There are those, among the Baptist community, who would not consider the Westboro Baptist Church, a self-described independent, fundamentalist church in Topeka, Kansas, as either Baptist or a church. The small congregation, made up mainly of the immediate and extended family of its pastor, Fred Phelps, isn’t open to outsiders, and spends most of its time and resources traveling across the country making headlines for tasteless, insensitive, screaming protests mainly against anyone or anything they consider to be pro-gay. In my own experience, I’ve yet to encounter just one other Baptist who isn’t put off or angered by their behavior, or embarrassed by their Baptist identity.
And yet, in a pure, open and honest analysis, the antics of the church’s membership is an example, though not a pleasant one, of the essence of the Baptist faith. It is an independent, autonomous congregation without any kind of ecclesiastical connection to any other congregation, accountable to no one but God himself. That they recognize this basic Baptist tenet is evidenced by their closed off existence, functioning within a compound of residences for its few members, and not open to anyone who is not “family” in either the spiritual or physical sense of the term.
Their public behavior certainly gives evidence of the fact that the way they interpret and apply the teachings of scripture, a privilege that Baptists hold as dear as almost anything else, is quite different from most other Baptists, and from most other evangelical Christians, including the vast majority of those who self-identify as fundamentalists. I’d be curious to hear Phelps preach on the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, or just about any other teaching of Christ recorded in the New Testament, not because I think he’s nailed it down, but because it would be interesting to see how he twists it to justify the behavior of his church in public. Of course, that’s not something they let anyone else hear, and while they seem to ignore those principles, along with most of Paul’s teachings, especially the book of Romans, they seem to expect, in their criticism of other Christians, that everyone else will adhere to those Biblical principles, especially those which instruct believers not to judge others, but leave that up to God. I’m quite comforted knowing that the ultimate judge of both the members of Westboro Baptist Church, and myself, is God.
Personally, I find their loud, obnoxious protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in action in the Middle East to be rude, insensitive and unpatriotic. They do nothing to promote the cause for which they are conducted, and in fact, probably succeed in pushing people the other way. I don’t see anyway to interpret the Bible in context that would justify either the kind of example they are setting, or their actions. Only God knows whether they have been able to somehow discern, and receive his redemptive, life transforming grace through Christ because their public actions don’t demonstrate an understanding of it.
But in spite of all of that, the bottom line in the lawsuit they face, filed by a Maryland father of a deceased soldier who thought that their antics at his son’s funeral were too much, is whether or not their actions are constitutionally protected free speech. They may be despicable, rude, lacking integrity, not bearing any resemblance to the Christ they claim to believe in, but it is entirely possible that they are within their constitutional, first amendment rights.
Many members of the church/family are attorneys themselves, well versed in constitutional law and interpretation. That is, in fact, apparently the main way they earn money and support Phelps’ ministry and church. And knowing that, I guess that they probably very carefully plan and conduct their protests for maximum effect and minimum consequence. There may be some other legal nuances in this particular case, such as the pain and suffering of the father, potential psychological damage, or other issues which will allow the justices to come up with a ruling that costs Westboro a financial bundle, but this is one of those things which must be conducted with the utmost care. There should be no precedent set which interferes with free speech in cases where defendants have followed constitutional tests and rulings regarding its conduct.