Being Thankful for Religious Zealots

I’m thankful I had the great good fortune to be born in this country, even at this point in it’s history. We have our problems, many of which are polarizing the nation. But, because of the foresight of our Founding Fathers and the multitudes who have come to our shores throughout the generations, we have the tools, and the varied perspectives of the human condition to address these problems.

I’m thankful for the men and women who choose to put on our nation’s uniform during a time of war and willingly sacrifice their safety, and even their lives, for our ideals. Nowhere on the planet in the course of human history have personal freedoms, arguably our most exalted ideal, exceeded those we enjoy in this country in this day and age.

The balancing act between one person’s freedom to believe, speak and act as they choose and another’s right not to be subject to another’s expression of those rights is an ongoing struggle. What is too much freedom? Where does personal freedom end? This uneasy balance is well illustrated by one of the other things I’m thankful for, the Westboro Baptist Church.

It may sound strange, but I am thankful for the Westboro Baptist Church. This is the group that shows up at the funerals of soldiers, holding signs that preach their particular brand of pseudo-Christianity. In a nutshell, the death of American soldiers is because God is angry with America for allowing homosexuality.

Why I would be thankful for their particularly viscous hate couched as religion is really not as strange as it may seem. Under the Law of Unintended Consequences, I’m thankful to the WBC for causing a resurgence of patriotism.

Being thankful is not the same as giving credit. Giving WBC credit is a bit of a stretch. The credit goes to a few very special individuals for their response to the antics of the WBC.

A group from an American Legion Post in Kansas heard about WBC’s plans to again dishonor a fallen soldier by attending his funeral and protesting and holding up signs, etc. This they simply could not abide. At the very least, it could not go unanswered.

This was early August, 2005 and just a few, short months later while sadly facing another protest at another soldier’s funeral, the Patriot Guard was established. From there, things moved quickly. Calls went out to motorcycle riders and groups near and far. Within days, the mission statement was written and the website was built. In the first two weeks, the website received more than 566,000 hits. Obviously, there were a lot of like-minded individuals out there.

From the very beginning, and only with the family’s permission, their mission was twofold.

First, to honor the fallen and their family; to let those grieving know the community grieved with them, for them, and stood by them in this, the hour of their greatest pain. In short, the Patriot Guard Riders would do all they could to let the family know that every day Americans honored the sacrifice and service that took the life of their loved one.

The second, simultaneous intent was to ensure the grieving family did not see, hear or if possible, even become aware that some were using the death of their loved one as a ploy for attention, a tool for furthering a cause.

When the protestors brought out megaphones to be heard over the roar of the motorcycle engines, the PGR responded with speakers blaring patriotic music.

When the protestors tried to physically engage individual Patriot Guard Riders who were blocking their message, the order from the PGR to it’s members was to ignore them, turn your back and simply not engage.

Since those first days, the PGR have become an iconic symbol of the respect everyday Americans feel for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, and all those who once wore our nation’s uniforms. Today, most ‘Missions’ are not Fallen Hero escorts as thankfully, those have become less frequent than at the height of the wars. Now they do more “Welcome Homes” for returning heroes and “Honor Missions” for the funerals of veterans as well as participate in a wide variety of events that honor, support and respect our military past and present.

Westboro Baptist Church personifies everything wrong with religious zealots. Yet their existence and activities exemplify the freedoms afforded in this country. As does the response of the Patriot Guard Riders.  Our Constitutionally protected rights include the right to offend with words and non-violent actions. And the right to defend with the same.

Many may have never heard of Westboro Baptist Church, at least by name. Most have heard of the Patriot Guard Riders, both by name as well as by deed. Or at least they’ve heard the roar of their engines, screaming “Freedom” throughout towns and cities across the country.

What began as one groups’ malicious attempt at publicity born of disrespect and dishonor has evolved into a nationwide movement to show respect and honor. For this, I’m thankful.

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