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many regard WBC as a hate group. While the name implies that the WBC is affiliated with other mainstream Baptist churches, this couldn’t be further from the truth. With its extreme ideologies, the WBC is independent of all conventional Christian churches and their antics are denounced across almost all spectra of political and religious thought. The WBC’s habit of picketing at military funerals and desecrating the American flag is done to emphasize what they believe is God’s judgment on the United States for the moral decline in our society; the judgment represented by the death of American soldiers overseas. The WBC believes these deaths are God’s retribution against America’s sinful policies though the group’s highly offensive protests don’t stop here. WBC has picketed at funerals of public figures such as Elizabeth Edwards and Steve Jobs; at funerals of children killed in bus accidents; at funerals of victims of the Tucson shootings. Shockingly, the leader of the WBC applauded the efforts of the Tucson shooter as he proclaimed, “God sent the shooter.” According to a WBC spokesperson, “they protest funerals to make people angry. They want people to reject God and be condemned to hell.” But quite the contrary; the condemnation is putting a child on the street to illustrate the aversion. Further, the group has video news proclaiming, “thank God for the Colorado fires” and “thank God for 9/11.” Their antics are shocking. It is enormously difficult for me to understand this hatred.
Though for now, the hateful speech of the WBC has been protected by the First Amendment. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 that members are entitled to stage their controversial protests even when causing substantial distress to family members attending the funeral of a loved one.
Of course, one must step back from this group’s twisted way of thinking to see that the attitudes and tactics of the WBC are not born of love and tolerance, but rather of hate, fear, and intolerance. Their vision is clouded by this hate and too blurred to see the irony in it all -- the irony of the American soldier who fought and died and gave them that right to free speech; the irony that after denouncing the God-less life of Steve Jobs, it was with an iPhone that a WBC leader tweeted the details of Jobs’ funeral picket; the irony of a 9-year-old boy who found it impossible to ignore the signs of “God hates America” as he passed a WBC protest, and with just a pencil and small notebook in hand, he took on the bigots with a succinct yet poignant proclamation: “God hates no one.” It is the fearless who can see the ignorance and the irony. It is the people of the WBC who reject the rainbow in the midst of a dark, sinister storm. “Words from the mouth of a wise man are gracious, while the lips of a fool consume him.”