This is a response to Jeff Wagg's month-old article on The Westboro Baptist Church. I'll dispense with the formal introductions - most Swift readers know about Westboro, and those who don't may inform themselves quickly by clicking here.
Jeff's article concluded with this paragraph:
Ignore these people. Their message is so over-the-top that they don't need debunking. Let them blow away and take their rightful place next to any of the thousands of other self-serving hypocrites pretending to have a calling from a higher power. Learn to be comfortable with the fact that there are lying, evil bastards out there who want your attention, and understand that you win when you don't give it to them. We all do.
Sentiments like Jeff's have been expressed by countless sensitive souls since the Westboroans began their protest ministry. But I disagree, on grounds both moral and practical. After all, no high-minded article could possibly inspire all people to ignore a group as loud and incendiary as The Westboro Baptist Church, and by ignoring them ourselves we only cede our place at their demonstrations to bullies with their own theological axes to grind - bullies who will engage the church far less thoughtfully than would, say, a public of even-tempered skeptics.
Many think such abandonment is right and proper. Even those without any sympathy for the Westboroan plight have surely been surprised at the rapidity with which good manners disappear whenever someone raises the subject. Otherwise peaceable people articulate murderous fantasies; otherwise tolerant people advocate gag laws. The Westboro Baptist Church, it seems, deserves whatever it gets, and no breach of civil liberties nor sudden lapse of decorum is too egregious so long as Fred Phelps and his brood are the targets.
Essentially, this is what we say when we suggest that the sane and secular give Westboro a wide berth. Let brutes deal with brutes.
It's a bad idea.
Before I explain why, I should tell you in the interest of full disclosure that I like the Westboroans. I've covered them several times for Village Voice Media*, and I've communicated on-and-off for years with the church's spokeswoman, Shirley Phelps-Roper. We first met when I was working for a gay magazine called Quintessential, which you'd think would render civilized discourse impossible. Not so. I was polite, and Phelps-Roper was consistently friendly. Of course, "friendly" in this context did involve telling me I was hell-bound - for as it says in the Bible, you can't love your neighbor ‘til you're willing to rebuke his sins. After my first encounter with Shirley and her sister, Marge, I felt very loved indeed.
I have seen the Westboroans use harsh language. I have seen them do things that are not polite, and which may have hurt someone's feelings. Mostly, though, I have found them to be accessible, articulate, and touchingly willing to spend hours compiling and explaining Bible verses for anyone they think might take the time to read them. If this isn't how they come across on TV or on the picket line... well, consider the audience. Being yelled at by Sean Hannity, or being compared to people who beat up midgets for fun (as the Westboroans were on The Tyra Banks Show) would make anyone a little prickly.
As a commenter on Jeff's story noted, the Phelpses have not always been the hated atavists with whom we're all so uncomfortably familiar. Before Fred Phelps was disbarred in 1979, his law firm, Phelps Chartered, achieved considerable local renown for taking on difficult civil rights cases in a time when civil rights cases were not hip. The Phelpses did a lot of good for penniless black families around Topeka, and Fred Sr. was publicly recognized for his worked in a teary ceremony in the mid-1980s. (I am not sure of the date, but you may see clips of the event in the documentary Hatemongers.) Years later, when asked to explain the discrepancies between his treatment of blacks and his treatment of gays, Fred Phelps said, simply: "God never said it was an abomination to be black."
Westboro´s current street ministry began in 1989, when Fred Phelps realized that a corner of Topeka´s Gage Park was, in the words of the indispensable gay travel guide, Damron, a "Cruisy Place"; a semi-secluded location where gay men could troll for anonymous sex in the bramble. The sprawling Phelps clan - which at the time included 13 children and dozens of grandchildren - contained many avid cyclists and runners, all of whom regularly used the park´s trails. Phelps appealed to the city to do something about the goings-on in Gage Park, and the city stalled. Phelps then appealed to Topeka´s churches, at the same time posting mild warning signs in the park´s bathrooms. The gay community of Topeka was aghast. They protested, and Westboro protested back. There was escalation, and the city´s mainstream churches came down firmly in favor of the gays.
Westboro was horrified by the antidoctrinally tolerant attitudes of its neighboring churches, and by the early ´90s Westboro's members were picketing all over the country. They picketed churches (hoisting signs reading "YOUR PASTOR IS A WHORE"), conventions of mainline denominations ("GOD HATES FAG ENABLERS"), gay pride rallies ("GOD HATES FAGS"), and the funerals of AIDS victims ("AIDS CURES FAGS"), often holding as many as 30 protests in a week.
These protests became a national fixation in the late 90s, after the Westboroans picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard. When the church began protesting the funerals of soldiers killed in United States' latest Mid-East excursion, the protests became a national scandal.
In a two-day period during which a crack film crew and I followed the Westboroans to four pickets, I saw Vietnam vets on bikes threaten the Westboroans' lives while the Westboroans were standing directly beside their children. I saw a man - who for some reason had inserted a set of fake green plastic teeth into his mouth, causing his mouth to erupt in gross little spit-geysers every time he talked - accost one of these children while screaming: "Fagboy! You're gonna grow up to be gaaaaay!" The boy, whose name might have been Gabriel, was five years old.
During Westboro's 20-year street ministry, its members' cars have been bombed; its members' houses have been set afire; and a woman once tried to run the lot of them over with a truck. The people perpetrating these acts were never in danger: wherever the Westboroans go, they are hopelessly outnumbered by the angry throngs who arrive to greet them. Despite the ever-present possibility of physical harm, or even annhilation, the Westboroans' approach is calm, consistent and, in its weird way, ethical. The Westboroans, for example, will never single out a counterprotester's prepubescent child for abuse.
Not yet, anyway. It is probably a matter of time. The weird saga of the Westboro Baptist Church is, among other things, the story of their withdrawal from the world and subsequent escape into their own worst thoughts about their fellow human beings. These weird Kansans now have twenty years' worth of circumstantial evidence that the world is full of bloodthirsty, sin-crazed reprobates whose all-consuming passion is to harm the servants of God. And as eschatologically-oriented Baptists who follow the Five Points of Calvanism as if they came out of the Bible itself (which they probably did), they don't find this weird at all. Somebody had to inhabit the last days, and if it is they who bear the burden of being the last outpost of Christendom in a darkening world, so be it. They will proudly suffer the torments historically delivered upon all of God's holiest saints and prophets, for the rewards shall be great.
None of this is difficult to understand - that the Westboroans take their Bible seriously; that they are as authentically Christian as Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards, and considerably moreso than, say, Joel Osteen. And while we skeptical folk don't find such piety particularly impressive, we are not the ones who spit in the Westboroans' faces. In my experience, the people doing that are honest-to-goodness believers. They show up spoiling for a fight in shirts reading "God Is Love."
Fine, you could say. Alright. Let the brutes battle the brutes. Let these time-warping remnants of The Great Awakening go head to head with their illegitimate and unwittingly secularized Methodist and Presbyterian and Lutheran and Nondemoninational children. We'll ignore them, catch up on our beauty sleep, and hope the believers tire each other out.
But that'd be wrong. At the very least, it'd be dishonest. For the world is not full of screeching, bloodthirsty and sin-crazy masses. It is simply that the Westboroans have stumbled into an echo chamber where that is all they see. You can argue that they deserve it, if you wish, but you cannot argue that their children do. They didn't ask to be born to the church any more than we asked not to. It is therefore our duty, when the Westboroans come to town, to show up, to smile, and to say hello.
*A small portion of this story originally appeared in the VVM story "God Hates You," published on June 27th, 2007.