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The Storm That Wasn’t

by Dave Zornow

Nyack, Nov 19 — A religious hurricane forecast to hit Nyack this weekend changed course at the last minute, allowing Nyack High School’s production of The Laramie Project to take the stage with no worries about religious fundamentalists disrupting the play.

But to end the story there would be to miss ‘€œa teachable moment’€ about the averted storm ‘€“ and why some forecasters predicted it.

The Laramie Project is a play about community reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student in Laramie, Wyoming. The Westboro Baptist Church has been picketing productions of the play throughout the country to spread its belief that every tragedy in the world is related to homosexuality.

Here’s a study guide which looks at some of the myths and assumptions about the religious storm that didn’t happen in Nyack this week.

1. As reported on their Website, The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas was hell-bent on coming to Nyack to protest a high school production of The Laramie Project and spread their message of intolerance towards homosexuals, Roman Catholics, Islam, Jews, Methodists, Mormons, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians other Baptists and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.

Actually, it was never entirely clear that they were coming at all. Recently:

DramaWorks, the Nyack High School group that supports theater productions, made a conscious decision not to counter protest and ignore WBC members if they appeared. It was only after local media owned by AOL and Gannett publicized their presence that it because widely known, and the story subsequently was picked up by WCBS-TV.

‘€œNo event or condition is inherently news,’€ says Scott Bonn, associate professor of sociology at Drew University. ‘€œIt only becomes news because someone has the power and ability to say so and, generally, that person has both a political and profit-driven agenda, not the least of which is to entice an audience and sell advertising.’€

Bonn, who previously worked at MTV as a sales and marketing executive, says news making is inherently amoral and it will cover and promote anything that serves its self-interest. ‘€œThe news media often become passive co-conspirators in spreading public panics such as the bird flu and the threat from Iraq that was alleged by the G.W. Bush administration,’€ Bonn adds.

2. 21st Century mass media lets religious fundamentalists spread their message in ways never before possible.

Mass media has a long history of spreading religious intolerance. Father Charles Coughlin used radio in the 1930’s to reach millions of radio listeners with anti-Semitic message broadcasts. Although sophisticated in their use of media, sociologists say the Westboro Baptist Church has little in common with previous, more polished hate mongers. ‘€œCoughlin, in a totally different era, was successful and credentialed,’€ says Gerald Marwell, a professor of sociology at New York University.

By comparison, Marwell says Fred Phelps, the leader of the WBC is neither. ‘€œCoughlin had his own broadcasts and millions of followers.’€œ Marwell says that with the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, anti-semitism was a very important issue. Because the country is moving away from the positions advocated by the Westboro Baptist Church, Marwell adds that Phelps is a just a side-show, ‘€œOnly the media pay him any attention. The best response to Phelps is laughter and dismissal.’€

3. The Westboro Baptist Church is only doing this for the money.

Not true, says Baylor University’s Christopher Bader, an associate professor of sociology who has studied the Westboro Baptist Church extensively. ‘€œFirst, their motivations are primarily religious. They believe very strongly and unanimously in a God that is both “hands on” with the world and extremely judgmental of it,’€ he says. Although Bader describes the group as ambulance chasers, it’s because they are always looking for situations that will get the most attention. ‘€œIt is not by accident that they engage in outrageous antics. They see themselves as God’s elect who must warn others.’€

‘€œThe Phelps’ seem to be driven by a desire for attention. They will take negative attention over inattention,’€ says Deana Pollard-Sacks, a law professor at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. ‘€The public did not seem interested in the Phelps’ anti-gay rhetoric, so the Phelps’ resorted to extreme personal attacks against fallen soldiers and their surviving family members to garner media attention for themselves.’€ Pollard-Sacks says that the Westboro Baptist Church has been unable to attract public support for their anti-gay agenda. ‘€œThe only reason they are getting any attention is because the media are giving it to them,’€ she says.

Bader says Westboro’s annual travel budget, estimated to be about $200,000, comes from multiple sources. He says that many church members hold regular jobs working as nurses, working in law offices and working as computer programmers and developers. ‘€œThey also make significant money from winning lawsuits,’€ Bader notes. ‘€œSince they defend themselves, but can charge for their time, when they win a lawsuit in jurisdictions where the ‘€˜loser’ has to pay legal expenses, they make a lot of money.’€

4. Nothing good comes out of hate.

In this rare case, that isn’t quite true. Students involved in Nyack’s production of The Laramie Project say the publicity has sparked interest from peers who previously were not interested in either the arts or in talking about tolerance. According to one participant, kids are googling the play and the WBC and are forming their own opinions.


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