Jared Olar: United by division?

Jared Olar

Remember when then-presidential candidate George W. Bush declared, “I’m a uniter, not a divider”?

It was a nice thought, but that statement was not borne out by the following eight years. On the contrary, his election exposed and deepened our nation’s political and cultural divisions, showing that the U.S. was almost equally divided between “red states” and “blue states.”

On balance, President Bush proved to be more of a divider than a uniter. But he’s got nothing on Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who is both a uniter and a divider.

In the past week or so, Phelps and his so-called church have been in the news a lot, on account of a Supreme Court decision upholding their First Amendment right to express opinions and engage in public conduct that almost everyone agrees are highly offensive.

It’s one thing to believe that homosexuality is unnatural, that homosexual conduct is immoral and that God punishes the wicked — all standard beliefs in Christianity. But Phelps-ites take those views to the extreme, opting for deliberately provocative, confrontational and hurtful words and actions.

By their odious behavior, the Phelps-ites have made themselves universally loathed and detested. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling, pundits from almost every point along the political and religious spectrum in the U.S. spoke out in agreement that the Westboro sect is dreadfully wrong, but even the Fred Phelps of the world have a First Amendment right to be annoying and offensive.

Phelps, thus, enjoys the dubious distinction of uniting warring sides. Whether on the left or the right, whether we think homosexuality is OK or sinful, we’re all agreed, it seems, that the Phelps-ites’ words and actions are gravely inappropriate, but they remain protected by the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

We may be divided on homosexuality, but we’re united on the First Amendment.

As Americans, being “united by division,” so to speak, is entirely normal and is hardly questioned. But if you think about it, it’s really a remarkable state of affairs.

Take a look at history — or just look at the world today — and you’ll see that we’re more the exception than the rule. In most societies, there has been and still is no right of dissent, and the rights of religious or political minorities are limited or even nonexistent.

For most of human history, it has not seemed self-evident that religious freedom is a human right. The March 2 assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian Pakistani government official who dared to speak out against his nation’s blasphemy law, is an unhappy reminder of that bloody reality.

As rare as it is for respect for religious freedom and freedom of speech, it’s understandable to wonder if a society can really be built upon mutually agreed disagreement. Could it really be only a matter of time before we go back to rounding up political dissenters and religious heretics and tossing them in the fire?

Yes, I think it could be just a matter of time — unless we remember the reasons why we used to put heretics to death and why we stopped.

Heresy was a capital crime in days gone by –– and still is in Muslim theocracies –– because it was seen as a dire threat to the soul and an assault on the very fabric of society. Most of us today do not believe that, so killing heretics is an outrage to us as well as incomprehensible.

But many of the proponents of religious freedom still believed heresy, or what they thought of as heresy, was dangerous both to the soul and to civil order. However, as the Christian underpinnings of society weakened, they came to see that, despite the harm that arises from heresy, using force against it was neither just nor effective. Instead, it caused far greater social harm than tolerating it.

We, their descendants, do not have a religiously homogeneous culture. The only way we can live together as neighbors is through tolerance. Even tolerance of heretics like Fred Phelps.

Community editor Jared Olar may be reached at The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Pekin Daily Times in Illinois.