According to a recent story, Westboro Baptist Church must pay the father of a slain marine $11 million because it protested at his son’s funeral. Westboro’s reason for the protest was to call attention to God’s judgment on America because of homosexuality. For Westboro, America’s lack of success in Iraq is a symptom of divine judgment.
Reading about Westboro in wikipedia’s documented article was an interesting exercise. There are liberals who would like to portray Westboro as just another example of the bigoted conservative movement, but so many features of the church’s history transcend the typical liberal/conservative, Republican/Democrat divide. Did you know that Fred Phelps (Westboro’s pastor) supported Al Gore in 1984 and 1988, back in the days when Gore opposed homosexuality? That Phelps hates the American flag? That Phelps likes Fidel Castro for his anti-gay policies? That Phelps praised Saddam Hussein because Saddam at least allowed the Gospel to be preached in Iraq? That Bush signed the Republican-written bill that banned Westboro’s protests at military funerals, a bill opposed by Ron Paul (not too surprising), David Wu (a Democrat), and (most surprising of all) Barney Frank, himself a homosexual? And, of course, the ACLU still argues that the law infringes on free speech.
So Westboro is an example of how the liberal/conservative dichotomy does not always work. It can often serve as a decent explanatory model, but things can sometimes get complicated. There are right-wingers who support left-wing ideas for right-wing reasons, and conservatives who oppose extreme right-wingers for right-wing reasons, and left-wingers who defend right-wingers for left-wing (or, in Ron Paul’s case, libertarian) reasons. Then there is Al Gore, who simply flip-flopped, for whatever reason.
As far as the case itself is concerned, I think that our country needs tort reform. What Westboro did was horrible, but a person should not be able to become a multi-millionaire from a lawsuit (not that Westboro has the resources to pay up). Whatever happened to making money the old fashioned way? The federal law that Phelps violated, the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, imposes penalties of up to $100,000 in fines, which seems more reasonable than $11 million.
Do the law and the case infringe on freedom of speech? I don’t know. Did the founding fathers intend for the First Amendment to be absolute, allowing Americans can say anything they want wherever and whenever they want? What would that do to sexual harassment laws? I agree that Westboro should be free to get its message out, and the federal law itself allows protests more than 300 feet from the cemetery entrance. But should Westboro be able to disrupt the solemn occasion of a funeral? Westboro may say that people can only hear its message near the cemetery entrance, and its goal, after all, is to call as many people as possible to repentance. But shouldn’t the friends and family of the deceased have the right not listen to Westboro’s chants? They can’t really exercise that right when the chants become disruptive. But, then again, protests in some sense are supposed to be disruptive. For example, just because an abortion clinic doesn’t want to hear pro-life protesters, that doesn’t mean that protests against abortion should be banned. No one has a right to be totally insulated from another point of view. I don’t like walking the streets and seeing anti-Bush protesters, but that’s just life.
Theologically, is Phelps right or wrong? He’s getting his ideas from the Bible, in some way, shape, or form. Psalm 5:5 says that God hates workers of iniquity, so that’s why Phelps concludes that God hates homosexuals, America, Sweden, etc. There are passages in the Torah (e.g., Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28) where God prophesies military failure for Israel if she disobeys his commandments, and Phelps is probably interpreting the Iraq situation with those passages in mind. But I don’t think the message of the Bible is “Thank God for Fallen Soldiers,” a slogan that appears on Westboro placards. Even if there are signs of God’s wrath on America (which is the subject of debate), God’s approach to the situation is best expressed in Ezekiel 33:11: “As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Fred Phelps, on the other hand, implies that he does.