A news story over the weekend—when oddball stories of religion are welcomed by the media—revealed that a judge in Muskogee County, Oklahoma sentenced a youth to a decade of church for a serious DUI crime. An underage drinker, the defendant committed the unforgivable sin of killing another youth while driving under the influence. It is a sad and tragic case. Law makers in Oklahoma are challenging the church decision, according to the video blurb on Newsy, but there is a much deeper flaw in the logic of Judge Mike Norman here. Had the lack of compassion and common sense so blatantly on display during the recent presidential campaign come from other than committed “Christians” it would have been considered downright shocking. We tend to excuse misanthropy when it comes wrapped in doctrinal packaging, a Twinkie in a Cliff Bar wrapper. The judge himself maybe needs a little churching.
There was a time when the moral values of a good, Protestant upbringing were unquestioned. The problem is, we live in a much more diverse world now. What is particularly telling has been the evangelical response to this growing siblinghood of humankind. It is seen as a great evil, perhaps the reverse of Babel itself. We are bringing people of different religions together in what is comprehended as an unholy mix. Thing is, many of these people participate in religions far older than Christianity that have no Babel story to put themselves in proper context. How can they know they’re inferior unless we can get them to read our Bible, attend our churches, learn our religion?
Timothy McVeigh went to church during his youth. Reverend Jim Jones started his own church. Would time in Westboro Baptist Church in nearby Kansas count? There is a reason that church and state should be kept separate. As an institution the church is nearly as diverse as the human race that invented it. Religion has seldom been the solution to crime. Law enforcement officials used to wear a pentagram for a badge, not a cross. But that was back in the days when Oklahoma was the wild west and white-steepled churches didn’t exist to inveigh against the evils of a satanic symbol worn by the representatives of the territory. And since Oklahoma doesn’t believe in evolution, we’ve got to wonder if some things will ever change.
People get shot every day, but that does not take the sting from the January 8 shootings in Tucson, Arizona. We live in a nation filled with angry, violent people. Most of them hold their rage in check, but others act out their frustrations aided by the obscene ease of firearm ownership. Into this volatile brew, mix in the warped rhetoric of a politics of fear and who knows what might happen. Sarah Palin and other outspoken conservative ideologues hold up their pristine hands to demonstrate they have nothing to do with the hate-mongering that haunts our streets. She calls the jabs at conservatives “blood libel.” I say if you propagate the politics of fear you’re liable to get blood on those hands. Often in the bookstore I see titles like How to Talk to Liberals: If You Have to. The liberals I hear talking are only asking for dialogue and coexistence. One side wants a chance for everyone to be heard, the other wants to throw stones at those who are different.
Students do presentations in my classes. The assignment is to choose a social issue where the Bible is brought to bear on the topic and present to the class what you learn about the subject. Two groups last night presented on the Westboro Baptist Church and its outspoken pastor and founder, Fred Phelps. Both presentation groups showed videos of members of the Westboro Baptist Church speaking out about various and sundry liberal groups/causes/nations they hate. Plucking verses from the Bible like a chicken pecking at the ground, they cite only those passages that justify hating those who are different. They seem to have overlooked the part that says, “by their fruits you shall know them.”
On today’s schedule? According to the Westboro website: “WBC to picket the funeral of Christina Greene, the 9-year-old girl cut off in her youth for the rebellion of the parents, preachers, and leaders of this nation.” They’ll have a hard time finding any place in the Bible that condemns children, shy of sly old Elisha calling out she-bears to kill 42 of them. Having read the Bible for practically my whole life, I have a very difficult time reconciling those who use the Bible for conservative causes with their own sourcebook. What will it take for them to realize that “what I want” is only part of the picture? Whether presidential hopefuls or crazed curmudgeons, we would all sleep better if we took to heart that inequality is very easily transformed into iniquity.
Religious freedom is proving to be a two-way street. The news is rife with stories of religious groups pushing the limits beyond their right to state an opinion into arguably unconstitutional behaviors. At Fort Bragg, the Army is sponsoring Rock the Fort, a Christian rock concert promoted by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. Although Christian bands are spiritually minded, they do not perform for free, raising the question whether military (government) money is being spent to promote a particular religion, a particular strain of Evangelical Christianity. In offering this concert, is the government endorsing this one religion? Statements that other religions are free to send their rock groups to Army bases rings hollow when, with rare exceptions, such groups simply do not exist.
Meanwhile, Time magazine brings the curious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas back to the headlines now that Supreme Court has been called in to argue whether their outspoken condemnation of the military is constitutional. Fred Phelps, the founder of the church, has led divine hate campaigns across the country. It is his protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in action that has forced the question of whether his group has the right to condemn indiscriminately. The question of good taste need not even be asked.
What these Evangelical groups are pointing out is that God apparently suffers from schizophrenia. Simultaneously the great general upstairs loves soldiers and wishes to convert them and also hates them and condemns them to hell. The jury, it seems, should be the taxpayers. We are the ones footing the bill for Christian concerts and paying the not-insubstantial salaries for Supreme Court justices to argue about the legality of religious hatemongering. In these days when many feel that Islam is a threat (as Christian clergy threaten to burn the Quran), it might be worth asking where the real threat to religious freedom comes from. Religious zealots often make excellent soldiers, no matter what the religion.
I knew I was in trouble when I looked up the concept “codependency” on Wikipedia this morning and read, “This article has multiple issues.”
I was reminded of an article my wife pointed out to me on MSNBC earlier this week concerning Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. My thoughts about religious freedom clash with my outrage over what may be legally classified as a religion. I’ve mentioned Phelps before, but the deeper issue here is whether freedom of religion can truly be free. Westboro is being sued (rightfully, imho) in a case that is going to the Supreme Court. His codependent hatred is causing excessive grief to the father of a soldier killed in Iraq. Phelps claims it is God’s will that he spread his Gospel of Hate.
Reading Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape, it quickly becomes apparent that empathy is what makes human society possible. Without our ability to feel for another, nature would lead us on a selfish rampage that would not be satiated until everyone but the alpha male was ruthlessly butchered. This seems to be Phelps’ idea of Heaven. It should be a stark warning sign when apes have better bred manners than a pastor.
Hatred and religion may form a codependent bond. Each feeds off the fear and distrust of the other, striking blindly at anything that is different, challenging, or unclear. Religion does have its noble children – those who in the name of their faith try to make life better for others. If the world were run according to Phelps’ religion, however, I would opt for life on the planet of the apes.
This podcast discusses a recent visit of Westboro Baptist Church’s “protesters” to Rutgers University. The issue is whether religious freedom includes the right to encourage hate crimes on the part of those not directly involved in the “protests.” Religious freedom is the phenomenon that allows such groups to develop in a democracy, but the end results of such groups is destructive to the democracy that engendered it. This is compared to the Scientology case that is simultaneously taking place in France and noting the differences between them.