Thursday, October 07, 2010

Phelps v Snyder: a can of worms

How does one defend the Bill of Rights while demanding an end to the reprehensible behavior of the Phelps Klan - and Terry Jones and the developers of the proposed NYC Islamic Center and many others - without putting at risk the overall public activities of the Church as a whole? This case before the US Supreme Court (Phelps v Snyder) is about much more than free speech. Even though "hate speech" and defining a public persona as a target of such speech seem to be what the Supremes are trying to deal with, there are other issues lying just beneath the surface, issues that could adversely affect the Church's ability to work within the secular community, unapologetically in the name of Christ, without restrictions as a religious practice.

When Roe v Wade came onto the scene so many years ago as an issue of privacy, albeit with respect to abortion, I doubt many could have foreseen today's ethical dilemmas of the so-called "partial birth abortion" or euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research or even human cloning. It is both the curse and the majesty of a judicial system by which such issues must eventually be decided, especially issues with profound moral implications that strike at the heart of mainstream Judeo-Christian ethics. For the faithful it is not about the exercise of religion; it is about the practices that define religious faith.

The ramifications of Phelps v Snyder are no less profound within the realm of Christian practice, a religion that demands of believers to "go ... make disciples ... teach them" (Gospel of Matthew 28:19-20). Though the manner by which the Phelps Klan proposes to "teach" may be questionable, they seem nevertheless to be protected by the 1st Amendment not only in speech but in the practice of whatever religion they claim for themselves (ostensibly Christianity since they say they are Baptists). In the context of mainstream Christianity, their message (though troubling, to say the least) is not entirely unbiblical. The Lord does refer to homosexual conduct as an "abomination" (Leviticus 18:22), the practice of which is punishable by death. In this context, it is clearly a practice the Lord "hates". Not to get too theological or even literal here, but the basic message is fundamentally sound at least according to the standards of the Bible on a very basic level. The Bible, however, is not on trial here, nor is any Bible believer's interpretation. What is on trial is a Bible believer's - or a church's - public conduct while claiming to act within a biblical mandate.

Mainstream Christianity that is biblically grounded overwhelmingly finds the activities of the Phelps Klan to be, at the very least, shameful. Yet it cannot be denied that abortion protesters, however civil and right they may claim to be, are highly offensive to those who do not agree. Indeed the very message of "repentance" itself is offensive to a largely secular society that demands its "rights" to do as it pleases when it pleases. The Religious Right and its demands of a certain moral standard are offensive to all who don't agree. In short, we are all too easily offended, and the Supreme Court seems to be backed into a corner of being forced to decide who has a "right" to be offended, and who has a "right" to be offensive.

It is a rare thing indeed for the Supreme Court to deal with only one issue with one ruling. In this particular case of Phelps v Snyder, there will be no winner. Free speech or the free exercise of religion is about to take a hit in some form or fashion.