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Opening Arguments

Will isn't free, but it's reasonable

Religious fanatics who hate Western culture and think any violence done to us is God's will. Al-Qaida? No, unfortunately, home-grown nuts; but it's hard to tell the difference, isn't it?

I hesitated even writing about the true believers of the Westboro Baptist Church. Publicity is what they crave, and no matter what terrible things are said about them, it probably pleases them on some level. But those who remember them from their protest visit here and wondered if any group could ever sink any lower need to know that the answer is yes. And those who've never experienced the group's seething hatred need to know it's out there.

The church is now dispatching protestors all over the country to picket at the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq. On Friday, they were in northwest Indiana to harass the mourners for Army Spc. Adam Harting, who died on July 25. Their message: God is displeased with us for our decadence, especially our capitulation to the "homosexual agenda," so he has become "America's terrorist," using militant Islamists as the instruments of his retaliatory wrath. One of their more memorable expressions of deep thought: "They turned America/Over to fags;/They're coming home/In body bags." This stuff is so over the top that it sounds like a broad parody of religious fanaticism. It's not.

You hear this sort of thing from all over the political spectrum. Google God's punishment, and you will find everything from "AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuals" to "Hurricane Fran is God's punishment for Jesse Helms." And that tsunami! God must really have been ticked off to unleash such violence, or else really bored with picking winners in football games. Some philosophers and theologians have very nice, polite debates about the topic. It can seem like a very reasonable position to argue over, until we remind ourselves that "we can be moral . . . we can counter evil, without clinging to a vengeful and destructive god."

The obvious point has been made by many people that both sides in most wars think God is on their side. Someone once made the counter point that "we should try to be on God's side," an observation so clever that the truth of it almost sneaks right by us. We have free will. You can say it's part of God's plan or an accident of the universe, but we make choices and must live with their consequences. That's true for American presidents and American soldiers, Osama bin Laden and members of the Westoro Baptist Church and even football players. Free will being what it is, we sometimes must also suffer the consequences of other people's exercise of it. Stuff happens.

I'm reminded of an old joke. A man refuses to take a trip by airplane, because he's afraid of it crashing. "Don't be silly," his friend tells him. "When it's your turn to go, it's your turn to go, and it doesn't matter if you're on an airplane or home in bed." The man thinks that over, then says, "But what if I'm on that plane when it's the pilot's turn to go?"

Posted in: Religion