A match made in ...

David Hoppe

David Hoppe's Blog

It must have seemed unreal. The family and friends of Army Pvt. Jonathan Pfender had to think the world was turned upside down. Pvt. Pfender, just 22, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Last week his people gathered for his funeral in Evansville.

They were not alone.

A small group representing the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas were also there. Apparently, the members of this church have come to believe that the war in Iraq is a form of divine punishment being inflicted on the United States for what they call this country's "support for gays." A visit to their Web site, which proclaims "God Hates Fags" (www.godhatesfags.com), gives an idea of what they mean by this. "All nations must immediately outlaw sodomy [homosexuality] and impose the death penalty!" is just one of many postings. Then there's this, a quote from Jeremiah 21:5, called, "This week's 'hate' speech." The passage reads, "And I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm, even in anger, and in fury, and in great wrath."

According to The Indianapolis Star, at Pvt. Pfender's funeral the people from Westboro Baptist Church stomped on an American flag and held up a sign that thanked God for improvised explosive devices - the kind of bomb that killed Pvt. Pfender.

The Star article and other news coverage referred to the Westboro group as "protesters." I don't think this is the right word. Vandals seems more like it. So far they have appeared at five military funerals in Indiana and at 80 funerals in 30 states since June. Imagine if they had actually been antiwar protesters - as Sean Hannity wishfully claimed. Their butts would have been kicked all the way back to Kansas.

State Sen. Brent E. Steele (R-Bedford) has introduced a bill in this legislative session that would make disorderly conduct within 500 feet of a funeral a Class D felony. The offense would carry penalties of up to three years in prison and $10,000 in fines. Rep. Phil Hoy (D-Evansville) has introduced a companion bill in the House. Steele sees his bill as protecting the rights of the bereaved. "I think all family members deserve sanctity and protection during that moment in their life," he says.

Under the circumstances, Steele's impulse to make a law intended to shield grieving families is understandable. It is also misguided.

Outrageous and mean as they are, the acts of the Westboro Baptists are part of an escalating push by religious fundamentalists in this society to take hold and redefine American life. Passing a law that would restrict speech - even at funerals - plays into their hands.

It's ironic that Steele should make his proposal during a legislative session that is already fraught with grandstanding indignation on the part of many of his colleagues over the place of prayer in our government's proceedings. On Jan. 4, House Speaker Brian Bosma responded to Judge David Hamilton's finding that proselytizing prayer has no place in the state Legislature by organizing a 20-minute prayer scrum at the back of the House chamber. According to The Star, Rep. Peggy Welch, a Democrat from Bloomington, opened the prayerfest: "Lord, we just come before you humbly, and we want to tell you we love you and we appreciate you ... and seek to please you, and not men."

The men (and women) who live in Welch's district appreciate that sentiment, I'm sure. But is that what they had in mind when they elected her to represent their interests in the state Legislature?

In Indiana we take our religion pretty seriously. In fact, no less a personage than Eli Lilly himself believed that belonging to some religious group and attending services on a regular basis was a crucial component of citizenship in a democratic society. To this day, the Lilly Endowment devotes a significant part of its giving to projects and people that work to sustain connections between religion and the rest of society.

At one time, there might have been reason to think these connections were on the wane. It's hard to think that now. Religious rhetoric and references to God have become a commonplace part of our civic utterance. And criticism of this trend has, for the most part, been pretty timid, inhibited by the residual belief that religion is a private matter that all people have a right to explore in whatever way they choose.

But now that religion is not only a public matter, but a political one, we need to reexamine our ideas about tolerance - particularly the aspects of tolerance that, in the past, have kept us from speaking plainly about the kinds of wrongheadedness and bigotry that have enabled matters of faith to overwhelm reason when it comes to making public policy.

In a case like that of the Westboro Baptists, this doesn't mean making a constitutionally questionable law to try and hold their poison at arm's length. It means confronting them, as a group of veterans did in Evansville, and refusing to dignify their bizarre beliefs.

As for many of our state and federal politicians, it means demanding rational justification for the decisions they make and a refusal to put up with bullshit - no matter how pious the package it's wrapped in.

A common rule in many Indiana households has been to avoid talking about politics and religion. This may have kept the peace at dinnertime, but it was never a good idea. Now that politics and religion have been so closely intertwined in our public life, it's irresponsible.