Andrew Sullivan’s incisive article ("Glad to be in the land of the odious bigot“, News Review, last week) rightly speaks of the “sheer vileness” and “deranged inhumanity” of the members of Westboro Baptist Church, and makes a compelling case for not using the law to curtail their free speech. What a contrast to the growing pressures here from the modern orthodoxies of political correctness and multiculturalism that lead to the law being increasingly brought to bear on believers from the country’s main faith group who dare to make public their views on marriage and sexuality.
David Rolles, Sale, Cheshire
Andrew Sullivan: Glad to be in the land of the odious bigot
A ‘church’ that mocks dead US troops must be given its voice — just don’t listen to the vitriolic and offensive nonsense it is spitting out
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones ... but words will never hurt me.” We all know this untruth from our school days — the psychological flak jacket many of us wore against bullies. Words do harm; they hurt and wound.
And that is their power and, sometimes, their point.
Few are probably more aware of that this week than John Galliano, whose drunken rants about Jews and his professed if slurred love for Hitler have instantly destroyed his career and sent him to rehab.The same might be said of the actor Charlie Sheen, whose drug-fuelled discourses on call-in radio shows led to the sudden suspension of one of the most profitable sitcoms on American television.Mel Gibson will likewise never recover his reputation after his bizarre and inebriated claim that Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world, and his cinematic orgy of anti-Semitic tropes in The Passion of the Christ.
None of them, however, comes close in sheer vileness to the stone-cold-sober antics of a splinter “Christian” group in the US, Westboro Baptist Church. Publicity-seeking bigots, convinced of the moral degeneracy of America and therefore of its military, they have achieved fame in America the easy way by picketing military funerals with placards that read: “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
The church is a deranged group, largely consisting of the family members of Fred Phelps, who travel round the country with signs and posters that evoke every possible bigoted stance, but seem especially focused on homosexuality. It can all blur together after a while. When picketing the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Phelps declared: “God has smitten Jews with a certain unique madness ... Jews, thus perverted, out of all proportion to their numbers energise the militant sodomite agenda ... Jews are the real Nazis.”
I hope you followed that logic. Their most common placard is one that reads, simply: “God hates fags.” No, not cigarettes. While picketing the funeral of Daniel Sesker, an army sergeant, in Iowa, Phelps’s website asked: “Where in God’s name did he get the idea that it was noble to fight in a fag army for a fag nation that’s on the short path to eternal destruction? That’s right: his parents, his family, his ‘friends’, his state and his country; they are to blame for the fact that Sesker is now in a million pieces, the appropriate punishment for their filthy manner of life.”
Yes, he said this as the soldier’s family was in acute grief. And words cannot wound?
There is a difference between what happened to John Galliano and what has happened to Fred Phelps. Galliano is now facing trial for his racist remarks But there is a difference between what happened to John Galliano and what has happened to Fred Phelps. Galliano is now facing trial for his racist remarks, and could face a prison term of up to six months and a fine of €22,500 (£19,300). Phelps, in stark contrast, has just won a lawsuit against him by the father of a dead marine whose funeral was picketed.
Not only did Phelps win after the case went all the way to the US Supreme Court; he won his case by a crushing majority of 8-1. In Europe publicly declaring that “God hates fags” may be a criminal offence. In America it is a legally inviolable act of free speech.
It is hard for me to express adequately my contempt for Phelps and his deranged inhumanity. But I am glad, in this instance, that I live in America and not Europe.The first amendment protects free speech specifically in those cases where the speech itself is abhorrent. Phelps’s church, moreover, engaged in no physical violence. Its members were kept a distance from the actual funeral by the police.
And although it is hard to describe their placards as an argument as such, the chief justice, John Roberts, ruled that “while these messages may fall short of refined social or political commentary ... the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military ... are matters of public import”.So the right to express one’s views about such subjects in public is not restricted to the eloquent or the righteous. In fact, it is precisely when the speech is this odious and clumsy that it takes a Supreme Court to protect it.
The freedom of a drag queen to march down a street in a gay pride parade is, to my mind, indistinguishable from the freedom of a bigot to hold up a sign that says: “God hates fags.” The whole point of a free country, in other words, is to allow all such speech to flourish, even if someone is hurt, stigmatised, wounded or offended. The line is drawn at violence or the direct instigation of violence.
If you want to see its polar, pious opposite, visit Pakistan, where public figures are being assassinated for wanting to amend the country’s blasphemy laws, and blasphemers themselves are instantly criminals. We like to think of the West as free from such coercion, but Phelps’s group was barred from entering Britain two years ago by the Home Office on the grounds that it “engaged in unacceptable behaviour by inciting hatred against a number of communities”. The ban was backed not only by gay groups but also by mainstream churches.
So, someone’s free speech in Britain was curtailed not because he was a blasphemer against Christianity — that is now quite fashionable — but because he blasphemed against the modern orthodoxy of multiculturalism.
This is the trap you face. And once you start criminalising such speech, you risk also criminalising the religious doctrines that, however debatable, support them. Indeed, in Britain, only last year, a Baptist preacher in Workington, Cumbria, was arrested for preaching against homosexuality in public, under the Public Order Act. Mercifully, charges were later dropped. That he was arrested at all is a sign of how liberty, once infringed, can soon disappear.
To my mind, that is throwing a crucial principle away. Let the bigots lose their jobs if they embarrass their employers, let them lose their reputations, shame them, ostracise them, condemn them, point out their errors. But as far as the law is concerned, leave them alone.