Fred Phelps - founder of a church whose hateful, antigay rhetoric included demonstrations at military funerals - went gently into that good night late Wednesday. Phelps died in a state of exile from Westboro Baptist Church and estranged from many members of his family, a sad but unsurprising end to a sad and fitful life.
I crossed paths with Phelps’ church a couple of times. The most recent was in 2007, when the church protested at the funeral of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who founded Liberty University where I teach. Falwell’s great sin, according to Phelps and company, was Falwell’s constant refrain that God loves everyone.
The funeral wasn’t the first time Phelps protested Falwell. Several years before, Falwell hosted a dialogue with Soul Force, a LGBTQ organization founded by a former writer for Falwell who later became a gay activist. The dialogue Falwell hosted aimed to reduce the violence of antigay rhetoric following a national spate of horrific hate crimes. As one of the hundreds who participated in the daylong event, I walked past Westboro picketers brandishing signs emblazoned with stick figures simulating the very acts the protestors claimed to detest.
Westboro Baptist Church members say they’ve protested at 53,000 events. They’ve gained their greatest notoriety for celebratory pickets at the funerals of fallen United States soldiers, where the church members laud soldiers’ deaths as God’s judgment on America for accepting homosexuality. These protests proved more than either the nation or the soldiers’ families could bear, and a series of legal decisions over several years resulted in a Supreme Court decision declaring that such activities constituted speech protected by the First Amendment.
Whatever truth might have been in the doctrines Phelps espoused, he put to unnatural use.
This was the right decision, I firmly believe, on both constitutional and Biblical grounds. The right to free speech exists precisely to protect the speech we don’t want to hear. Rather than leaving hateful ideas to fester in the private recesses of a darkened mind, the right of free speech recognizes the goodness in allowing such ideas to be expressed openly, where they can be considered and challenged.
After all, none of us - no, not one - has a handle on the entire truth. Truth is big. It’s complicated and contingent. It can be as enigmatic as Fred Phelps was: once the winningest civil rights lawyer in town; a former missionary; a political candidate for the Democratic Party; a five-point Calvinist; a Baptist preacher; a husband and a father. Yet whatever truth might have been in the doctrines Phelps espoused, he put to unnatural use. This is the essence of heresy. Heresy isn’t the absence of truth, but its distortion. Phelps’ hate-mongering was heretical, but free to be heard. Hate forced underground becomes a running, poisonous sewer.
The freedom to be wrong - even to the point of heresy - is necessary to avoid heresy. As John Milton explained in Areopagitica, his 1644 pamphlet decrying the English Parliament’s policies of prior restraint,
…our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise, as well as our limbs and complexion. Truth is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition. A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.
The way to dispel the darkness of a lie is to shed the light of truth upon it, for “wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.” The way to combat false, hateful speech is with true, loving speech. Suppressing heresy will only make heretics of us all.