If you spend any time at all in a courtroom you can’t help but notice. There are no plants, no flowers, no trees. Nothing grows there. Nothing blooms. By design, the necessary ingredient is missing. There is no fertile soil. Courts were never meant to be gardens. Judges are not gardeners. The intellectual gardens of society were supposed to be found, if anywhere, elsewhere…in our schools, churches and other institutions where even the most vulnerable ideas can be tested.
None the less, it is not surprising Americans had hoped the Supreme Court would find a remedy for the intellectual dust bowl destroying a healthy public discourse in our country. The zealots who call themselves Westboro Baptist Church are outrageous in their behaviors but they are little more than a logical extension of more than two decades of increasingly uncivil, ill-informed public debate.
As a Christian minister, I have a theological view of free speech. The overarching purpose of the Bible is to tell the stories of those who have been persecuted and even put to death for their ideas, their words, and their beliefs. In the final analysis, the sin Jesus died for was the unwillingness of religious zealots to listen to his ideas. They were so threatened by his speech they killed him. Stephen followed quickly. The Book of Acts records his martyrdom at the hands of those who were outraged by a sermon. “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” Stephen exhorted, “They killed those who spoke of the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered.” The story and Stephen’s life conclude, “Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him.” And then they went for the stones.
Now to be sure, Fred Phelps and his ship of fools are not Jesus of Nazareth. Like you, I disdain their protests at funerals of soldiers. I got to know of these wackos long before they came to Wyoming in an attempt to tarnish Matt Shepherd’s funeral. My son attended a private all boy’s school in Atchison, Kansas in the early 90’s. Phelps and his clan would regularly picket their events claiming there must be homosexuals among their all male school mates.
But the depravity of their conduct obscures the real threat. We focus our anger on an occasional flagrant event such as these protests while we tolerate, even encourage a daily, hourly bombardment of rank abuses of free speech.
Too many Americans have quit even trying to formulate their own thoughts about important public issues. Instead they listlessly demur to the often baseless pronouncements of media hypesters and hucksters whose goal is ratings, not enlightenment. Like characters in a George Orwell novel, they go out from their radios and televisions and robotically regurgitate what they have heard as though it was their own idea. They become animated in word and deed without checking one fact, not considering whether those thoughts are consistent with their own values or life experiences.
People who care about the soul of this country need not worry so much about what the Supreme Court decides. We cannot expect infertile courts to take responsibility to weed the gardens we have neglected over the last several years. In Snyder v. Phelps, the Court did its job honestly. It simply upheld the principle that a free people must have the right to express ideas even if a majority disagrees with those ideas. The Justices have no authority to make certain we exercise that right responsibly.