Over the last year I’ve seen a big shift in my world view towards a more aggressive atheism and a much more liberal political view. As this witches brew of new ideals began to come into more focused views and opinions, I’ve been looking for a way to get more involved and try to make a difference in the world. One such opportunity presented itself last week when the conservative talk radio station my boss listens to announced that the Westboro Baptist church, famous for picketing funerals with their anti-gay hate speech, would be picketing the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards.
Elizabeth Edwards is the ex-wife of my former senator John Edwards, who ran as vice presidential hopeful alongside John Kerry when they (and pretty much everyone on the planet) lost out to G. Dubyah and Cheney. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big John Edwards fan, but Elizabeth seems like a strange target for such animosity. Her first child died in a car accident at the age of sixteen. Her husband cheated on her, had a baby with his mistress, got caught covering it up, and embarrassed her in front of the nation. So she ditched him. And let’s not forget that she got breast cancer, and after a six year illness kicked the bucket at age 61.
So the never pleasant Westboro clan who, like all credible moral sources live on a compound in Kansas, announced they would picket her funeral. You can try to read their press release here, although I couldn’t make much sense of it. After spewing incoherent psychobabble for a few minutes, they mention she and her husband “decided they would show God who is boss, [after he killed their first son for reasons unclear] and meddled in matters of the womb, resulting in two more children”. Yeah, what a bitch. She wanted more kids after god killed her first one.
A few lines farther down the page Westboro somehow combines the words ‘smashmouthed’ and ‘Godsmacks’ in a sentence that doesn’t say, “Godsmack is much, much, much better than Smashmouth unless you are a thirteen year old girl, and even then fuck you and Smashmouth.”
Some of their other outrage comes from allegations that she was less than praise filled when talking about God stating that “God could not … protect my boy”, that she wasn’t asking god to save her from cancer, and possibly the most shocking, that god was “not the God I wanted”. I’m not sure exactly what the WBC expected after decades of intense personal loss. I think the god of the bible is a total asshole and I’ve never lost anyone, or had a wife who cheated on me, or gotten cancer. I don’t need that kind of reason to be pissed, because religion claims your god stuck my ass on a planet filled with jerk offs like the WBC, and that alone deserves a swift kick in the nuts. The fact of the matter is that after her death she relied on her church greatly for support and inspiration, and despite her religion was able to work through her cancer to support gay rights and oppose war.
So I got a few of my Friends to go with me, and I prepared for the festivities the night before. I spent a half an hour or so coming up with slogans for our signs, and let Tim and Heather pick which ones they would like to have. In the process I learned a few things about protesting. First of all, check the weather, because it would have been really nice to know in advance that it was going to be 37 degrees and rainy before I left the house with no gloves or head gear or umbrella. Second, if you make signs, use something sturdier than poster board. Ours might have held up better if it had just been windy, but with the rain added they were floppy piles of crap by the time we shivered our timbers back to the car.
As it turns out we were a few blocks down from the funeral, and there were only five WBC members there to protest, two of which were children. It was a bit of a let down, I certainly didn’t feel properly outraged. They held signs proclaiming “You will eat your babies”, and “Thank God for breast cancer”. Across the street we had about three hundred protesters, from all walks of life. In our group we had two Christian conservatives and a liberal atheist, and all around us you could see the diversity reflected as people of all colors and creeds came to give the extremists the middle finger. Every demograph seemed to be represented, from the young to the old, educated or otherwise, we all had a common moral bond, that the folks across the street were despicable, and that for a few hours at least, we could all stand together united under one purpose.
On the street itself a steady stream of protesters in cars circled the block, with the bikers flicking off the whackos while revving their Harleys, the rednecks blaring country music and waving american flags and POW/MIA flags, and the college kids dancing to macho man and house music, with hot lesbian coeds riding out of the sunroof and making out. Meanwhile in the crowd people were passing out pink ribbons to acknowledge breast cancer victims, and holding their own signs. Apparently someone hit a WBC member with a water balloon, which must have been miserable because of the cold, but I missed it.
For the most part the signs were lame. Our people had slogans ranging in boring-ness from “grace” to “hero”. I’m sorry, but this is a protest, not a Lifetime midday movie for housewives brimming with weepy Hallmark moments. But it seemed like most of the sappy stuff was at the other end of the crowd, directly across from the WBC pen. To give you a feel for our end of the barricade, I hadn’t been there for more than thirty seconds before a gothic kid with fangs (they looked really good, possibly surgically implanted) asked me if he could photograph me and my sign. One side of my sign read, “FSM (picture of flying spaghetti monster) FLIED FOR YOUR SINS” and the opposite side read, “THOU SHALT NOT BE AN A**HOLE”.
I focused my efforts on comedy because I think parody works best for me. I want to use humor to diffuse the anger in a tense situation, and simultaneously point out how ridiculous it is to believe in things like the Bible. I was surprised though, at how many people came out of the wood work to ask for pictures of our signs, and especially my spaghetti monster sign. Living in the Bible belt, and the deep south, and working as I do with almost entirely Christian conservatives, it seems most of the time like there is nobody around me who feels the same way. So it was nice I guess, to see so many of my people, the ones with died hair, facial piercings, tattoos, and the like. I don’t think that’s superficial, I think it’s just natural to want to be around people similar to yourself, and to feel more comfortable around people who look and talk like you do. And it was extra reaffirming to have so many approach me and show support.
I did have a few negative responses to my atheist views, but none were rude or offensive. In fact the one person who actually got mad wasn’t even mad at me directly, he was mad about the sign I made for Tim that read, “Zeus hates Baptists! Burn in Hades nonbelievers!” Because they had moved the protest a few blocks away from the funeral, we just so happened to be directly in front of another church. One of their members came over, and with his teeth practically clenched with anger said to Tim, “I get what you’re trying to do here, I really do. But that line of people across the street (there was a line of people going into the church, who weren’t part of any protest, but we didn’t know who they were or what they were up to) is full of poor families here to get their children presents for Christmas. There are 300 Baptists in that building right now giving away toys to poor kids and you are out here doing the same thing [the WBC] is doing.”
Wow, that was unexpected and awkward. Except not really at all once I had thought about it. The problems I had with the words that had come out of his mouth started taking shape and lining up to explode out of my mouth, but before I could get in a single word Tim, much to my surprise, had already told the man he couldn’t help him, and he had a right to have his sign, and had sent him back to his church. While my friend is an extremist conservative, he’s also a really nice guy to almost everyone, so I was surprised he had stood up for his right to make a joke. Except then I got to thinking about it, and I got mad at the First Baptist Church member who had addressed us. There were 300 Baptists in that building, and five outside giving them a bad name, and all they had to do was get up and walk outside to join us in protest. I’m sure they didn’t need 300 people to hand out toys. Not only that but this guy quite clearly did not “get” what we were trying to do. In order to get it he would have needed a sense of humor, which he clearly did not possess.
When all was said and done the WBC freak show packed up and everyone cheered, and then hurried back to their vehicles because we were all soaking wet and freezing from standing in the wind and rain for hours. I know that by going to protest these extremists, we only get them the media attention they want in the first place. But by the same token, if nobody stands up and says something is wrong, people probably won’t end up dealing with it. I would hope that by using parody to point out how ridiculous bigotry against the evil “fags” inherently is, maybe some of the more moderate religious people will realize that they are doing the same thing in a watered down way.
The fact is that the WBC doesn’t make this stuff up, their hate really is printed in the Bible, mixed in with the bits about loving thy neighbor, and reserving judgement for their lord. The more I am exposed to the LGBT community, the more ashamed I am that we as a society allow an entire group of people, who are amazing, and creative, and fun, and add vibrancy and spice to our species, to be systematically denied civil rights, and be bullied, discriminated against, and treated as hated, second class citizens by the very people who claim they have the monopoly on morality. I would hope that at least some of the people on the fence will see things like this, and lean a little bit farther towards secular humanist values. In my personal opinion, we will never see an end to this sort of religious hate no matter how hard the church tries to adapt to an increasingly educated world.
Unfortunately for the religious, the values of racial hatred, political and social imperialism, and a divinely commanded moral superiority are built into the holy books of the Abramahic religions. As long as it’s still printed in those perfect, infallible fairy tales, people will still believe it’s right. The only way I see to cut out the root of this problem is to grow as a species past the need for ancient scrolls to tell us what to do. I personally don’t need a master to tell me what is right and wrong, and I think when people let go of their fear and look inside, they will realize that none of them need servility either. We can make the world better, but we aren’t going to get any help from an outside source, it’s up to us as human beings to fix it ourselves.