Since 2010, I have been studying the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), a religious group that is both a source and a target of controversial speech. It is not simply a hated group that occasionally makes offensive statements, but rather a church that embodies, at its core, a dual role as source and as target of disputed speech. I am grateful to The Immanent Frame for inviting me to discuss my interactions with WBC and my plan, after eight years of research, to speak out against the hatred directed at their small church.

WBC is known for its anti-homosexuality campaign, epitomized by its God Hates F*gs motto and picketing signs, which have made WBC a poster child for “hate speech” discussions. The picketing began in 1991, after Topeka’s mayor did not resolve WBC complaints about homosexual liaisons in nearby Gage Park. Denounced in the media, WBC escalated its campaign. It gained national attention by picketing the funerals of lesbians and gay men (e.g., Matthew Shepard) and, later, of US soldiers killed in service. The church also preaches against fellow Primitive Baptists, evangelical churches, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

In response, the degree of contempt and vitriol toward WBC churchgoers has been intense. This contempt has come from journalists and politicians, social media, schoolmates and coworkers. Scorn comes from counterprotesters, blithely holding signs declaring God’s love for all. Although no WBC members have been killed or seriously injured, there have been acts of violence and credible threats of violence against them.

As a scholar, I have worked toward a descriptive ethics of the church. I strive to listen in an empathic, nonjudgmental manner with the church, to build rapport with its members, and to understand them more thoroughly. The church is hard to fathom. At the WBC enclave in Topeka, Miami undergraduates have helped me to observe firsthand how church members treat each other, what they experience as a socially isolated community, and whether they have any capacity for empathy. We have learned a great deal about WBC’s personal lives, history, and ethics. The results have been instructive and perhaps surprising.

It is natural to think that Westboro Baptists are a target of hate only because they are a source. Does this mean that Westboro members deserve the hate they have received? By this line of reasoning, if they do not want to be vilified, they should stop speaking words of hate. I understand this logic, but I am not convinced that retaliation is ethically sound. Moreover, such reactions ignore WBC’s backstory as a marginalized group.

The public perception of Westboro is molded by media coverage of their offending signs and statements. (This perception is so fixed that few noticed the recent softening in the church’s messaging.) However, fifty years ago, Westboro Baptists were already a target of animosity and discrimination—not because of their anti-LGBT speech, but because of their religious practices and their civil rights work. As strict Calvinists, the founders of WBC, the Phelps family, did not celebrate holidays like Christmas. The children were painfully ostracized in school for not participating in Christmas activities. Moreover, Pastor Fred Phelps became a lawyer to defend the civil rights of African Americans in Kansas. His daughter, Rebekah Phelps-Davis, still works on civil rights cases. For people who only know WBC for their harsh picketing against gays and other groups, this history is astounding. The Phelps children recount being bullied by white classmates, called “n*****-lovers” at school, chased home, or beaten up. How do Westboro Baptists make sense of such experiences? They place the hatred they experience into a sacred narrative, seeing themselves akin to the Old Testament prophets of God’s word who are afflicted by a world of proud sinners. In every generation, they believe that the true church is persecuted and such condemnation is itself a sign of their righteous path.

When I turn to their moral reasoning, in a lecture or workshop, folks are surprised. To casual onlookers, their protest signs appear to be motivated by pure hate. Yet church members see the picketing as an act of love. They insist that they do not hate those condemned, but rather that they are conveying God’s hatred. It is the Bible that requires them to love their neighbor by means of exhortation and rebuke. To the WBC, the picketing—the act of rebuke—is a message of tough love. As Margie Phelps told me recently, they are “pleading the case for repentance.” WBC members repeatedly claim, we are your best friends because real friends would not leave you stuck in sin. Accordingly, they deny spreading “hate speech” and they object to being labeled a “hate group.”

Such denials sound disingenuous to outsiders, of course. Yet in my conversations with Westboro Baptists, they come across as sincere and convinced of this theological distinction between God’s hatred and their own acts of tough love. My impression of their sincerity has been formed, over time, from several factors.

For one, I resonate with the emotions and tears they share with me. Some members vividly express a fear of hell. Such raw feelings are hard to listen to, as if they are speaking from out of a kind of trauma. Granted, WBC members publicly come across as cruel and inhuman. After all, it is deviant to proclaim that “God hates your feelings.” By aiming at nonjudgmental empathy toward church members, though, our recorded interviews have borne witness to their humanity. For instance, I listened to Shirley Phelps-Roper cry quietly as she described events leading up to having a child out of wedlock. Her brother Jonathan choked up telling us about a girl he defended in juvenile court. A young woman talked about her struggle to love, rather than hate, outsiders who wronged the church.

Furthermore, Westboro Baptists draw a strict line between their confrontational ministry and their private relations with outsiders. From the latitude they take in picket signs, one might imagine that church members insult people, and each other, on a daily basis. But that is not the case. WBC forbids what it deems wrongful speech. Hence, they do not reproach people face-to-face, at school, the workplace, or in chance encounters (e.g., the supermarket). Only from their picket and pulpit do they channel God’s hatred. It is a spigot that they close off—or convince themselves that they have closed off—during ordinary interactions. By cordoning off the times that they rebuke others, perhaps WBC folks can better manage the dissonance between God’s hate and their professed “tough love.”

Having seen the human side of Westboro Baptists, I am troubled by the ways they have been targeted with hate. I hope to convey a more robust picture of their humanity to the outside world, and to critique our society’s reactions to the church. To this end, I have asked WBC leaders about the ethical duties owed to the church by outsiders. Church members readily describe the harsh reception they have faced in school or work. But they do not easily talk about what outsiders should do. Pastor Phelps laughed when I asked whether the City of Topeka should apologize for its actions. Other church members also foreswear any interest in an apology or any making of amends from the ways they have been treated over the years. Nonetheless, when pressed to articulate their ethics, they see a two-fold duty. Outsiders should apologize for insulting or cursing the church—and, as Christians, Westboro Baptists are obliged to forgive.

Over the years, I have been revising a statement about violence and “harmful speech” against the church. With their input, the statement defines “harmful speech” as “bearing false witness, other forms of lying, cursing, and other unethical speech TBD.” The last phrase leaves room for disagreement between the church and outsiders. As Abigail Phelps pointed out, the TBD is vague enough to encourage buy-in. The term “harmful speech” was chosen to distinguish this statement from “hate speech,” which is often used to characterize and condemn the Westboro Baptist Church. While we have not explicitly compared “harmful speech” to any specific definition of hate speech, it presumably covers a narrower range of speech. My goals for this statement are: (1) to represent a few moral principles held by the church, albeit ones they almost never express themselves; (2) to formulate these few principles in wording that I myself can accept; and (3) to gird myself to oppose harmful speech against the church by outsiders.

In August, Margie Phelps agreed to coauthor an op-ed with my statement about “harmful speech” and violence against WBC. Margie is an attorney who argued the Snyder v. Phelps case before the Supreme Court. The court upheld, in effect, the church’s First Amendment right to engage in its controversial picketing and related speech. So, I felt that it would be particularly salient to have her collaboration an op-ed on problematic, “harmful speech.”

At a minimum, I hope this op-ed can expand the circle of those who refrain from vilifying or cursing the church. So far, as a Jew, I have found it easiest to talk to fellow Jews about how we react to WBC’s anti-Jewish discourse. In the near future, I hope to move out of my comfort zone and confront the constant stream of harmful speech directed against Westboro Baptist Church.

There is a seemingly unbridgeable divide between the conduct of WBC and nearly everyone else, including people deeply hurt by its ministry. Without asking anyone to condone the WBC per se, I wonder if shared principles on harmful speech could open up space for tentative conversations across this divide. Will more people voluntarily engage the church with empathy and curiosity, as I have done with my students? With the vitriol in American political discourse today, some bridging conversations with WBC might function as a useful laboratory for dealing with harmful speech more broadly.