Updated: Dec 13, 2020
The recent decision by the Supreme Court to allow the Phelps family (aka the Westboro Baptist Church) to picket the funerals of soldiers with their disturbingly hateful messages will surely turn many more people against religion as a whole. Though this is obviously an unwelcome development, it’s nothing new. In fact, it may be precisely what more reasonable people need to finally understand a basic fact: that any disturbed and twisted person or group of people can, particularly in a democracy, gather under the banner of a recognized institution in order to legitimize their hateful message.
The Church, as it turns out, is particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon because it claims to deal with ultimate truths, truths that themselves often serve as illegitimate rationales for extreme behavior. This is an obvious liability of religion, which there’s no getting around. But acknowledging this is simply admitting the more basic fact that any time people seek to answer the ultimate question why (why are we here? why is there suffering? why do we live?), the very process of asking such questions opens itself to any number of answers that may be hateful and disturbing.
Democracy as a system of government is similarly vulnerable to this phenomenon. Its very structure assumes that anyone, at least in principle, has an equal right to propound whatever notions he believes to be true, however distorted those notions might be. Voltaire put it thus: I may disagree with everything you say but I will fight to the death for your right to say it. The fact that religion gives whack-jobs like the Westboro Baptist Church fodder to craft their distortions does not mean that religion itself is wrong, just like it doesn’t mean that democracy, by allowing such distortions to be recognized under and broadcast as free speech, is itself wrong.
But we can go a step further. The very claim that democracy is wrong is, itself, allowed by democracy, just like the insistence that “the claims of religion about the meaning and purpose of life are wrong” is, itself, a religious claim, if by “religious” we mean anything that purports to know something of God ~ in this case, that he either doesn’t exist or he’s not like what religions claim he is.
However you slice this onion, the fact remains that we humans make, and need to make, sense of our surroundings all the time, and ultimate claims of truth cannot thus be avoided. To that end, as far as ultimate claims of the purpose and meaning of life go, the central claims of the Church that the consensus of Christian believers have agreed upon ~ in essence, the claims of the Gospel elucidated in the Apostles’ Creed ~ are, to my mind, the most sensible, life-affirming, and true-to-experience claims this world has ever known.
That these claims can and will be distorted is a fact we believers have had to live with since the inception of the Church. There will always be Westboro Baptists Churches around to serve their own twisted aims under the banner of Christianity. Meanwhile, thoughtful Christians around the world continue to live out the gospel claims of Jesus in fits and starts for the sake of the world; even, it seems, for the sake of the Phelps families of the world. May even they, purveyors of spiritual and moral filth that they are, come some day to understand the hard truths of the gospel.