The Moon and Reverend Phelps

The Moon and Reverend Phelps

by Richard J. Rosendall

October 5, 2003

Goddess, temper my anger. Fred Phelps, notorious anti-gay fanatic, plans to build a monument in Casper, Wyoming, with the inscription "MATTHEW SHEPARD, Entered Hell October 12, 1998" and citing Leviticus 18:22. He plans to put it in City Park. The city's leaders probably cannot prevent it because they already permitted a monument to the Ten Commandments. Phelps demands equal access, and cites a ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in a similar case.

What if the Matthew in Hell monument gets built? I know that violence is not the answer -- it's criminal, we mustn't stoop to our enemies' level, it only plays into their hands. At the moment, though, I don't care. Why should we tolerate such a hateful display, when no other group has to do so? A colleague (who shall remain nameless) says, "Let them put it up. Then late at night, have some people set off a few sticks of dynamite under it."

Wait a minute. Should we really capitalize on all our recent advances by blowing something up? We hardly need to hand the radical right an excuse to brand us as terrorists. Yet the proposed monument is so obscene, so vicious, it is hard to imagine someone not being driven to an act of vandalism.

Fortunately, the evening after I learned about Phelps' plan, I attended a performance of Bellini's "Norma." It is not immediately obvious that this opera should inspire rationality, since in the space of a few hours the title character goes from praying for peace to contemplating the murder of her own children in a jealous rage. She also cannot make up her mind whether to lead the Druids into war against the Romans or to run off with the top Roman general, a dilemma she resolves by throwing herself on a fire.

Being a wicked homosexual, however, I have spent countless Saturday afternoons lying on my sofa listening to Maria Callas sing Norma's aria "Casta Diva" (which means "chaste goddess," not "throw a diva"). As high priestess she is entreating the moon, which bathes the sacred forest in silver, to temper the zeal of her people. When she sings "Tempra ancora lo zel audace," it is as sublime a moment as music can offer. All the bel canto hysteria that follows cannot erase the imprint of that prayer on the mind.

At the close of Act I, the chorus cried, "Norma! To the temple!" I decided I had heard enough. Emerging from Constitution Hall into a cool October night, I strolled to a nearby hallowed spot, the Lincoln Memorial. The Reflecting Pool was drained. Beside it, a man shouted angrily to a small crowd about the removal of Judge Roy Moore's religious monument from the lobby of the courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama. "Can you believe it? Let me tell you, when I saw them remove the Ten Commandments…." His voice carried some distance, but was dwarfed by the vast space.

The man spoke of that courthouse and our country as if they were his exclusive property. No matter, the First Amendment protects foolish statements. His little flock did its thing while other visitors did theirs, climbing the stairs to have their pictures taken with the floodlit statue of Lincoln. The moon occasionally poured silver light through a break in the clouds.

As I walked back toward Constitution Avenue, it occurred to me that Rev. Phelps' monument to fire and brimstone could become a teaching opportunity, just as his visits to various cities have been used by gay groups to raise funds. Renouncing vandalism, gays could bring creative, nonviolent protests to the display site.

The Casper City Council may decide they were wrong to introduce religion into the public sphere, and remove the Ten Commandments from City Park. Then they could block Phelps. If not, we need not stop at demonstrations. A gay religious group can take advantage of equal access by commissioning a monument of its own. The park could end up as cluttered as the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall, where each state is entitled to place two statues.

The American way is to reply to offensive speech, not to suppress it. Our key message should be that the Constitution, not religious dogma, governs the public sphere, and protects gay people as well as fundamentalists. Like the moon, it shines its light on everyone.

Copyright © 2003 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.