Thursday, October 07, 2010

Suffering fools

There is a very interesting and simultaneously very troubling case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving Fred Phelps and the father of a U.S. serviceman killed in action in Iraq. The issue stems from the lawsuit that resulted from Mr. Phelps and his band of miscreants protesting the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.

This case is dangerous ground for American evangelicals because it pits two competing impulses. One is the natural respect most Americans have for those who serve and die in military service, regardless of our own opinions of the conflict they are involved in. The other impulse is the protection of free speech, especially religious free speech.

Let’s be clear. What Mr. Phelps preaches and propagates are views that are so skewed, such a perversion of Biblical Christianity that I am left no choice but to assume he is a deluded unbeliever. I read a few things on the cesspool of a webpage published by his “church”. There are plenty of people who I disagree with, even vehemently, that I don’t necessarily question their salvation but in this case? I am afraid that the lack of any sort of Christian love (not tolerance but love) coupled with misguided theology and twisting of Scripture can only lead one to conclude that this man doesn’t know Christ. Just so we are clear, I don’t see this as an issue of a Christian against the state but a deluded individual and false teacher and the question of whether there are any legal, Constitutional limits on his ranting.

So what to think about this? I think the tragic but undeniable truth is that young men like Matthew Snyder, whatever your views on the Iraq War and the military in general, died for a cause and it is men like Matthew Snyder who defend the Constitution of the United States and make it possible for malcontents and misfits to hold up signs that declare that the death of a U.S. soldier is God’s judgment upon America or threaten to burn a Koran for whatever reason or to produce “art” that is perverse, deviant and blasphemous.

We are left with a Constitutional and ethical quandary. It is clear from precedent that the right to free speech is not an absolute right (i.e. the famous “yelling fire in a crowded movie theater” example) but the right to free expression that is inherently and intentionally offensive seems to be protected by plain reading of the First Amendment and precedent. I don’t see where the lawsuit against Mr. Phelps should stand, no matter how offensive and ugly his “protests” are or how deeply the parents of these fallen soldiers are hurt. I do think that Christians have a responsibility to distance ourselves from Mr. Phelps and his deluded followers and to present to the world an alternate, Christ-honoring witness that is firm and bold but where the only offense is the offense of the cross, not the offense of grotesque behavior.

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