It’s becoming more and more difficult to come up with something new to say about Westboro Baptist Church. Since 1991, the Kansas based house of hatred has courted endless controversy for the tirade of religious bigotry they have levelled against homosexuals, Jews, Catholics and well, let’s face it, anyone who falls short of their interpretation of Biblical standards. Some consider their members dangerous, offensive and intrinsically evil for their uncompromising views on Hell and Damnation. Others find it difficult to take their doctrine seriously, waiting with bated breath to see how far they are willing to go to provoke the wrath of bleeding heart liberals. And some, myself included, look on them with a deep sense of sadness and pity, in part due to their ever-declining membership as one by one, the youngest among them bravely step away from the fold, knowing that the penance for this is permanent estrangement from their friends and family.
The publicity garnered by their antics last week however made it particularly difficult to regard them with anything other than disgust as they appear to have seen the death of globally loved actor and comic, Robin Williams as a chance to raise further awareness for their message of hate and judgement. Although threats to disrupt his memorial service did not come to fruition, within days the WBC website (godhatesfags.com) was adapted to give Williams his own page on their on-line Wall of Shame dedicated to pointing out the reasons why selected famous faces deserve to be cast into the Lake of Fire. In addition, their official Twitter page released a relentless stream of vitriol, with one video in particular implicating Williams as a ‘fag enabler’ arguing that his flagrant abuse of God’s laws and unwillingness to repent can now only be met by eternal punishment.
From a humanist point of view, the very public gospel according to Shirley Phelps and co. is of course profoundly cruel and insensitive, so much so that it’s hard to know how to respond in any kind of considered or intelligent manner. Many attempts to reason with their religious mania have time and again fallen on deaf ears. Keen to understand, if not reach those who remain in the church, in 2011 journalist and broadcaster Louis Theroux embarked on a follow up to his critically acclaimed 2007 documentary, The Most Hated Family in America to find out how much life had changed for those who had lost sons, daughters and friends – only to be confronted with an incredulous amount of hostility and personal defamation despite his cool-headed and compassionate approach.
Fast forward three years however and some new ground seems to have been broken – on the part of the public that is. In recognition of the futility of pitting hatred against hatred, protesters preaching a very different message held up banners at the funeral of WBC founder Fred Phelps, which read ‘Sorry for your loss’. And last week, in a similar gesture of kindness and humility, comedian and host of Channel 4’s The Last Leg, Adam Hills resolved to use the money he had facetiously offered to fly the entire congregation to Iraq in return for withdrawing their threats to picket Williams’ funeral to fund the actor’s favourite children’s hospital. I remain sceptical as to how far any of this will go to changing the minds, let alone ways of the older and more militant members of WBC, but humanity’s greatest resources, that of love and good humour remain the only productive weapons against hatred and intolerance of any variety.