Westboro: Condemn or ignore them?

A petition drive wants Westboro Baptist Church labeled a hate group. A Baptist minister says just ignore them.

By Jeff Brumley

Public resentment of Westboro Baptist Church has reached new heights as a petition drive to label it a hate group has surpassed 250,000 signatures.

Even some religious leaders have joined in the chorus denouncing the Kansas-based group known for picketing military funerals, celebrating celebrity deaths and hating homosexuals.

But others suggest the petition drive – launched when Westboro threatened to picket the vigils of Sandy Hook shooting victims – is simply giving the group what it wants – attention.

“I wouldn’t have a problem labeling them as a hate group,” said Alan Bean, an American Baptist minister and executive director of Friends of Justice, an Texas nonprofit that seeks improvements in the criminal justice system. “But I think Westboro would be thrilled if the government labeled them a hate group – it would feed their martyr complex.” 

The anti-Westboro “We the People” digital petition was filed Dec. 14, the day of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

While the group’s plan to picket victims’ funerals didn’t materialize, the mere threat empowered the campaign seeking to convince the Obama administration, which administers the online petition program, to label Westboro as a hate group.

“This group has been recognized as a hate group by organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center,” the petition states. “They pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others and will not improve without some form of imposed regulation.”

It’s an idea that makes sense to David Gushee, distinguished professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.

“I would claim that Westboro’s public religious witness, if one can dignify it with that term, has indeed developed in a manner that arguably fits the FBI’s definition of a hate group,” Gushee said in an email to ABPnews.

The definition includes “groups that preach hatred and intolerance,” the bureau web site says.

“Their primary purpose now seems to be not just the promotion of hatred, especially against gays and lesbians, but also the fomenting of hatred against themselves through intentionally provocative demonstrations,” Gushee said.

Just a few days after the shootings, the moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship denounced Westboro’s Sandy Hook plans and said it’s wrong to call the group a church.

“They are provocateurs of hatred for every hopeful human value most people hold dear,” Keith Herron told ABPnews. “To call themselves a church is to suggest unfathomable identity of God and faith that is sickening and vile.”

Bean said he agrees with such views of Westboro, especially that it should not be labeled a church. But his experience working with young offenders suggests that the best thing to do is try to ignore the group as much as possible.

“Juvenile delinquents want attention, and as long as there is attention it doesn’t have to be positive,” Bean said. “Their primary motivation is ... getting attention.”

Westboro is a symptom of a larger problem, he added: A media culture that thrives on controversy and fueled by glorifying polar extremes on any issue.

“The NRA takes extreme positions because it’s good for fundraising and motivating their base,” he said. “So does the ACLU.”

And it’s clearly the case with Westboro, he said.

“I think they would stop picketing if nobody paid any attention to them,” Bean said. "Their primary motivation is the gratification of attention."