It's a common rule of the Internet that many of its horrid aspects wilt when deprived of their anonymity. Yes, YouTube comments are vastly, overwhelmingly stupid, but the reason that you don't see a similar level of idiocy at a movie theater is because there's a severe social penalty to being such a prat in public. Anonymity isn't the issue -- we all know people who are pleasant in public but raging psychotics on Facebook -- but proximity is. Without a compelling emotional reason, most people have a tough time being purposely boorish to someone who's right in front of them.
This is not particularly the case with the Westboro Baptist Church.
Founded by Fred Phelps, a lawyer, former boxer and pastor, the church makes its home in a secluded compound in Topeka, Kansas. Much of its time is spent in travel, however. The WBC's stated mission is to inform the world at large of the ways in which it has sinned against God, and while their Internet presence is strong (www.godhatesfags.com being only one of their many sites), their main method of worship involves pickets.
Oh, the pickets. Early in their history, the WBC really only picketed close to home, and primarily against productions of The Laramie Project. The WBC is not a fan of much of modern life, but what really gets their leftmost goats is homosexuality. A lot of modern Christian sects take Leviticus too seriously, but the WBC might as well have cut that bit of the Bible out and plastered it on their foreheads. It was inevitable that The Laramie Project would draw the church's ire -- it's about the murder of a gay teenager, after all, and it portrays him in a sympathetic light. Can't have that if you're a cult.
Doc: 'The Most Hated Family in America' (Louis Theroux, 2007) BBC Documentary that focuses on the Westboro Baptist Church, headed by Fred Phelps and based in Topeka, Kansas.
Two of your dutiful Network Awesome staff have first-hand experience with the WBC -- editor Ben Gray and me. Back in 2006, my friend Phil Wiese and I did a project for our photojournalism class, where we covered a WBC picket at the University of Michigan's Laramie Project opening night. Ben attended Michigan at the time, so we met up outside where the protest would take place. You can read the full account here, but let me try to give you a capsule experience of being at a WBC protest:
There is a man standing in front of you, and he hates you. He hates you more than you've ever been hated before in your life, to the point where all other instances of hate you've experienced (maybe you hate the Yankees. Maybe you hate your ex) now seem to require a different, lesser word, because they're a different, lesser emotion than what this man feels for you at this moment. He is not the only one who hates you, as he's brought his whole family. There's at least 10 of them -- everyone from the man himself to his children -- and they hate you with a ferocity and volume that makes you wonder if there's room left for anything else in their hearts. The man and his family are all holding signs, in the most garish colors and configurations possible, informing you and everyone else around you (everyone -- there are a enough signs to cover all their bases) that you're going to hell. Maybe you're screaming at the man, telling him that he is wrong, but he will scream right back at you, throwing his memorized and practiced interpretation of the Bible right in your face. He will look like he wants to hit you. You will want to hit him.
If you do hit him, he will sue you for everything you've got. Fred Phelps was disbarred a while ago, but his flock have made a habit of becoming lawyers.
It's something of a jarring experience. You won't be able to change their minds -- they've been indoctrinated from birth with Fred's rhetoric. They aren't actually looking to change your mind, as in their heads, it's way too late for you. What it ends up being is the world's biggest real-life trolling session. You're denied verbal satisfaction, and as I've said before, physical satisfaction will just result in you funding their next trip.
You might think that it's not worth engaging with them, and you're probably right. Their influence is all out of proportion to their size, as there's maybe -- maybe -- 50 of them. Arguing with them is futile and a prime example of feeding the troll. Broadly, there are two things you can do.
You can do what Ben and I did the next time we encountered the WBC, this time at a production of The Laramie Project at our old high school a few years after our first experience: hold up some absurdist sign in response, like CHOOSY GODS CHOOSE JIFF or GOD HATES [The worst player on your favorite team], and when you get bored of that, chill out 20 yards away and treat the entire affair as some kind of really bad public theater performance. The WBC is still there, but you've mentally reduced them to a sideshow. Which is, you know, what they are.
Alternately, and this requires much less effort, you go this route: the morning after the WBC protested The Laramie Project in Michigan, they headed to some local churches for some additional protesting. Most of the congregants there looked on in a kind of low-level horror, but I was struck by the response of an elderly British couple on their way to a Unitarian church. In that very British way that so many expatriates in America seem to have, they politely asked us exactly who the terribly loud people with the garish signs were. When we told them, the wife, in a manner that would have made Queen Victoria solemnly nod in appreciation, turned to her husband and said, "All that effort. It must be a terrible bother."
Doc: 'America's Most Hated Family in Crisis' (Louis Theroux, 2011)