Who could blame Pastor Terry Jones for thinking he's the most famous man in the world? In his 15 minutes of fame, he's right up there this week with Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, Prince William, Osama bin Laden and Charlie Sheen.
Not many preachers with only 30 parishioners can set off riots in Afghanistan, provoke a president to choke on the first cup of coffee of the morning, get a beseeching call from the secretary of defense, and reduce the very model of a modern general to pleading for the preacher's help in surviving the maw of war.
Pastor Jones is a certifiable nut, but nuthood in flower is not a crime in America, where the First Amendment protects a nut's right to say anything that comes to a deranged mind -- though it is true that Pastor Jones is coming close to shouting fire in a crowded theater. There's something distressing and faintly pathetic about Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, having to appeal to the better angels of Pastor Jones' nature to persuade him to stop provoking the Muslims with cheap circus tricks. Whatever better angels got the assignment (talk about company punishment) to leave heaven to take up residence in the preacher's conscience have long since packed up and gone sadly home.
The general holds the preacher responsible, but the preacher, like the devil quoting Scripture, demurs and actually gets it right. The rioters in Afghanistan, who have killed seven foreigners to appease Allah for the circus in Florida, are solely responsible for their own deeds, just like the rest of us. All the general and his men can do is soldier on, hope the preacher will find another way to confront a religion he regards as false, and wait for the Muslim nuts to find something else to be offended by, as they will. It's how Muslim mobs "keep the faith."
Pastor Jones, who is 58 and looks 68 with a lush crop of white facial hair, is smart enough to find the buttons to press on the Islamic body politic. Though his congregation numbers only about 30, his grandly named World Dove Outreach Center has five pastors, including his son. He worked for 30 years as a "missionary" and lived in a mostly Turkish, and Muslim, neighborhood in Cologne, Germany. Though he is usually described as a "fundamentalist" in the press, Pastor Jones seems more driven by hostility toward Muslims than as an evangelist "on fire for Christ." His son Luke, one of the associate pastors who speaks with a thick German accent, tells the Daily Beast, a website, that he holds a certain admiration for Muslims because they're proud of their beliefs.
Pastor Jones is described by an associate as "addicted to being famous." This certainly puts him in the mainstream of American ambition, if not mainstream religious belief. His rival for celebrity infamy is the Rev. Fred Phelps, pastor of the "Westboro Baptist Church." Pastor Phelps, like his rival in Florida, is obsessed not with Islam but with homosexuals and their boudoir rites, and determined to upset the funerary rituals of strangers. He has populated the hell of his imagination with Jews, homosexuals, Catholics, Protestants and other Baptists, Billy Graham, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and almost anyone whose name has appeared in the newspapers. Since anyone can rent a storefront, call it a Baptist church and worship an eggplant, a carrot or a dead mule if they wish and no one will do anything about it, Baptists in particular are embarrassed by Pastor Phelps and his 70 or so followers. Few if any Baptist churches regard Westboro as an authentic Baptist congregation, and thus shun it.
Pastor Phelps, now 80, was born in Mississippi and was appointed to West Point at 16, but after he was converted in a Methodist camp meeting he declined West Point for Bob Jones University. He dropped out in his freshman year and drifted through several Bible colleges and finally earned a law degree from Washburn University. He established a law firm to specialize in racial-discrimination cases, and the Phelps law firm at one time held a third of all civil-right cases on the Kansas dockets. The NAACP awarded him a prize.
When the broken-hearted father of a Marine whose funeral the Westboro wackos tried to ruin sued the Phelps clan for damages, the Supreme Court ruled the only way it could, that the First Amendment guarantees free speech, not just responsible speech. This sometimes enables rogues and scoundrels to hit a jackpot with someone else's nickel.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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