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Right But Wrong


(photo credit)

Now that the Westboro Baptist Church (membership:  Fred Phelps and his family) has received Supreme Court affirmation (Snyder v. Phelps) of the fundamental right to free speech, Pastor Phelps and his familial followers should spend the rest of their lives begging God’s forgiveness for acting so cruelly toward their fellow human beings.

Sure, they have a right to be as nasty as they want to be.  But their speech, while legal, is absolutely wrong by any moral standard of conduct for people who profess to be Christians.

These are people who, in the name of some weird notion of religion, have picketed the funerals of American soldiers with the most disgusting placards imaginable.  “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” is just one of their free speech displays.

Are they peaceniks?  Hardly.  These protesters claim that the deaths of American soldiers are God’s punishment for tolerating homosexuality —- mind you, regardless of whether the deceased soldier happened to be gay, Pastor Phelps has chosen to victimize the grieving families of dead soldiers to make his political point regardless of how much pain he inflicts on the next of kin.  This ‘religious’ group also picketed the funeral of the 9 year-old child slaughtered in the Tuscon shootings.

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The case arose because one such family, the Snyders, sued Pastor Phelps for invading the privacy of their son’s funeral.  The Snyders won in the lower courts, but on appeal Phelps prevailed on the free speech claim.

The Supreme Court is certainly right on the technical legal issue — in 1929 the legendary Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes offered his famous statement that the utmost test of the First Amendment is protection of “freedom for the thought that we hate.”  (U.S. v. Schwimmer)  In the Phelps case, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the 8-1 majority that, “As a nation we have chosen … to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate…” (Read the full opinion.)

While the Court is right on the law, the fact of the right to freedom of speech does NOT mean that every act of speech is good, moral or truthful.  The Westboro Church crowd seems to be taking the Supreme Court’s ruling as approval of their conduct, which is a serious misreading of what the Court actually said.  The Constitution protects freedom, but does not grant approval to actions that occur freedom’s broad spaces.

Many people of many faiths have different religious, moral and political views on homosexuality and other difficult issues.  Expressions of belief and conviction are essential to the health of every faith, and many believers are quite passionate about their convictions across a range of faith and moral issues.

But true believers — especially those who claim to be Christians — live by the idea that we must “hate the sin but love the sinner,” meaning that in expressing our beliefs we should not deliberately seek to inflict pain and suffering on others.  The Phelps people are not simply giving witness to belief — by deliberately harassing mourners at the funerals of soldiers who have died for our country, they are making a mockery of true Christianity.

The best response might be to stop giving these people any attention whatsoever.  They’ve had their 15 minutes of fame.  The show is over, let’s move on to more important matters, like how to stop the deaths of our troops entirely.

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3 Responses to Right But Wrong

  1. Pat McGuire says:

    Cynthia, thanks for your wise comment, I retract my use of that phrase now that I understand its implications! Thanks for calling this to my attention…

  2. Cynthia Russell says:

    It is a pity that President McGuire chose to qualify her otherwise sound discussion of the implications of Snyder v. Phelps with the statement “But true believers — especially those who claim to be Christians — live by the idea that we must “hate the sin but love the sinner … .” This is the same tired old platitude the Catholic Church uses to rationalize its continued cruel rejection of faithful people who happen to be homosexual. It is an insulting, theologically baseless statement that helps the Church and so many of its members feel better about their prejudice and ignorance. There is no “love” in this statement, just an excuse to discriminate and marginalize, all while feeling righteous in the process.

    The quote originated with Mahatma Gandhi, not generally considered as a respected Christian theologian, and I have no doubt that he would be ashamed with how his words have been used to exclude, persecute and marginalize so many people. More importantly, Jesus never commanded his followers, as President McGuire clearly indicates, to “hate the sin.” If fact, he commanded quite the opposite. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) Jesus tells us that it is not our place to judge one another not just because we too have “planks in our own eyes” but because it is not ours to say what is a sin and what is not.

    Jesus’ command to love all people was totally unqualified by any notion of “hating the sin” of which someone may be guilty. Just one example comes from the Gospel of John: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) Again, his actions in loving those whose purported “sins” where well known (tax collectors, prostitutes, violators of Jewish law, etc.) totally flummoxed the religious leaders of his day. His love was unconditional, and we were commanded to love in the same way.

    I will leave for another time the notions of whether “sin” is an act or behavior and whether or not “sinfulness” is the human condition that applies equally to all, regardless of behavior. I would, however, remind anyone who still wishes in good conscience to follow Gandhi or McGuire that you do not know what I may do in the privacy of my relationship any more than I know what you do in yours. I think we both prefer it that way. If you want to hate something that may or may not be happening, that’s your choice. But you can keep your qualified, conditional love for someone else.

  3. Ann Pauley says:

    I have such conflicted feelings on this issue. I find the actions of the Westboro “Church” (really the Phelps family) abhorrent and morally repugnant. Yet, reluctantly, I agree with the Supreme Court that they are entitled to free speech, a fundamental right for all Americans, and a right that every day we see is not secure for millions around the world. My hope is that members of the Westboro Church will be guided by Christian values and cease and desist their disruptive actions at the funerals of those in the military who have sacrificed their lives for this country.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: