The Westboro Baptist Church has been a source of discomfort for me for the last number of years. It’s not because I’m a target of their hatred, at least not directly. It’s not even because I’m deeply troubled by what they do – picketing the funerals of dead soldiers, spreading a message of God’s impending judgement on a sinful people. Of course I agree with neither their message nor their methods, but that’s not where the tension lies. The tension lies in the fact that in an age when the church strives to be countercultural, I can think of few "churches" more countercultural than the Westboro Baptist Church. Their apocalyptic worldview, millenarian ethics and communal life together strike me as far closer to the form of the early church than most others in the West today.
It is my judgement that they are not “the most hated family in America” because the content of their message deeply upsets us. We don’t care all that much for the feelings of Jews, gays, or the families of dead soldiers, and are certainly not overly concerned with what a crazy fundamentalist family from the States thinks about them. Rather, we hate the Westboro Baptist Church because they refuse to play by the unwritten rules of free speech, which say that you are free to speak provided what you speak is in accordance with what we’d like you to speak about. We hate them because their voices are free, whereas ours are so enslaved to a form of tolerance that has been imposed on us.
Slavoj Zizek had this to say in a lecture: “If you take the ruling ideology seriously you are one step from being a dissident.” This is precisely what the Westboro Baptist Church have done, and so it is little wonder that they are hated. They are so cultural that they are countercultural. They have taken “freedom of speech” too seriously, and are thus as much liberal democratic heretics as they are Christian heretics.
To be an enemy of the liberal democratic state is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed the problem with the countercultural movement in contemporary churches is that people too often try to make the church countercultural within the limits set by the culture, which amounts to nothing countercultural at all. And any voice that would seek to introduce a new set of co-ordinates is labelled as “prophetic”, which usually means that what you’re saying is good, but unrealistic.
The Westboro Baptist Church is wrong on so many levels, but they are right on one very crucial matter: they take their god seriously. More than anything else, it is this that discomforts me.