Thanksgiving has passed; December has descended with snow, and we witness in Ann Arbor seasonal things: Salvation Army troops ringing bells, white lights lassoed up into trees, maize and blue Santa hats on sale at Kroger’s. These images are rooted in that Christian holiday that retail stores like Wal-Mart have declined to reference in their advertising this year: Christmas. The lack of religious display rumbles up concern in the bellies of many folks, but not me, even though I befriend many a sweetheart Christian. Yet I’m also not giddy with joyous civil liberty when I see an AATA bus flash the generic “Season’s Greetings” welcome. Acts of religious display on our streets and in our lives – and our reactions to them – concern me when they are less superficial and more substantial.
An hour before a production of The Laramie Project, a play about a man who was beaten and killed because he was gay, I stood outside the Michigan League, watching followers of the Westboro Baptist Church hold signs of protest. I scribbled notes among a smattering of cops and about 12 protestors. It was somewhat calm.
Then a rush of maybe 400 counter protesters surrounded me and I stood with them, suddenly separated by yellow police tape, against the Laramie protesters. Next to me a priest from a local church in Ann Arbor held a boom box emitting lyrics from the song “Love Train.” With the colorful flags, the steam puffing from mouths and people singing along, the situation had a strange, caroling feel.
You’ve probably heard about the signs. God Hates Fags. Thank God for AIDS. And my favorite, Fags Doom Nations.
I ducked beneath the yellow tape and the shouting, and I met Sam, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. Sam held two signs. He wore a winter Kansas State Wildcats hat, and he smiled a lot, and he seemed like a nice guy. He let me interview him.
I asked: “What do you think of all these mean people behind us yelling at you?”
“Mean people?” he laughed. “Wonderful. That’s God’s word for it.”
“What is your favorite book in the Bible?” I asked.
“I’d have to say Isaiah and Jeremiah.”
“Sure, the prophets,” I said.
“The major prophets,” he said. “That’s where we learned about Israel and the Israelites, how they were corrupted and how they offended God. Much like America is today.”
“If you could condense your message to three words what would it be?”
“God hates fags,” Sam said. “That’s a proven theological statement.”
“Have you ever had sex with a woman?”
“Yes. With my wife.”
“Have you ever had sex with a man?”
“Do you like Chinese Food?”
“Chinese?” he smiled. “Uh, yeah I do.”
“If you and I walked over to China Gate right now and had Chinese food for dinner, would you let me pick up the check?”
“No,” he said, his face dropping into a pallid severity. “I would not.”
“A beer at the Aut Bar?”
The interview ceased, and Sam went back to holding up his signs. I had more questions written down though, and had the interview continued I would have asked:
What did you think about the Bible saying nothing explicit against lesbianism? (It’s true, check Leviticus.)
What about the fact that some biblical scholars advance the idea that King David was humping his brother-in-law and dude-friend Jonathan to whom he declared, “Your love was wonderful to me/ More than the love of women?” (II Sam 1:26)
Why does your website, www.godhatesfags.com, have so many hot graphics of stick men in hot positions?
The Bible says that man shall not lie with another man as one lies with another, but omits any mention about hand jobs. Under what circumstances are hand jobs kosher?
Later, when Phelps’s protesters packed up, sought their minivans, and were being followed by some police officers and some counter protestors who had purple glow sticks dangling from their necks, I watch Sam try to make his way. A homosexual was, perhaps, following him too closely. He unleashed a rough, apocalyptic, mom-and-dad-might-be-getting-a-divorce tone with his words: “You watch, officer, you watch him commit the felony.”
The voice held such anger that I – not a Christian by any means, a guy who is not a proponent of humanity in general, a guy who hates weddings but was disappointed when his gay sister said she didn’t need a best man anymore because she had already shotgunly married her wife – swelled up with empathy. How do you live with so much rage surging from your body?
Allowing people to preach hate is, unfortunately and fortunately, protected under the Constitution and undergirds our idea of a free-thinking society. As “Demolition Man” character Simon Phoenix has pointed out, “You can’t take away people’s right to be assholes.” But my experience with the protest does show, I hope, a different way to handle the displays of crazy religious followers: with humor, with emotional distance, maybe even with empathy. Even if you don’t expect it.
Kilduff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.