3/04/2011 | Share this article: View CommentsThe Life of Religious Hate and The Death of Decency
By Rev. Dan Vojir ~
WASHINGTON (AP) --
"Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and - as it did here - inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker," Roberts said. "As a nation we have chosen a different course - to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
"Public Debate" - has Fred Phelps and his clan ever had a "public debate" with America? Mindless hate can only debate with its opposite - meaningful love. And while Fred Phelps has always garnered the public's attention, America's "Church" has never really stepped up to the podium for that debate. We will hear an almost deafening chorus of "Although we abhor what Phelps does, we applaud the Court's decision."
Image by k763 via FlickrA cowardly statement. A statement filled with relief. A statement filled with satisfaction. Free speech trumps hate speech.
Another chorus we will hear: "Phelps isn't really Christian. He certainly doesn't speak for us who are." We've heard that one before. Too little, too late: Phelps' rants have gotten notoriety for over 15 years, but few have ever actually chastised him in public. How many "faith-based" pickets have ever graced the outside of Westboro Baptist Church? How many have taken out ads in local or national papers denouncing Phelps' deeds? Not enough. When have the Baptist conclaves attempted to legally remove the name "Baptist" from Westboro Church? None that I know of.
America's denominations and non-denominational churches have always done more harm to America by NOT saying anything, by NOT doing anything. I saw the results of their indolence in the faces of AIDS victims streaming into San Francisco. It was definitely passive/aggressive behavior on the part of the Christian Right.
Interestingly, as of this writing, neither the FRC nor the AFA have commented on the decision. As of 8:30PM (EST), when I googled Phelps ruling response, the only ones to come up were:
“The Court’s decision properly and respectfully acknowledges the Snyder family’s grief. But it correctly holds that the response to that grief cannot include the abandonment of core First Amendment principles designed to protect even the most unpopular speech on matters of public concern.”
The response from the Phelps clan was predictably giddy and dire at the same time:
"A leader of the Westboro Baptist Church told reporters Wednesday that the congregation would "quadruple" the number of funeral protests in the wake of a ruling by the Supreme Court.
"Let me tell you what this church does: Shut up all that talk about infliction of emotional distress..,When you're standing there with your young child's body bits and pieces in a coffin, you've been dealt some emotional distress by the Lord your God"
As is sometimes the case with her, Sarah Palin got defiantly confused and combined two parts of the First Amendment in her tweet about the decision:
This coming from a woman who was "anointed" by a "witch hunter" from Uganda.
Speaking of freedoms, and what America will allow and not allow, the decision has paved the way for what I've called EMOTIONAL VANDALISM: that is the right to mar or disfigure in any way people's emotional state when faced with personal grief. While the Phelps clan believed that the funeral of Matthew Snyder was public, it was not: most invitations to funerals begin with the statement "For those wishing to pay their respects." The event of a funeral, whether lavish or plain, is the physical and emotional property of the deceased's loved ones presiding at the funeral. Again, the primary purpose of the Phelps' protest was not "public discourse," but to inflict true pain, true emotional distress on the loved ones. It was vicious and performed with malice-of-forethought. There are many churches in this country that have wished they could go as far as Fred Phelps, but have not dared to because of the possibility of misusing freedom of speech.
They no long need to fear: they will be free to disrupt solemn gatherings and inflict as much emotional pain on others as they want. This case will bring out an impertinent plethora of screamers with placards coming dangerously to violence - violence which they may want to incite for purposes of publicity.
The "Dead Zone" Proposal
I've long thought about how to handle Phelps and his kind, but the answer always came back: the most effective disciplinarian would be the Christian Right itself. OK. Fat chance. But please hear this one out. The Christian Right is very fond of boycotting businesses that commerce with or support "evil" groups or even specific people. The one glaring fault of their tactics is that they have never, ever used them to censure - or "shun" - one of their own. Of course they don't view Phelps as Christian, let alone one of their own. But perhaps it's time for self- monitoring to give them the credibility they lack. A strong stance against the Westboro Baptist Church would tell the rest of the country churches will do more than just pay lip service to "righteousness." Let them take a small area around the Phelps's physical sphere (say 5 miles) and warn all the businesses that they will be picketed if they continue to provide services to the Westboro Baptist Church. After all, like many things the Church disapproves of, if someone's actions are "legal", they can still be immoral. I'm sure this has been proffered before, but if someone like Rick Warren (who still needs some good PR and has said that "God tells us to do away with evil-doers") were to spearhead a protest and boycott of nearby grocery stores, banks, ATMs, drug stores, gas stations, clothing stores on religious grounds ("it's against our religion to give succor to the devil"), Westboro would find out what life is like without even minimum support. Afterwards, the boycott could be expanded to all services the Phelps could receive via the internet. They would be busy with lawsuits, of course, but that's part of the strategy: they couldn't "quadruple" their efforts if they're too busy with legal briefs.
It's time that America's religious community "quadruples" its actions in calling Fred Phelps immoral. And the churches of Topeka, KS must be tired of defending themselves, explaining to people that they are not hate groups.
It's all rather draconian, of course, this concept of creating a "Dead Zone" around Phelps, this update of traditional "shunning"* but is there a better idea? His family can't hold picket signs if he can't get them printed up (or get his printer serviced). He can't travel much anywhere without gas. Shirley Phelps-Roper would have to go miles outside the compound to shop for groceries.
One church's activism against another church on moral grounds is not new. The bickerings witnessed by the rest of the world are always seen as titanic clashes by their own congregations. They have been able, however to set those differences aside in favor of unison against what they think is an extreme evil. So isn't it about time churches set aside their consternation for gay marriage and abortion against a force doing evil under their very noses and insulting God by calling it "Christian?"
It is a challenge. And, dare I say it, a moral one* at that.
* a concept as old as religion itself.