Many people argue it's better to ignore Westboro Baptist Church and the Phelps family, to deprive them of the media attention they seek. But when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear Snyder v. Phelps, that became impossible. As Margie Phelps, eldest daughter of Fred Phelps and the attorney who argued the case, said today on Fox News Sunday, "This case put a megaphone to this little church."
With the Court's ruling on free speech grounds, we must all exercise our free speech to drown out the Phelps' hate with love and forgiveness. Al Snyder did the country a favor by exposing the Phelps. They are now the face of hate and bigotry for this generation's primary civil rights battle, just as Bull Connor, George Wallace, Strom Thurmond and others were in an earlier generation, also using The Bible to justify their beliefs.
As Fred Phelps approaches the end of his life, there is no indication he or his family is the least bit repentant for their hatred. They are not seeking forgiveness as bigots of the past have done, but that need not stop us from offering our forgiveness to them. The reasons we should were evident in this morning's interview.
On Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, Margie Phelps's otherwise stern and formidable presence cracked twice.
The final exchange in the interview was most telling, for in it Ms. Phelps undercut the core of her argument and the basis for Westboro's pickets. Wallace asked if there was a moral difference between the American soldiers whose deaths the Phelps celebrate, and Islamic Jihadists:
Phelps: Yes, there is a difference, the American soldier is worse because he pretends that he's fighting for liberty and a Christian Nation and there is not a bigger lie on the face of this earth today. Those soldiers are fighting for same-sex marriage and all of the lesser included sins and there is not an ounce of nobility in the United States military today. If you fear God you will not put that uniform on.
Wallace: And that is apparently worse than slaughtering innocents.
Phelps: They (US soldiers) are slaughtering innocents.
Inherent in her final reply is the recognition there are "innocents" in the world. But in every other utterance from Phelps during this interview, and in decades of her family's pickets, is the underlying belief everyone in the world, except the Phelps, is going to hell. In the interview she even said her mother and father, alone in their entire generation the whole world around, were the only two people keeping true to Biblical principles. This will come as news to many other self-righteous people certain they alone have the Truth.
As a person of faith, I'm much more comfortable with the notion that the more I learn, the more I discover how little I know. Doubt, questioning, and an open heart are the tools of most seekers I know, none of whom claim to have it all figured out. When someone tells me they do, I run the other way.
The certainty the Phelps wear like a shield of armor also cracked earlier in the interview, in a more painful way. Wallace quoted her estranged brothers then asked Ms. Phelps about the well-documented reports of physical and psychological abuse the family endured at the hands of their father growing up.
Tellingly it was her body language that gave her away. For the only time in the interview, she looked down. Otherwise, her steely gaze pierced the camera lens the entire time. Only in this reply did Ms. Phelps hesitate, saying "Mark always had an overactive imagination," then stuttering just a bit before regaining her footing, returning her eyes to the camera, and saying they were very thankful for their parents. I'm sure that's true, and that somehow she and others have found forgiveness for the abuse they witnessed or endured.
I interviewed Nate Phelps, one of the four Phelps children to escape their father's fear and oppression. Listening to him recall his childhood was as authentic a conversation as I've ever had with anyone. Seeing Margie look away today was as painful as it was telling.You don't have to be an expert to see this given her otherwise overly confident, often strident, tone.
In exchanges that will likely get more coverage, Ms. Phelps said that all the Supreme Court Justices are going to hell and that President Obama will be "King of the World before this is all said and done and he is most likely The Beast spoken of in Revelations." Two other ministers from Topeka, Kansas I interviewed at the time of oral arguments, have different takes on the meaning of Revelations.
Sometimes allowing people like the Phelps their day in court is required so people see what the face of hate really looks like. People like Al Snyder get hurt, no doubt, and that is unfortunate. But it's possible that advancing civil rights for gay Americans wouldn't be nearly as far along if it weren't for the Phelps. It is doubtful many people would have examined their own hearts on a range of issues, without their extreme behavior.
In this way, perhaps we should thank the Phelps for giving all Americans this experience, and thus live into the true understanding of forgiveness, appreciating the lesson, no matter how it differs for each of us or how learn it. When we come to a place of gratitude, even for the darkest parts of life, we can turn away from that which no longer serves us and once again choose love over hate, compassion over arrogant certainty.
As for Fox, they still have time to atone. United in Support of Al Snyder and several generals who have sued for the Phelps to be disbarred, are claiming Margie Phelps lied in the interview this morning, by suggesting their case was dismissed. Chris Wallace acknowledged Fox was unable to confirm this coming out of a commercial break. Contact Fox News and encourage them to provide equal time to people who can counter the Phelps. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or call 1-888-369-4762.