03/03/2011 12:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Westboro Baptist Got Right

In this busy age of ours, many people read only the headlines and first few lines of a story. I feel compelled, therefore, to start out by declaring that I find everything about the Westboro Baptist Church vile and repugnant.

They picketed the funeral of a friend of mine, a courageous minister who stood up for gay rights. And yet, in the spirit of Voltaire, I will defend to the death their right to express their disgusting theology.

Indeed, I will go a step beyond. It seems to me that, since we must live with Westboro, we may as well learn something from it. Can a church that preaches savage hatred really have anything to teach us? Yes.

These are not just yokels. As NPR's religion correspondent, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, makes clear in her profile of the church, Westboro's leading lights are largely college-educated professionals.

Nor are they making up their hate-laced theology from thin air. In the FAQ section of their website, they explain it quite cogently:

We adhere to the teachings of the Bible, preach against all form of sin (e.g., fornication, adultery [including divorce and remarriage], sodomy), and insist that the sovereignty of God and the doctrines of grace be taught and expounded publicly to all men. These doctrines of grace were well summed up by John Calvin in his 5 points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Although these doctrines are almost universally hated today, they were once loved and believed. Even though the Arminian lies that "God loves everyone" and "Jesus died for everyone" are being taught from nearly every pulpit in this generation, this hasn't always been the case. If you are in a church that supposedly believes the Bible, and you are hearing these lies, then your church doesn't teach what the Bible teaches.

In a sense, this is correct. If you want to find a harsh, vengeful guide to morality, you can't do better than to read the Bible. I don't know about 'fags,' but God sure hates Midianites. After they have some truck with a rival god, He commands Moses to lead the Israelites in battle against them. Upon victory, Moses carries out orders from above to "avenge the children of Israel":

Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD ... Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31: 16-18, KJV)

On the other hand, the very same Bible conveys a message of universal love to many believers. Some say that this is because Jesus wiped away the era of harsh law with a simple commandment: love thy neighbor as thyself. But, again, the Primitive Baptists of Westboro have a good counterargument. They can cite Luke 16:16-17, where no less an authority than Jesus himself warns that all the Old Testament commandments are still in effect: "The law and the prophets were until John ... and it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail."

So what is the lesson to draw from all this? Certainly not that Westboro has Christian theology right. Rather, its members are living demonstrations of the following proposition: If you want to be a good person, you cannot substitute Scripture for the hard work of moral reasoning.

No one is a true Scriptural literalist, for the simple reasons that human language does not admit of precise communication, and that no rule anticipates every circumstance. Take "Thou shalt not kill." No one follows that without qualification. We all kill to live. Even vegans do. They just hope that the seaweed and soybeans don't mind the sacrifice.

True biblical literalism would be especially hard on Christians, since Jesus himself gives a failed forecast of his return: "[A]ll the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. ... Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matthew 24: 30-32 NIV)

Sixty-five generations later, still no trumpet. So, people invent all sorts of ways to interpret around this and other embarrassing passages. And that's the point. The Bible and other scriptures have no fixed meanings, but they do have tremendous impact on societies. Today, that impact is largely negative, because otherwise good people let some religious authority tell them, "This is God's law," and zap! Their God-given ability to engage in moral reasoning is short-circuited.

There are far more egregious examples than Westboro Baptists: zealots who murder abortion doctors, terrorists who use their own suicides to kill and maim others, fanatics who fling acid on schoolgirls, and racists who rely on the Old South's interpretation of the Curse of Ham to condemn blacks, to name a few.

Religion can be and often is a force for good in the world. But so long as it remains enchained to ancient doctrines, so long as the faithful believe these have the force of law, so long as believers surrender their conscience to the dictates of popes, imams, or other God-channelers, then the harm religion does will outweigh the good. That's the lesson of Westboro.