What To Do When Fred Phelps Arrives in Your Neighborhood

We all face dilemmas now and then—perhaps especially when once distant issues arrive at our own doorsteps. This month, mine is Fred Phelps.

I am not ambivalent about Fred Phelps. His views are (to use his favorite language) an abomination, and his actions abhorrent. This time, though, his circus may be coming to my own region. A local soldier, from Cohocton, New York, Army Sergeant Devin Snyder, was killed in Afghanistan on June 4, 2011. Her body arrived at Rochester NY Airport on June 13, and her funeral is coming up on Saturday morning, June 18. Cohocton is not alone in this, as it joins the many other small towns and cities in the United States and beyond that mourn the consequences of militarism and war.

Nor is the town alone as it is forced to join other places where sexuality is contested in contemporary American culture in overt ways. Cohocton is a small town, with a population in 2009 of about 800 people. It is in upstate New York. It is not my small town, nor is it likely yours; and yet each of these places is someone’s neighborhood. This time, it is only an hour away for me.   

Picketing as “The Workingman’s Means of Communication”

On March 2, 2011, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in response to a series of prior decisions around Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing of a Marine’s funeral. The case was Snyder v. Phelps. In its majority decision, the Court ruled that such picketing is “speech” and thus protected constitutionally. Westboro’s “God Hates Fags” approach to theology and to picketing was, in an 8 to 1 ruling, deemed distasteful but protected speech. So far, the Court has not offered a view of whether recently-enacted laws limiting picketing at funerals are constitutional. Cohocton recently passed a resolution (which has limited legal standing) to ensure picketing is located as far from funerals as possible. Why? Because of this Supreme Court ruling and Fred Phelps. Yes, his website indicates that his “church” intends to picket Sergeant Snyder’s funeral.  

This is not the first time Fred Phelps has picketed, or threatened to picket, a funeral. He began with Matthew Shepard and has picketed over 400 funerals of soldiers over the years. Fred Phelps’ views (one hates to call them theology) are not limited to hating “fags.” Wikipedia, for example, claims they hate India. And, Phelps’ church itself is pretty darn sure God Hates America (for a variety of reasons like American tolerance of “fags”). And yet, Westboro Baptist is pretty darn fond of the American Constitution since March 2, I suspect.  

March 2, of course, was not the first—and certainly not the last—time the Supreme Court has taken or will take a position on picketing. In 1941, for example, the Court said picketing is “the workingman’s means of communication.” Much of the Court’s attention to picketing has been about the complex relationship between picketing as a form of patrolling that limits entrance to, say, businesses (or, wait, funerals?) versus picketing understood as a form of communication. And herein lies, perhaps, part of the ethical dilemma associated with Fred Phelps. An ethical dilemma of both global and local significance.  

Why Not Fantasy Dissent?

When the Supreme Court first ruled, what was my response? Fantasy picketing. Analogous to fantasy baseball or fantasy football, I thought this sport could become a virtual part of American civil religion. The Holy Trinity of American Sports as Craig Forney has phrased it in his book (subtitled Civil Religion in Football, Baseball, and Basketball) are everywhere in their fantasy forms these days. Since each can each be seen as a core part of American civil or cultural religion, why not their fantasy versions?  And, since dissent is a crucial aspect of what Robert Bellah so aptly wrote of as “that religious dimension, found I think in the life of every people, through which it interprets its historical experience in the light of transcendent reality” I asked myself why not fantasy dissent? Why not fantasy picketing? And then the fantasy came to my neighborhood in a very real form.  

And I have been asking myself: Should I keep it to fantasy, since, unlike Fred Phelps and his minions (oh, I mean family, or do I mean church?) progressives and reasonable people show some discretion in the enactment of our dissent even when we profoundly disagree with or find repulsive the perspectives or actions of others.

Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha requires respect for others as human beings even when we move past fantasy into nonviolent civil disobedience, often warranted in the rather un-fantasy-like world in which we live. Yet, fantasy picketing in my imagination allows those of us who favor free speech (even free horrifying speech—remember Skokie and the Nazis) to express our outrage without giving up our commitment to free speech and, indeed, to express our outrage without being as offensive as those we find despicable. Not to mention avoiding the violence. And, of course, fantasy picketing gets around the many ways our culture has come to limit dissent in recent years: from World Bank protests in Seattle to campuses where what was once the civil disobedience of chalking sidewalks late at night has now become a sponsored student activity.

I sometimes wonder, if our current norms around dissent had been as effectively internalized and as pervasive in the past, whether we’d still have segregation and child labor and… Fantasy, of course, does not take the courage that the real dissent of our past and present takes. It does not take the rule-breaking and risk of young students at a Greensboro lunch counter or many others. Neither does Fred Phelps’ nastiness. And yet, today it feels somewhat better than intruding on grief. Or giving Fred Phelps even more press than this article does.  

Angry Speech in Our Hearts

Like fantasy sports, fantasy picketing has its downsides. Risks include endemic couch potato-hood and more. Fantasy picketing can be escapist and prevent “real” dissent; somewhat like Marcuse’s idea that weekends or vacations prevent us from recognizing and acting on the fact that our work lives are truly oppressive. Or, fantasy picketing could prime the pump of protest and change. Certainly the strategy of using umbrellas to hide the distasteful words of Fred Phelps (forcing him into his own tiny little closet) or the angels in Laramie, Wyoming that stood between those “God Hates Fags” signs and the funeral of Matthew Shepard are forms of fantasy picketing though a tad more literal than what I had in mind.  

This week, though the fantasy of fantasy picketing has become more real and more challenging for those of us in upstate New York. How does one support a family and town preparing for a funeral and possible picketing without (as all our local news stations did) providing Fred Phelps more press? How does one respect the life and death of Devin Snyder without allowing Phelps to have the last word? Is picketing the picketers really the best solution? In my fantasies, I carry very persuasive signs that actually get those who hate fags, overtly or covertly, to understand that they need to change. Certainly a fantasy, but one that our civil religion depends on: educability. And if you want to check out some of the wonderful real-life-not-fantasy anti-Westboro picketing ever, click here and add them to your picketing, fantastical or real.  

In my fantasy, the family and friends of Devin Snyder understand those called to protest against Phelps in Cohocton as acting in ways consonant with the sergeant’s decision to join an Army and participate in a war with which some of those same protestors disagree. In my fantasy, they understand such dissent as itself profoundly patriotic. And they understand that the rights of LGBTQ persons are, indeed, part of what she chose to “defend.” They understand resistance to Phelps as profound support of Devin Snyder, if not necessarily of militarism per se.  

As Jimmy Carter once “committed” lust in his heart, I have picketing and angry speech in my heart. I may even have speech verging on unreasonable speech in my heart. I live about an hour away and where I will be on Saturday is unclear. Where Devin Snyder and those who grieve her will be, though, is quite evident.

The dilemma remains. It is part of what defines us. So, while I support free speech, the lunatic fringe of Fred Phelps and all too many mainstream believers whose idea of the Bible is limited to particular portions of Leviticus speak all too often. What should we do on this particular Saturday and in the future when Fred Phelps announces he will picket in our neighborhoods? Should we throw glitter on Fred Phelps? Should we stay home? Should we even write articles or comment on the six o’clock news? Dissent requires more than fantasy picketing and more than education.

Is ignoring Phelps the right thing to do, or the wrong thing? I think of the smart people who created responses that “closet” him from view and of the dilemma of the closet as lived out by people like Roy Cohn. Dissent requires change. It requires action. It may require looking often and directly at things we do not like. It certainly requires grey choices on sunny days in June 2011. That’s what our “broken covenant” is all about: the paradox and ambivalence of using our always already broken ideals to make our world a better place.  

henking@hws.edu'

Susan Henking has been President of Shimer College since July 1, 2012. Previously she was Professor of Religious Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. In addition to her leadership in higher education, her scholarly work focuses on theories of religion as well as religion in relation to gender and sexuality. She is co-editor, with Gary David Comstock, of Que(e)rying Religion (1997) and, with William Parsons and Diane Jonte Pace, of Mourning Religion( 2008).The views shared here are, of course, neither those of Shimer College nor of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, but solely those of Susan Henking. Both these colleges and Professor Henking value the diversity of ideas and the value of open debate.