Nothing gets people more riled up, on and offline, than a small church comprised largely of one family that calls itself the Westboro Baptist Church.
I first heard of the church when I saw The Laramie Project on stage about 12 years ago. The theatre performace is a moving portrayal of Laramie's reaction to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was beaten, tied to a post and left to die in a field near Laramie, Wyoming.
The Westboro Baptist Church made an appearance at the end of the show, and in real life, to protest Shepard's funeral with signs declaring he was going to be condemned to hell for his sexuality. In what may have been the first "counter protest," a group led by a young lesbian dressed as angels and opened up their wings to protect the sanctity of the funeral from the church's hateful spew.
I was horrified by this church's message, which was not new, and impressed by its methods, which were. They were so aggressive and assertive in their condemnation of gays, a theme that had largely been preached behind walls and away from the media's eyes and ears.
As time went on I heard more about this group that also is known as the "God Hates Fags church." I listened to snippets from its founder, Fred Phelps, who spoke into cameras seemingly possessed by a demon of hate. I thought them kind of silly. Mean, vicious, and devoid of Christian charity, but also silly, and kind of camp. I've been waiting for "Westboro Baptist Church: The Musical" for a while now.
But as time has gone on I have to admit that I also appreciate what they are doing for the gay rights movement and how their very existence offers the most convincing testimony for progressive, non-literal, rational, pluralistic and compassionate religious expressions.
You see, whether the anti-gay movement and the biblical literalists of our country like it or not, Westboro Baptist Church has become their most visible and vocal mouthpiece. With their 'God Hates Fags' signs and slogans they are saying what other, more 'respectable' Christians are implying in more subtle language.
This small church of no more than 40 people has created a vivid example of the logical conclusion of self-described "Bible-believing Christians" -- they just haven't started stoning adulterers or seafood lovers. When Mike Huckabee and Bryan Fischer blame the Newton shooting on banning school prayer, they place themselves along the continuum with Westboro Baptist Church.
The problem for literalists and homophobes everywhere is that everyone really, really hates the Westboro Baptist Church.
I guess the change came when Fred Phelps' gang branched out from purely protesting gay things to things like military funerals and the Newtown killings that are not identified with anything gay but are nonetheless happening in a country that is beginning to support gay rights.
Now motorcycle groups, burly college jocks, and really everyone else is eager to show up and facedown the hateful church, just like the first young angels in the Laramie project. The country has taken a stand, and it is against this kind of religious hate.
It has taken a crazy band of anti-gay zealots to bring us all together, and in this age of deep political, religious and social division, we can all thank them for that.
This story appears in Issue 32 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, Jan. 18.