National Atheist Party Responds to Criticism About Inviting Westboro Baptist Church to Reason Rally

This is a guest post by Lee Moore and leaders of the National Atheist Party.

Our recent invitation to the Westboro Baptist church has sparked a bit of controversy. Kelley Freeman described our invitation as “[poking] a rattlesnake with a stick,” but we just don’t see it that way. Reactions from others have been a mixed bag. Some have patted us on the back and thanked us for sending the invitation. Others have been less than enthusiastic.

We have serious doubts that the invitation — sent three weeks prior to the event — had much of an effect on whether the WBC planned to attend. Likely, the WBC knew of the Reason Rally well in advance and had planned on attending for some time before the invitation was sent.

It would be an outright lie to claim that publicity was not the first idea that came to mind when writing this letter. The WBC has quite a following, and they command a great deal of “media credit.” The publicity that they generate, if handled in the right fashion, will draw positive attention to the Reason Rally, the NAP, and the freethought movement in general.

However, publicity was not the only consideration.

The most commonly expressed concern seems to be that by inviting the WBC to the Reason Rally, and more specifically to the NAP booth, there will be an altercation or a “scene” that will detract from the spirit of the function — as if the NAP and the WBC will be meeting mid-Mall with axes and swords drawn. We assure everyone that this is not the case. Please review the following video:

It is only 3:52 long, but it also shows a side of WBC that is not often seen because of sensationalized media editing. The bottom line is that the NAP is not there to engage in a heated discussion over religion with the WBC members. The letter was written in a light-hearted fashion, and the Twitter reply from Megan Phelps-Roper actually contained a smiley face. I am sure that we can maintain civility.

So why invite them?

It is no big secret that atheists and freethinkers have a major image problem. According to polls, we are mistrusted almost as much as rapists. We often define ourselves by what we are: rational, intelligent, free, champions of equality. While all of this may or may not be true, we are depicted by our opponents as anything but. Part of the intention in inviting the WBC was to show who we are not. We are not hatemongers; we are not judgmental; we are not any of the other negative stereotypes attributed to us. If nothing else, know this: we are not going away.

Cheapening the Reason Rally or our movement was never our intention. The letter was written in such a way as to highlight some useful information about the Reason Rally, such as the date, time, location, and lineup, so more of our number would be aware of the function and perhaps join us.

From our Question campaign, in which our elected officials (and candidates) are reminded that we exist by asking them how they plan to represent their atheist constituents, to our scholarship program to help young freethinkers pay for college, the National Atheist Party is here to serve the greater atheist community throughout our country by providing an outlet to exert its voice in the political sphere.

We apologize to any who view this letter negatively. It was never our intent to shed a negative light on our movement, but rather to promote it in a constructive way.

NAP Public Relations Department
National Atheist Party

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Ecmarks245

     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9SfQODnWY8&feature=endscreen&NR=1

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

    I was dubious about NAP before this move.  I’m no longer dubious–I’m avoiding them actively.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CO4XFS7IXIESALGRH5RJLDUTHE p

    Not sure what “other side”  is shown in the video. WBC are not some ironic  post modern situationist art parody group. They still picket funerals and cause real distress to the bereaved. That is not “maintaining civility”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1535286477 Roxane Farrell Murray

    With any luck there will be thousands of people at the Reason Rally.  It’s not like a small campus thing where people prepare witty counterprotests.  If any of the rationalists behave badly, we’re going to come out smelling like a skunk.  If they were planning to come anyway, they would be provocateurs in that situation.  Now they’re invited guests. 

    And why stop at WBC?  Why not invite a few pedophile priests and Focus on the Family?  

    Why give them publicity when it’s supposed to be, for once, OUR day?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lee-Moore/629246358 Lee Moore

    Interesting point Roxanne however I should probably point out that before we ever sent any invitation we were well aware of the religious groups massing support to counter protest our event.  

    I for one am curious to see how these groups react when they find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with one of the most hated groups in our country.  

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger/featured GodVlogger (on YouTube)

       Maybe it would be great that any other christian protesters would be in the same pen (or whatever the protest area is) with WBC.

      Meanwhile, I tip my hat to the NAP for the efforts invested and vision that they have been creating. This one single invite/letter might be a misstep if it ends up getting negative P.R.. But then again for news coverage and story telling, stories often need an antagonist, and maybe that will be WBC. Even if if goes poorly I will be likely to forgive an occasional misstep as the inevitable growing pains of the NAP. Meanwhile let’s hope for the best.

    • Annie

      I’m wondering how you plan on handling the Christian spin that will surely be put on this invitation… that the only religious people the atheists will align themselves with are the WBC?

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lee-Moore/629246358 Lee Moore

        Just today I sent an email to one of the anti Reason Rally spin groups Ratio Christi inviting them to an open dialogue with us.  WBC is not the only group we wanted to open lines of communication with.  They were just the most well known one.  

        • Annie

          You haven’t answered my question.  You don’t fix a leaky bucket by drilling holes in it.  I sincerely don’t understand your logic here, and was hoping for a more clear response.  An additional question, who is the “we” you speak of?  Is this the stance of everyone at the NAP? Or all the sponsors of the Reason Rally? 

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lee-Moore/629246358 Lee Moore

            To your new question.  I do not represent all of the sponsors for the Reason Rally, I am speaking for the NAP only.  We stand together in this action.  

            As far as your first question, I thought I did answer it.  Let me clarify.  How do we handle the Christian spin?  While I doubt we can change any of their views we can at least attempt to open up a dialogue with them and get our side of the story heard.  

            • Annie

              Honestly (or perhaps, obviously) I don’t support this decision, but I hope for the sake of the atheist movement that I will be proven wrong.  The law of unintended consequences should always be considered when making bold moves like this.

              The Christians who will be using this to spin more hate about atheists are not the ones that will be in attendance.  Although I don’t suggest doing things to reduce spin, I also don’t think it wise to take actions that will most likely produce fodder for antagonists.

              The silver lining to this is that the WBC is a rather small group.  My hope is that they get lost in a sea of atheists… and that no one confronts them in a way that would be counterproductive to the purpose of the rally.  Thanks for your clarification.

              • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

                 You can’t decide any action based on how the people who most oppose you will try to spin it.

            • simone just simone

              Lee, if you want the Christian “spin” why not invite William Lane Craig or other respected Christian apologist [ah, I see you just mentioned inviting Ratio Christi--good! still...].  Westboro is really anti-Christian, when it comes down to it.  This is the REASON Rally, isn’t it?  So … find Christians who actually do ‘reason’ with which to engage … no??!!

          • Sware

            As a member of NAP, who just voted in their election, I do not support this…for all of the reasons many have named above.  

  • joe

    Lee, I hope it turns out as you planned. I don’t think well really know until its over. I don’t think it was such a good idea, for whatever reason. maybe if there its a confrontation, it’ll be seen as the wbc abusing an invitation. Trouble is there’s also many in our community who don’t avoid confrontation, so it just might be a bomb waiting to explode. To me its seems that the rally should have been “untainted”, and we should have avoided internal conflict (which this seems to have resulted in) in order to put on a “better face” to the world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    Will the WBC be put with the other christian who are showing up?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

       Nope.  Enabling the religious to point at them, AND us, as birds of a feather.

    • fredwords

      All protesters of the Reason Rally will be in the Free Speech Zone at the back of the rally area–except, perhaps, for the sly ones trying to infiltrate the crowd and do one-on-one witnessing.   

      • Ubi Dubium

        Wait, free speech zone?  What?  The entire rally is one huge free speech zone! Surely you mean the “Lack of Free Speech Zone”.

        But seriously, WBC delights in showing up where they are not wanted.  Many times when public counter-protests have been announced, or when the people they are protesting have said ‘Bring it on, we’re ready for you!”, that’s when they no-show.  I think the best deterrent for these bozos is open arms and a warm welcome.

      • Anonymous

        What is this zone nonsense? Are you saying there is going to be an roped off area referred to as the “free speech zone”. You have to be kidding right? That’s the stupidest idea ever. That implies the rest of the rally is censored.

  • fredwords

    The obvious objection, of course, is that this move has gotten us all tarred as provocateurs willing to go out of our way to generate confrontation in a cynical bid to beef up our media coverage.  But whether you agree with that assessment or not, there’s a basic democratic, procedural issue that was violated here. The National Atheist Party applied for and was accepted into the Reason Rally Coalition because of its willingness to be part of and help with the rally as a sponsor. It was thus invited to join the team. But it then proceeded to act unilaterally in a promotional effort of its own devising that it had to know would be controversial. This promo idea should have first been offered as a proposal to the Reason Rally board, which meets over the phone weekly and is constantly accessible by e-mail. This is the way all the other sponsoring organizations operate. We’re a coalition, not a chaos. 

  • Yasatrek

    This seems seriously ill-considered.

    Did somebody seriously think that “Look at us! We’re better than Westboro!” would change any minds about atheists and rationalists? Is the hope that at least one religious group will be viewed more negatively than us? Why not just go all out and invite the Catholic wing of NAMBLA?

    If nothing else, this demonstrates that atheists can be just as idiotic as any other group.

  • http://twitter.com/religiouscritic Religious Critic

    WBC disrupt events – they don’t turn up to participate, engage or (god forbid) listen. So perhaps NAP’s hearts were in the right place, but I can’t see how anything productive will come of this venture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.zamecki Joe Zamecki

    This is silly. The WBC just stands in their designated area with their signs, and they sing, and then go home. They don’t debate, they don’t use violence, they don’t block anyone or disrupt anything. There are lots of other Christian groups that misbehave in public routinely, and the WBC simply isn’t one of them. Whatever chaos comes from them being there, it certainly won’t come from them. 

    You can’t expect to exclude anyone from the National Mall, so why get so upset that some folks you don’t like were invited? Thousands of people are being invited! You can count them in the turnout report. They will add to the turnout.

    This invitation is a good thing, until folks want division and infighting. That’s not helpful. It’s going to be a diverse and lively day, and that’s long before the first speech. I say go with it, and enjoy the ride.

    • http://www.facebook.com/matt.dillahunty Matt Dillahunty

      Thanks for dismissing people’s legitimate concerns as “folks want[ing] division and infighting”. Do you REALLY think that the people who are pointing out problems WANT to promote division and infighting?

      I’m betting you don’t. Because, if you are, you can make that accusation directly to me.

      When the reporter asks WBC why they’re there, and they respond that they came at the invitation of the organizers, you don’t think that’s a potential problem?

  • Jeanette

    Um, the major objection/stereotype atheists are associated with are being unreasonably provocative when it’s unnecessary…so, I don’t really see how this gives atheists a better image.

    Plus, WBC deserves to be ignored. Come on. We know we’re a sincere group of people, but this makes us look really insincere (with good reason!).

  • Anonymous

    I wholeheartedly support the invitation!  It seems like you couldn’t
    ask for better entertainment. Thousands of generally smart, educated folks
    with good senses of humor, versus 30 or so hyper-serious nutjobs?
    That’s a recipe for some really awesome internet-fodder…

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

       Not to mention the lawsuits.

      • Anonymous

         Yes, many’s the time I’ve been sued for making fun of idiots…

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

           They only need ONE person more idiotic than they are.  You want to bet they can’t find one?  Look, that’s how they make their money–they don’t have tithing.

          They goad people and then sue–and win.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    I agree with the other commenters that inviting WBC was an act of spectacularly poor judgment. It has no upside for us that I can see, and a large potential downside in that, if WBC causes a scene or Reason Ralliers get into an altercation with them, it risks making media coverage of the day about them, rather than about us.

    If we want to fight negative stereotypes of atheists, we should do it by presenting a positive image of ourselves. We shouldn’t do it by inviting the worst religious people around just so we look better by comparison. WBC might well have shown up anyway, but daring them to come serves no purpose and accomplishes nothing.

  • http://twitter.com/DuchessofYanks Lissa

    Hmm. I’m not actually sure how I feel about this. While I understand what the NAP had in mind, the WBC is a noted hate group that is especially hateful towards the gay community. I’ve seen the video posted before and if I got anything other than confusion from it it was that these people are two-faced. Imagine being friendly to your gay friend one day and then holding up dehumanizing signs against them the next. I have to wonder why Kirk Cameron wasn’t invited by the NAP, he did very much the same thing just without the picket signs.

    I won’t speak for everyone but I think the vast majority of atheists can agree that your sexuality is something that you’re born with, a gay person can not help who they are any more than a black man can help who he is. Should the NAP be inviting the KKK next time?

    With that said, I will say again I understand what the NAP was trying to achieve, I’m just not sure this was the right way to go. I guess I’m one of those who has mixed feelings about the whole thing.

  • Keulan

    Well that video was weird, but it just shows that the WBC bigots can get along with people they hate as long as it gives them more publicity. I think inviting them was an incredibly bad idea.

  • BenFromCA

    Wait, aren’t we supposed to be the rational ones?  Does anyone doubt that we can ignore them just as easily as we ignore the traffic jam on the way to Dunkin’ Donuts as the church crowd gets out?  I dunno about the rest of you, but I’ve had to build up a pretty thick stupidity callous over the years.  You all know how the stupid burns!

  • Kaylya


    The WBC has quite a following, and they command a great deal of “media credit.””

    The WBC does not have “quite a following”. They have somewhere around 40 members, most of them relatives of Fred Phelps. While I’m sure there are some other Christian groups who are sympathetic, most will try and distance themselves from the craziness. Jerry Falwell called Phelps a nut. ( http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=GUYyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ouYFAAAAIBAJ&pg=6539,1270624 ) They get a lot of media coverage because what they do is so disgusting; I’m not sure what you mean by “media credit” – I tried to look it up to see if it had a specific meaning in PR but couldn’t find anything.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CO4XFS7IXIESALGRH5RJLDUTHE p

      The phrase “media credit” really shows the sophistry in this article. They do not have ” quite a following”, not any “credit”. The WBC are not only hypocrites of the first order, picketing Steve Jobs funeral while sending the message they were doing this via twitter on an I-Phone! They are called “hatemongers” by none other than the KKK. Some achievement.
      Media credit? Why the NAP should need to piggy back on the WBC  for publicity is beyond me.
      And the phrase ” sensationalized media editing”? where has this been? Who is creating the sensation here? Did the media invent the Church and their absurd signage and statements ? Most of the reporting and documentaries on the WBC have been pretty subdued , or even mocking, people know they are real-life Trolls and try not to rise to the bait.

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine

    This is just a bad move – if not for the PR nightmare alone (Fox News will have a field day with this…) it’s also a spectacular way to make certain people feel really unsafe. I am seriously considering attending the rally in a skirt (to show off my fantastic legs :O) and the knowledge that bigoted assclowns like the WBC were INVITED by the NAP is disheartening. It’s the equivalent of actively inviting the KKK to the Million Man March.

    The WBC would maybe have come, now you’re just provoking them to come, at the detriment of what would be a decent event.

  • http://twitter.com/TimidAtheist Timid Atheist

    That’s an interesting not-apology at the end.  Why even apologize when you don’t think you were wrong?

    I avoid gatherings as a rule, regardless of what kind of people are there. I just don’t like crowds.  But inviting the WBC was just a very poor idea in my opinion.  If you honestly think you’re going to use them as a way to promote your rally by getting in on some of their infamy you’re going to paint your own organization as no better than they are and even less genuine.  You’re publicly stating that’s your reason for inviting them, to make yourselves look better and to take advantage of their infamy. You don’t think that will backfire at all?

    • Anonymous

      Yep, dig hole deeper. Plus now he’s showing videos indicating that WBC isn’t bad at all.

  • Gunstargreen

    I’ve bounced around on wondering if WBC is an example of Poe’s Law or not for the past several years. Now I’m even more unsure.

  • Ion

    If the goal was to distinguish atheists from WBC, why would sending a chummy, irony-laden invitation accomplish that? Either we look like we are in collusion with them, or we look like we are exploitative and heartless.

    The idea that it would be great to have lunatics on hand screaming hateful, homophobic epithets in order to show off our maturity is absurd. Why people insist on continually feeding these trolls I have no idea.

  • http://twitter.com/Skeptical_Lady Question Everything

    Blah blah blah NAP – That is not what Troy Boyle said to me when I emailed him my concerns about this childish letter. You all need to get your stories straight.

    • http://twitter.com/TimidAtheist Timid Atheist

      Out of curiosity, what did Troy Boyle say in response to your e-mail?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

    This has all the makings of a media fiasco of monumental proportions, and I sit in slack jawed aghastedness at the inane stupidity of this stunt.

    If I were attending, and I am damn glad Im not, the last thing I would want to expose myself and my family and friends to is screams of abuse and sneering tacit hate threats from a pack of rabid publicity hungry psychos like the WBC.  I dont give a flying toss what reason (and I use that term very loosely here) you THOUGHT you had for this. You acted unilaterally, without the knowlege and consent of the other organisers and sponsors, and without consideration for others who, like me, never want me and mine to be exposed to a mob of bigots and haters like the WBC.

    I thank reason that this pack of hateful goons are banned from my own country (the UK), and so our conferences are happily free of such hate noise. I thank reason that under the UKs hate laws we can outlaw groups like this and Islam4UK and drive them off our streets. Only in America as the old saying goes.

    What next? Maybe you could invite the KKK or neo-nazi white power goons along on MLK Day or to the next Gay Pride March?

    You, IMHO, should apologise for your stupidity, and now make sure that
    if they do turn up they are cordoned off by a human wall of your own
    members a long way away from the main event where their abuse will not
    spoil the day for the other attendees, especially families with kids who may not get your little joke. This is YOUR problem, one YOU created.

    Now fix it.

    I penned an article recently, (I write and broadcast as Dave The Sandman), which would have been mirrored in audio format to an atheist radio show, in support of the NAP extolling your drive and movement and recommending that Americans get behind you. Tll now I respected your pluck, your drive, and your strategy. Now it seems that respect was ill placed.

    I have, in light of this stunt, written to the blog manager and programme co-ordinator asking them to spike the pieces pending replacements.

    Congratulations dickwads…..you just lost my vocal support.

  • walkamungus

    “Cheapening the Reason Rally or our movement was never our intention.”

    You’ve managed it nonetheless. Congratulations. 

  • Gus Snarp

    I can see one problem with the presence of the WBC, aside from their attempts to create a lawsuit. The WBC are masters of media manipulation, and the right wing media are masters of using the WBC to send the message they want to send. When you put those two together what you get is a right wing media who has convinced most of it’s viewers that anti war activists are engaged in hateful protests at the funerals of soldiers who died overseas. Let’s just do a quick opinion poll with a proper random sample of Americans about protests at soldier’s funerals and see how many of them realize the protests are by a fringe, homophobic cult and how many think the protesters must be anti-war activists.

    FOX News will likely find a way to do a story on the Reason Rally that takes whatever WBC does, along with the fact that they were invited, and uses it to convince their viewers that WBC’s message is our message. So this ultimately gives us the opportunity to create videos and moments that clearly show what we’re opposed to in the WBC, which will be seen almost exclusively by people like us. Meanwhile it will give FOX the opportunity to create extremely well edited videos showing the exact opposite, which will be seen by millions of religious people, conservatives, and random people hanging out in bars, which always seem to have FOX news playing.

    You do the math.

  • http://www.facebook.com/troy.boyle Troy Boyle

    Cantankerous, opinionated, vocal, hyperanalyzing atheists. How I love you all. That’s no lie. :) We’ll see how this turns out after the RR. That’s all that can really be said. We also have a billboard  campaign coming up that is quite different from anything you’ve seen before. 

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Mr. Moore:

    If I agree to help support an event that others have initiated, I bear a responsibility to make decisions that are in concert with the rest of the organizers. It would be very irresponsible and selfish of me to unilaterally invite someone who is very controversial and potentially disruptive to the event without consulting the rest of the organizers first.

    The WBC would have shown up as uninvited party-crashers, and they could have been treated as such. Now thanks to you, we have to treat them as invited guests. If any unfortunate incidents or violence occurs, the WBC will be able to portray themselves as the victims who were invited and then abused, rather than as the provocateurs.

    Your self-centeredness and insensitivity to the basic etiquette of working with the other event organizers,  combined with your nonpology at the end of your rationalizing PR spin letter in this post have sealed the deal for me. Just as with Chris Leithiser who has made the second comment here, I had some doubts about the NAP, but no longer. I will avoid you and disassociate myself from you.

    I fear that the NAP will become embarrassing to atheists in general in the same way that the WBC is embarrassing to Christians in general.

  • Noodoggy

    I have no puppy in this fight.  But I have an opinion about it.  I am surprised at the vitriol and just plain pooh poohing of the WBC invitation.  In my mind, rational, reasonable people view ALL humanity as deserving of dignity.  On a lighter note, I am from New Orleans, and when you give a party, EVERYONE IS INVITED!  =)

  • rommel43

    Look at it this way, now people will have to choose between being on the side of the freethinkers or on the side of the WBC

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CO4XFS7IXIESALGRH5RJLDUTHE p

      Nope. They’ll just dis-associative themselves from the WBC. 
      Or use as an opportunity to present a “moderate” religious alternative to the media.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Egan/1526051316 Dan Egan

    What do you mean we’re not ‘judgmental’ ? I for one AM. Someone who really believes the crap in the bible is an idiot. I think many out here would share the same judgement.

  • Beadknitter

    I don’t buy it. It is a mistake to invite groups like this. By inviting the WBC, you are giving them validation. You are giving them another opportunity to spread their hateful message. Something no one should be giving them. Validity only makes them worse.
     We should be IGNORING them. 

  • Drew M.

     You naysayers are overreacting and simply don’t get it.  Megan Phelps-Roper tweeted a smiley face! How could anything go wrong after that?

  • http://www.facebook.com/2indios Jose S Veliz

    Voy a ser el único hispano y ateo entre miles de cristianos INVITADOS   :-(
    Something  is very wrong in this. 

  • Dekky

    I’m not even sure if I’m going to attend the reason rally now. It’s one thing to have WBC picketing the event, they will be invited guests and ~when~ havoc breaks loose, it’s going to look bad for the event for inviting such horrible people. What were you thinking?!

    I can’t help but to worry about my safety at this place. Is that silly of me?

    • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

      WBC people probably won’t accept the invitation into the event. Then they might be asked to show something like normal respect for others.

  • Robertlrader

    Sure, it was probably a bad move, and I REALLY don’t like the concept of a “National Atheist Party”, but I view this more as a chance for more of the children and young adults among their ranks to question what they’ve been taught; possibly seeing that the people they’ve been raised to view as evil, don’t actually sacrifice kittens, and don’t regularly eat values.

    But I’ve also been known to give people too much credit.

    • Robertlrader

      Oops, auto correct. Eat babies*, not eat values.

  • Tom

    Indeed,  it would be an outright lie to claim that publicity was not the first idea that came to mind when writing this letter.  It was the ONLY idea you had for this letter.


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