Yes, I know, it’s a woefully contrived analogy. Hateful Christians with “God hates fags” signs are a completely different phenomenon than terrorists who massacre a whole countryside of people. But it’s a wishful thought that I want to have. Because I think Westboro Baptist has played an important role in turning the tide against the religious right in our country. Could it be that the absolute awfulness of ISIS will turn the tide against the religious right in the Islamic world?
Westboro Baptist exemplifies the logical extreme of the doctrine of nihilistic divine misanthropy that is prevalent in less potent forms throughout conservative evangelicalism in America. Based on a perverse misreading of Romans 3, this doctrine says that God is steaming with anger against human sins that we consider to be minor moral infractions because God is infinitely more perfectionist than we are and because we are so completely corrupted that we can’t see how astoundingly evil we are. This is why even good non-Christians who exhibit all the character qualities of the fruits of the spirit and the Sermon on the Mount deserve to be tortured in hell forever if they haven’t said the magic sinner’s prayer, because God is a misanthropic nihilistic infinite perfectionist.
Before Westboro Baptist came along, there was a game of one-up-man-ship in conservative evangelicalism around this doctrine. Whoever preached the most brutal God had the purest Christianity. There was no extreme that was too extreme. But Westboro Baptist made the maniacally angry God into a farce by showing what this doctrine causes people to do. They would have never become an embarrassment to the religious right if they had just picketed funerals of gay people. But then they tried to out-extreme all the competition by picketing military funerals claiming bizarrely that God was causing our war casualties as punishment for the existence of homosexuality in our country.
I realize it’s ridiculous to say too definitively what really causes cultural shifts to happen. But Westboro Baptist’s embarrassing antics have coincided with a major rebellion among my generation of evangelicals. And they have been like gasoline on the fire. Westboro Baptist was a major reason why hundreds of thousands of young evangelicals like me were finally was able to say That can’t be right! Well, I mean Westboro Baptist and Pat Robertson and Ted Haggard and Dinesh D’Souza and C.J. Mahaney and Bill Gothard and Mark Driscoll and a lot of others. But Westboro Baptist has been the most ridiculous of the comically radical misanthropes of far-right Christianity.
Thankfully fundamentalist Christians in our country have not yet started deputizing themselves as divinely sanctioned executioners of the wicked like their counterparts in ISIS, although Charisma magazine’s call for genocide last week was very worrisome and I imagine that most of the open carry activists in Texas are also “born-again Christians.” Obviously what ISIS is doing is in a completely different league from Westboro Baptist in many ways. But in one basic way, they are engaged in the same radical one-up-man-ship that defines right-wing religious zeal. Their Allah has to be more brutal and misanthropic than everyone else’s Allah so that they can be the purest Muslims.
I have no idea what kind of cultural context Muslims in my generation find themselves in halfway across the world, but I want to believe that somehow watching these sick evil sociopaths blaspheme their faith so maliciously would be enough to cause some sort of shift in Islam analogous to the way that rebellious evangelicals in my generation have shattered the strongholds of the religious right in our country. I want to believe that a critical mass of Muslims are going to say F*** this, Allah is merciful, not some frothy-mouthed, rabid psychopath. Could all of the bloodshed from sectarian religious violence over the past several decades finally give birth to some kind of spiritual renewal? I know Muslims who are beautiful, merciful people. I wish they were in charge in the same way that I wish the Christians who actually have the heart of Jesus had more power in our churches. One can dream.