Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Westboro Baptist Church is Good For America

Today, the Supreme Court begins considering Snyder v. Phelps, the case of the father of a slain veteran who is suing the insular and legendary Westboro Baptist Church.  He accuses them of inflicting emotional harm on him and his family by engaging in one of their trademarked anti-gay demonstrations during the funeral of his son.

Though it's a bit painful, because I understand the depth of that father's suffering,  I tend to side with the Phelps clan in this, for two reasons.  First, I think "offense" is a dangerous precedent to set as a metric for restricting free speech.  Here, we're not talking physical assault, physical disruption, or trespassing.  We're talking demonstrating within the bounds of legality.

Let's say, for instance, that I am demonstrating against a war which I believe is unjustified.  If my actions give offense to someone who supports that war, should they be restricted?  In the United States, the answer is no.  Or has been.   And must still be. 

Second, and more significant, I think Fred Phelps and his feverish brood are instruments in the hand of God.  Their brand of prophetic performance art has made them known worldwide, and for good reason.  They have a powerful unifying impact on every single community they enter.  As they sing their brilliantly simple offensive songs and wave their iconic offensive signs, they remind us of the most important values of this nation and of Christian faith, of our tolerance and mutual forbearance.   I watched this at work myself, as I provided a Christian witness in counterprotesting them when they came to do their thing at my local high school.   Rarely have I felt such a sense of unity, or seen young people so willing to embrace the essence of the the point of holding up signs provided by a complete stranger. 

I'll go further.  No single ministry in the United States has done more to further the acceptance of gays and lesbians by our broader culture.  Listening to their carefully scripted hate, we're reminded of the divisive fulmination on the far right about gays and lesbians and culture wars.  As the Phelps take this fulmination to its logical extreme, their actions remind us that this is not something any of us really believe.

If a troupe of radical progressive Christian performance artists were looking to find a way to shock America into doing a gut check about who we are and what we believe, and to open us to being tolerant of gays and lesbians as fellow human beings and citizens, you couldn't do a better job than the Phelpses.  If you were looking for a way to remind Christianity that no matter what its political or theological leanings, it needs to manifest grace in everything it does, well, they pretty much rock that one too.  Westboro Baptist is a powerful, powerful social justice ministry.

For that, they deserve our thanks, and the permission of a free society to continue to annoy us into being our better selves.