For the Love of Hate: Why We Have Little to Fear from the Westboro Baptist Church

The “marketplace of ideas” conception of free speech is deeply flawed, not least because it unjustifiably presumes a level playing field and equal access. It also gives rise to the notion that there is no harm in giving false ideas free run because the truth will win out in the end. This myth was debunked by none other than John Stuart Mill, often credited as the father of the marketplace model of free speech: “[T]he dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution.”

However, as the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.  The naive – often disingenuously so – belief that “the true and sound will survive” while “the false and unsound will be vanquished” is occasionally vindicated, as it is in the case of the Westboro Baptist Church. The Church may have “won” in Snyder v. Phelps, but in a much more important sense, it has lost as spectacularly as any hateful group in recent history. One is hard pressed to find a group more universally hated across the ideological spectrum than the Westboro Baptist Church. Vocal critics of the Church include Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin, Michael Moore, and Jon Stewart. Numerous Christian organizations have condemned Westboro, as has the Ku Klux Klan (that’s right – the Ku Klux Klan finds Westboro’s practices too extreme). As of today, none of Westboro’s charmingly-named sites (,,, etc.) is accessible online, thanks to the efforts of either the hacking collective Anonymous or a self-proclaimed adversary of Anonymous who calls himself The Jester. Anonymous is currently under investigation for attacking MasterCard and Amazon on behalf of Wikileaks; The Jester claims responsibility for the cyber attack on Wikileaks last November. In other words, perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Westboro Baptist Church is its ability to serve as a common target for groups who passionately disagree with and even hate each other.

The Church has accomplished the near-impossible: it has managed to alienate almost every ideological, religious, or cultural demographic. Those sympathetic to its homophobic agenda are revolted by its virulently anti-military stance; those who share its condemnation of pedophile priests are horrified by its celebration of the death of young children. The Church has attacked Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Mormons; it has “thanked God” for 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 earthquake in China, and the recent shootings in Tuscon. Church members, who are nearly all members of the Phelps family, stomp on American flags and hold up signs with slogans such as “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates Jews,” and “Your son is in hell” at their demonstrations. They have picketed the Holocaust Memorial Museum (from a WBC press release: “The American Jews are the real Nazis… who hate God and the rule of law”), as well as the funerals of Matthew Shepard, Coretta Scott King, Elizabeth Edwards, and Matthew Snyder. They threatened to picket the funeral of Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl killed by Jared Loughner in the attack that killed 5 others and gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. In a flier posted on its web site, the Church writes, “Thank God for the shooter! – 6 Dead!” and continues, “Your federal judge is dead and your (fag-promoting, baby-killing, proud-sinner) Congresswoman fights for her life. God is avenging Himself on this rebellious house! WBC prays for your destruction–more shooters, more dead carcasses piling up, young, old, leader and commoner–all. Your doom is upon you!”

What makes the members of the Westboro Baptist Church different from other hate groups is that they are seemingly driven not by the need to hate others, but the need to have others hate them. When John Whitehead interviewed Margie Phelps (the daughter of Westboro’s founder, Fred Phelps, and the lawyer who argued their case before the Supreme Court) in August 2010, he asked her how it felt “to be so disliked and hated.” She responded, “Well, I love that question. And if you knew the words of Christ like a professing Christian should, you would know what a great token of salvation it is, because as the Scripture says, “Marvel not when the world shall hate you,” and they hated me. Do you think the servant is greater than the master? I love that they hate it. I can hardly believe it.” The Westboro members have no interest in converting the masses –  they see themselves as prophets, in an Old-Testament, bloody-vengeance, apocalyptic sense. They have no visible supporters outside of their own community and seem intent on keeping it that way. In that August interview, Phelps made a prediction: “let me tell you where this is headed. The U.S. Supreme Court is going to rule in our favor. This nation is going to rise up in such a rage, such a mutinous rage, it will become necessary for us to be expelled from this land. And we will be. And when that happens, it’s all over for this country.” Apparently, the Phelps clan revels in the hatred they inspire because it reassures them of their status as God’s unique, chosen messengers.

This is why our society has very little to fear from the Westboro Baptist Church. The most dangerous ideas are seductive ideas – they exploit widely held insecurities, make superficially reasonable claims, and appeal to common prejudices. Westboro makes no attempt to persuade or compel its audience (in fact, if the Church is accomplishing anything, it is discrediting the anti-gay movement by associating it with agendas that even extreme social conservatives cannot stomach). Westboro is committed to a radically unpersuasive, nearly universally repugnant position. Neil Richards, in his thoughtful post on Snyder v. Phelps on this site, calls Fred Phelps “possibly the most unappealing First Amendment claimant that has made it to the Supreme Court.” This is an illuminating statement, especially considering the famous claimant in Hustler v. Falwell, a case featuring prominently in Richards’ and others’ discussions of Snyder v. Phelps. Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine explicitly promotes (links are NSFW) violence against women, racism (especially anti-Semitic and anti-black racism), and pedophilia, and yet he is not the most unappealing First Amendment claimant to come before the Supreme Court. In fact, Flynt, while maintaining that Westboro is protected by the First Amendment, felt compelled to say on CNN that he considers Westboro’s actions  “despicable” and “insensitive.” But Flynt’s ideas enjoy a far larger and more receptive audience than any bile spewed by the Westboro Baptist Church, as the enormous profits generated by his Hustler enterprise attest. From a social, if not doctrinal, perspective, we might do well to worry less about prophets and more about proselytizers.

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6 Responses

  1. birtelcom says:

    Is Mill’s comment about truth and persecution really a rebuttal to the optimistic view of the “marketplace of ideas”? The word “persecution” there seems to suggest Mill is observing not that truth often succumbs to falsehood in a free marketplace of ideas but rather that truth often succumbs to oppression in an environment which is not a free marketplace of ideas. You may be right that as an emprical matter falsehood may often defeat truth in an open environment, but I’m not sure that’s what Mill was saying in the specific quote you cite.

  2. Joe says:

    The fact the market needs to be regulated does not mean the market as a whole is a bad idea. Moderation in all things, even sound principles. Also, the “myth” of running free. If the truth will win out, it must mean that someone is promoting it. Again, for “the market” is not just an invisible hand.

    Any metaphor requires analysis and such, but you appear to go a bit too far in the other direction.

  3. Joe, I didn’t claim that the marketplace of ideas metaphor is a “bad idea.” I said that the metaphor was flawed. If what you are suggesting is that it is possible to have a sophisticated conception of markets that recognizes and addresses inequalities of distribution and access, and that this is the market idea we can export to the free speech context, I would agree. It’s the illusion that markets are actually “free” in any meaningful sense that I find flawed.

    birtelcom, I think Mill believes that truth’s susceptibility to persecution is an argument for expanding, rather than restricting, discourse. But it does not follow from this that we should embrace a “marketplace” model for speech, at least not the illusory free market model that the metaphor is often assumed to imply. The free market model presumes that there is some sort of “natural state” of markets that government regulation violates, as opposed to acknowledging all markets are always already-regulated. The government is imagined as the persecuting, restrictive force that ruins everybody’s fun. Mill, by contrast, had an expansive view of persecution, and he would not agree with any model that suggests that the government is the only or even the primary source of persecution:

    “Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things in which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”

    If you are interested, I discuss Mill and the question of the market at some length in my article “Unwilling Avatars: Idealism and Discrimination in Cyberspace,” which you can find here:

  4. Joe says:

    I appreciate the reply. I think my comment (about markets specifically) should not be read to cover too much.

    You said this:

    The “marketplace of ideas” conception of free speech is deeply flawed

    If so, that sounds like “a bad idea,” but that wasn’t my focus. My focus is that since the market is regulated, in part to address inequalities and such, I don’t know why the metaphor doesn’t carry that along with it. It surely doesn’t, without additional adjectives, “presume” otherwise.

  5. Joe, the marketplace of ideas conception of free speech is a fairly well-established one, and it does carry with it the presumptions of free market ideology. As I’m sure you recognize, the fact that you personally may not be aware of these presumptions is not, without more, evidence to the contrary. More importantly, though, it sounds like we might be on the same page normatively on marketplace conceptions, even if not descriptively.

  6. Joe says:

    A “free market” remains a regulated market. So, where does that really take us? It remains the case that many who use the metaphor, often liberals that support economic regulation, do not use it absolutely.

    I don’t think we are that far apart, so won’t belabor the point. But, I would add that — having studied the matter to some degree — that “a level playing field and equal access” might not actually be assumed either. At least, in some senses of the terms. An equality rationale for campaign finance laws was actually rejected by the Supreme Court since it would reduce speech in promotion of equality.

    Money supplies an unlevel playing field but some who use the metaphor are not unaware of that. They accept it as part of the deal, just as the free market promotes inequalities.