I have no evidence that the Westboro Baptist Church is secretly a pro-gay rights organization masquerading as a gang of religious extremists in order to make anti-gay groups look ridiculous.
However, if such a cheeky cabal were formed, I suspect it wouldn’t look a heck of a lot different.
For the past many years, the Westboro Baptist Church has served two essential purposes in American public life. First, to be arguably the most universally detested organization in our 50 states united. And second, to ensure, beyond all doubt, that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is as healthy and muscular now as ever it has been.
To review: The WBC are the folks who shuttle from place to place wielding signs with such heart-warming messages as “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates America” and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers.” Most of its members are related, either by blood or marriage, to its founder and patriarch, Fred Phelps, who died on March 19, at age 84.
The group is perhaps most notorious for its practice of picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers, whom it claims were killed as a consequence of America’s tolerance for homosexuality, among other things. In 2010, this ritual led to a Supreme Court case, Snyder v. Phelps, in which the Court ruled in favor of the church, arguing that protesting a funeral is a form of free expression protected by the First Amendment.
While the death of Fred Phelps does not necessarily mark the demise of the Westboro Baptist Church itself, it may well hasten its diminished presence in the public eye. As such, we might entertain the notion of referring to the WBC in the past tense, if only for its cathartic effects.
On this subject, I have but one question: On balance, has the Phelps family been good for America?
My answer: Yes, but it’s complicated.
I say the WBC is the most hated organization in America—a fairly uncontroversial sentiment—but we might also say it has come by this distinction rather lazily, as far as generating mass hatred goes.
After all, what could be more of a “slam dunk” in the quest for amassing public scorn than to spit on the graves of fallen soldiers and to craft placards with the sort of radioactive language that leads even those who otherwise agree with you to recoil in disgust?
The WBC can be accused of being any number of things, but subtle is not one of them.
Quite to the contrary, they are cartoon characters—hysterical, childish, simplistic, ideologically absolutist to an extent previously not thought possible, and—surprise, surprise—completely convinced of their moral rightness on all fronts.
Indeed, the more time one spends reading the WBC’s various statements on matters of public import, the more one feels the weight of precious seconds of one’s life being irretrievably wasted away.
In other words, the WBC seems to incite the world’s rage and indignation for their own sake, as if it were all one big piece of performance art. As such, the church can hardly be taken seriously in the first place. To coin a phrase: Its antics are not worth dignifying with a response.
And we cannot blame some folks for taking WBC at face value, since its views do not exactly come from nowhere. In point of fact, the church’s basic beliefs about homosexuality are drawn directly from the Old Testament, and its musings that God kills Americans as a punishment for homosexuality is an almost word-for-word plagiarism of Jerry Falwell’s infamous explanation for the attacks of September 11, 2001.
In any case, their flagrant ridiculousness has proved exceedingly useful in reminding ourselves that enforcement of the First Amendment can be a very nasty business, since the right to free expression must be extended even to those whose views no one else on planet Earth wishes to hear.
In this way, the Phelps family’s victory at the Supreme Court was a great relief, because it demonstrated that—at least in this case—our federal institutions still take the Bill of Rights seriously. That our most sacred liberties apply even to those who probably don’t deserve them. Yes, even organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church, which expresses nothing but scorn toward the very country in which these liberties are practiced.
For better and for worse, that is what America is all about.