2017 Lincoln Ideas Forum: Hate of the Nation

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Measuring Hate by its Consequences: Love and Hate in Westboro Baptist Church Pickets

Only in the most extreme cases do people see themselves as hateful. Most of the time, they see themselves as loving. This is as true for Westboro Baptists, the most (in)famous anti-gay church in the US, as well as more violent extremists, such as Nazis or members of the KKK. They are all loving something (God, their nation, their race). Devotion to a good and noble cause can result in hateful actions, though, which are justified as acts of love, sometimes even toward their very victims.  This presentation explores the way that what some people see as love can result in actions that others experience as hate by focusing on Westboro Baptist Church. The church pickets daily, picketing the message that God hates—and is destroying—individuals and the nation because of our collective tolerance of homosexuality. They share this message at scenes of national tragedies, military and police funerals, and pop culture events. Given their insistence that LGBT people are damning the nation, expressed in vulgar and derogatory language, one might expect the church to be filled with personally hateful people. And yet that is not the case. Individually and collectively, church members are kind, generous, gentle, encouraging, and loving—both to each other and, generally, to those outside the church. That is, as long as they are not on the picket line. Even here, though, church members see their mission not as a hateful one but as a loving one. They are quick to point out that it is God, not the church, that hates LGBT people; in contrast, they insist that they, as picketers, love them, which is exactly why they are picketing: love of their neighbor requires them to warn them of God’s wrath. While that experience may be painful for the one being “warned,” it is less painful, in the church’s perspective, than being in the line of God’s wrath. Thus, the church sees itself as sacrificing—traveling, picketing, risking life and limb in their pickets—for those (always ungrateful) people they are picketing. Their motivation is love, they would say, but their actions are experienced as hate.

But Westboro Baptists are not alone in this, even if they are extreme in it. Many of us have people in our own lives whose love—of family, of country, of God, or of other “good” things—results in harm to others, including those who are excluded from that love. What are our obligations to these people? Do we have empathy for loving people whose actions are hateful because we understand their motivations to be good? Do we ask them to change their actions without changing their motivations? Do we try to change their motivations so that their actions will change as a consequence, assuming a kind of coherence between thought and action? Or do we refuse to recognize their love as love because it results in hate?

Join the conversation at the Lincoln Cottage on April 13th to discuss Hate of the Nation with me, Dr. Laura Shiavo of George Washington University, Seth Levi of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute.

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