Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas have been in the news again recently for organizing distasteful and vile protests at funerals of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. For several years church members have gathered outside of private memorial services carrying signs that read “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers” and other such slogans in an attempt to make their message heard. They believe that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality and that soldiers are selling their souls by serving a country that would allow a behavior which God condemns. In their eyes these soldiers’ deaths are divine retribution for the sins of the nation.
Although the Westboro Church members are most famous for their protests at the funerals of fallen war heroes, they do not limit their twisted ranting to these private memorial services. This same church has protested other venues as well: pop concerts, retail stores, theaters, and even the 2004 funeral of Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood). Several lawsuits have been brought against this small congregation (which numbers less than 100 members) and one of these cases has finally made its way to the Supreme Court. Protesting a shopping mall or a rock concert is certainly understandable (whether or not we agree with the message), but verbally assaulting family members of deceased loved ones is (in my opinion) disgusting and frankly un-Christian.
Obviously the church is framing their defense as a matter of free speech, and in some sense they do have a point. After all, if Neo-Nazi skinheads and white supremacists can congregate in public areas to voice their opinions, then how can we tell this equally repulsive and ignorant group that they cannot do likewise? Personally I would like to see the Westboro Baptists, the Nazis and other hate-mongers disbanded and shut out of public discourse. They have nothing constructive to contribute. But the Supreme Court has a difficult task in making such a thing happen within the bounds of the law. As the highest authority on the matter, the Supreme Court must obey the rule of law even when it leads to a distasteful conclusion.
The case is perplexing. When the Court heard arguments last week, Justice Breyer made known his frustration: “What I'm trying to accomplish is to allow this tort to exist, but not allow it to interfere with an important public message.” In other words, he wishes to see the Westboro Church punished, but this must be done in a way that protects the free speech of others in the public square. This dilemma is echoed in questions posed by Justice Kagan: “So does that mean that now we have to start reading each sign, and saying 'war is wrong' falls on one side of the line but 'you are a war criminal' falls on another side of the line? Is that what we would have to do?”
How this case will be decided, I do not know. It is up to the Court to determine how the law must be applied so that justice is served. But there is another issue at stake here beyond the scope of our secular legal system. The actions of the Westboro Baptist Church have ramifications within the religious community that are just as complex as the legal questions and yet more weighty as they pertain to our relationship with God and His Church. The public perception of this case calls into question the moral authority of Christianity. The hateful rhetoric of the Westboro Baptists damages the reputation of Christianity as a whole by giving non-Christians an easy target for discrediting the faith. Secular atheists and agnostics can point to this radical fundamentalist group as “proof” that Christian morality is oppressive and cruel. The Westboro Baptists preach about a God whose authority and power demands the death of innocent people and then treats their loved ones who mourn their loss with contempt and disrespect. How can a “loving” God be so cruel?
I agree with this assessment as it applies to the Westboro Baptist theology (as well as other fundamentalist sects that promote such a distorted view of the faith). Their brand of Christianity is twisted and corrupted. I reject their image of God as a hateful oppressor who uses His divine Law as a club to beat people into submission.
But secular atheists take this one step further. They respond to this image of Christianity by turning away from God and religion altogether. As they see it, they must throw off the “shackles” of religious authority and oppression. The Westboro Baptist distortion of Christianity serves as an excuse to reject all Christian moral authority across the board.
However this tearing down of moral authority does not solve the problem at hand. Tearing down all authority does not produce a more just or cohesive society. The sad fact is that fundamentalist Christianity (of the Westboro type) is a product of just such an idea. The Protestant Reformers sought to throw off the “shackles” of an “oppressive” Church just as modern secularists wish to do in a more radical way. In the eyes of the Reformers, the Catholic Church presented a distorted image of God and had corrupted the pure message of the Gospel. In some ways the Reformers were right in protesting the corruptions of Catholic clergy. In response, the Council of Trent and other actions taken by the hierarchy went a long way to correct these abuses. But by then the Protestant rift had already occurred. Protestants set about eliminating the authoritative mechanisms of the Church (the hierarchy, Tradition and the witness of the ancient Church) and chaos ensued. Without a central authority to act as a check on run-away doctrine, one Protestant sect broke away from another, disputes between rival groups spawned even more schism, and eventually we find ourselves in our present condition with tens of thousands of competing denominations and no single authority over any of them.
The Reformation took a bad thing (corruption and injustice in high places) and made it worse (with the removal of any authority whatsoever). Christianity became a free-for-all with every home-grown theologian patching together his own doctrinal creed and finding a niche audience who will swear allegiance to his cause. Today we find congregations such as the Westboro Baptist Church claiming “authentic” Christianity as their basis while using their beliefs to desecrate the solemn memorials of soldiers who died defending our country. There is no check and balance within Protestantism to protect against such distortions.
This is not to say that Protestantism is to blame for all of Christianity’s distortions. After all, it was Catholic abuses that sparked the Reformation in the first place and most of the original Reformers were themselves baptized in the Catholic Church (many of them priests). It is part of the human condition that we all fail and fall short of the ideal. Whether Catholic, Protestant, atheist or otherwise, we all need to be held to a higher authority. But unlike Protestantism and modern secularism (which tends toward relativism), Catholicism maintains a cohesive authority to solve abuses and correct sinful behavior and in doing so remains a cohesive whole.
This appeal to a higher authority is not an exclusively religious phenomenon. A similar authority also holds together the fabric of secular society. The Supreme Court has just heard arguments in the case against the Westboro Baptists. By their authority as the highest court in the land a decision will be reached in the realm of secular law. This higher authority is the means by which we survive as a nation. Whether it is God’s law or the law of man we all must submit to some higher principle to judge right from wrong, virtue from vice. In the secular world, if one citizen breaks the law this does not nullify the whole legal system or call into question our nation’s founding principles. It merely demands that the full authority of the law be brought to bear on that individual. Likewise within religion, one Christian who fails to live up to the standards of Christian love and virtue does not condemn the entire Christian enterprise. It calls instead for a strengthening of moral principles among all Christians and a greater recognition of God’s authority over sinful man.
The funeral protests are an ugly display of Christianity gone wrong, but this does not make the case for the wholesale dismantling of religious authority or outright rejection of God. Secularists are right to call on Christians to repudiate the Westboro Baptists (as indeed all of the mainline denominations have done). But to suggest that the actions taken by this handful of Christians condemn all of religion in general or Christianity as a whole is an unfounded notion.