Westboro Baptist Church, and what’s best about America

According to the Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, God hates gays, 9/11 was the result of America’s tolerance toward homosexuality, and every dead U.S. soldier is a sign of the Lord’s judgment on our depraved national character.

If these things sound sensible to you, you’re probably related to Phelps and a member of his church based out of Topeka, Kan. If they don’t make sense, you may not even remember what the Westboro Church is.

They’re folks who protest at the funerals of gays, soldiers, miners and pretty much anyone famous, in hopes of suing the people they provoke. GodHatesFags.com. You know. Those guys.

I’m sincere as can be that they make me proud to be an American, and they prove that whatever complaints there are about our country, we remain one of the most wonderful places to live.

As you can see, my last name isn’t Phelps, and I don’t drive to Kansas for church on Sundays. I hate Westboro Baptist Church and everything they stand for, more than I can say here. The Odessa American is a family newspaper, after all.

If I admire anything about them, it’s the skillfulness with which they have managed to turn a diverse nation of some 300 million people who agree on essentially nothing else uniformly against them. With virulent homophobia surpassing one extreme of the social spectrum and rabid anti-militarism surpassing the other, they have caught all of us in between and made us despise them.

They protested Mr. Rogers’ funeral because he didn’t take the opportunity to use his children’s show to condemn homosexuality.

Mr. Rogers.

But obviously, that’s not what’s best about America.

I abhor them, but I love to know that I live in a country where a vulnerable minority is hated by the vast majority of the general population, and yet the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church remains very much alive, unimprisoned and mostly unharmed (though they do get the occasional rock through their bus window).

The most we’ve done as a society is to pass laws in several states barring disruptive protests within one hour of a funeral. We haven’t said, “You cannot say these things,” “You cannot believe these things,” or “You cannot protest,” just, “Your right to express your opinion on morality and public policy ends where another person’s right to mourn a loved one begins, at least for those few hours.”

This is highly important.

To misuse a good quote, whatever we do to the worst of these, we do to ourselves. A nation is no church, but it is a body, and the parts of it we think are dishonorable we must treat with special honor. When we watch something on TV and want it banned, we restrict our own right to create and view. When we say a group can’t exist, we threaten our own existence. When we corrupt the law or the legal system because we think it worthwhile in this case only, we’re hating ourselves, we’ve corrupted ourselves, and we’ve forever stained our own law.

I live in a country that would be glad if Westboro Baptist Church were dead, yet no one has killed them. I live in a country of freedoms and laws and enough integrity not to break our laws or use them as an instrument of personal retaliation.

It isn’t that way everywhere, it hasn’t always been so here, and it may not always stay so, but while I would rejoice if they were gone, I rejoice now that they’re alive and our hands and consciences have remained clean.

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