Ethics Quiz: What if the Westboro Baptist Church Is Just Kidding?

I know just how you feel, Homer.

This is a unique Ethics Alarms quiz, because I am offering it while having absolutely no idea what the answer is, or even, perhaps, what the right question should be.

The story you can read here describes the Westboro Baptist Church’s interactions with an openly gay DJ. You will recall that the church’s followers have achieved infamy by loudly protesting on the scene of private funerals for military personnel killed in combat, with “God Hates Gays” being one of their signature protest signs. Yet the DJ, when he visited the group, found them to be friendly, unthreatening, civil and kind. They hugged him. The asked him over for dinner.  The surprised and puzzled writer suggests that the Fred Phelps followers’ act may be a form of First Amendment-testing performance art, sort of like Bill Maher. Maybe they aren’t really hateful after all. Maybe they just act that way!

My Ethics Quiz question for you to consider:

Does the fact that they can be kind, tolerant and accepting in the privacy of their abode make the Westboro Baptist Church protesters less unethical, more unethical, or does it make no difference at all?

I considered writing about this in the context of the ethical values that can be used to further unethical objectives. Loyalty, for example, can be unethical when it requires assisting someone engaged in wrongdoing.  Honesty can be cruel and irresponsible. The conduct the story describes by the Phelpsians almost amounts to a breach of integrity: how can they act this way, if they really believe that gays are so reprehensible that it justifies God striking down young American soldiers? But should we regard Westboro Baptist Church members as better if they were consistent in their hatred? Aren’t hateful people who take a break from acting hateful more ethical than the perpetually and intractably hateful, or should we think of them as hypocrites? What if the writer of the article is right in his half-serious theory that the Westboro Church is bolstering our First Amendment rights by pushing them to the limits with their outrageous antics? Isn’t that a worthy objective, even if their actions go beyond legitimate utilitarianism?

Frankly, trying to make ethical sense of the vile and hurtful fanatics who publicly denigrate gays and disrupt family funerals in the process who revert to warm and fuzzy when a gay man comes to visit is threatening my sanity.

And speaking of sanity, I supposed it is also possible that the Phelpsians are just plain nuts.

I look forward to your analysis, because for the sake of my own mental health, I’m not going to think about it any more.

10 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: What if the Westboro Baptist Church Is Just Kidding?

  1. You’re right. The Westboro Klan are nuts. The fact that they were kind to the gay DJ doesn’t negate the pain they caused the families of downed soldiers. It doesn’t matter if it was an act or not. These people really take the cake.

  2. This could be somewhat explained if you assume that their goal is to provoke confrontations with the authorities, either because they enjoy playing the victim card, or (as one theory has it) because they hope to make money by suing. Screaming weird anti-gay stuff at military funerals seems likely to provoke a response from authorities in a way that being mean to one gay visitor won’t.

  3. Assuming a generous interpretation of their motives, I think they practice “Love the sinner but hate the sin”. They view homosexuality as a sin, but still love the person (in the Agape sense of the word).

    St. Augustine said “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum”, or “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.” Gandhi said “Hate the sin and not the sinner” in his autobiography. This is entirely consistent with Christian philosophy.

    Why they don’t see what they do to these grief stricken families when they protest at funerals as a sin is beyond me. Clearly they are harming people that are innocent even in their own warped moral sense and that is not consistent with Christian philosophy.

  4. Actually, this type of dichotomy in the behavior of fundamentalists isn’t that unusual (I suspect it’s because most people find it hard to completely dehumanize “the other”); Brother Jed, the preacher infamous for touring (aka trolling) colleges nationwide (my own campus being among them), is actually a fairly affable person if you simply talk to him instead of rising to his bait. Just contrast this interview ( ) with this video (sadly, he no longer does this song anymore):

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