Making Sense of 'God Hates Fags' and 'Thank God for 9/11': A Thematic Analysis of Milbloggers' Responses to Reverend Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church

Article excerpt

As the death toll of U.S. troops deployed in the Bush Administration's War on Terror continues to grow, more and more families and communities confront the painful and arduous task of ritualizing the deaths of loved ones. For some of these families and communities, this task has been complicated by the highly visible and antagonistic presence of the Reverend Fred Phelps and other members of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). Famous for protests at the funerals of queer people and people who have died from AIDS-related causes, the WBC has recently gained attention for protesting at the funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq. Beginning in June 2005 at military funerals in Massachusetts, Idaho, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and elsewhere across the United States, the families and communities of Army Staff Sergeant Christopher Piper, National Guard Corporal Carrie French, National Guard Medic Tricia Jameson, Marine Lance Corporal John Mattek, Jr., and others have endured the WBC's vexing theodicy that links national security to heterosexuality. None of the deceased soldiers are known to identify as queer. Yet through the utterance and display of slogans that proclaim "God Hates Fags," "USA = Fag Nation," "Thank God for 9/11," and more, the Phelps protesters argue that the nation's deceased military personnel serve as stunning, corporeal evidence that God is punishing this nation for its tolerance of homosexuality and other vices. This articulation is not novel, [1] but its expression at the funerals of U.S. military personnel is controversial and intriguing. Months before state and federal legislatures began proposing and passing legislation restricting protest activities at military and civilian funerals in direct response to WBC protests, current and former members of the military, families and friends of the deceased, and other parties interested in the U.S. military responded to the protests with a mixture of astonishment, skepticism, and anger. Analysis of these responses has much to tell us about the constitution of nation, nationality, citizenship, religion, and sexuality in these post-9/11 times.

We began with a simple question: how do people in the U.S. military and supporters of the military make sense of the WBC's presence at military funerals? To answer this question, we conducted an analysis of vernacular responses to Phelps' military funeral protests. By "vernacular," we mean discourse that is non-institutional, informal, quotidian, or mundane but still constitutive of public opinion (Hauser, 1999, p. 11). [2] For sources of vernacular discourse, we explored fifty weblogs. More specifically, we explored milblogs, blogs that host discussions on war and military issues and are maintained by active-duty, inactive-duty, or veteran members of the military, their spouses or family members, or supportive civilians. [3] In our view, milblogs provided access to communities of invested commentators who were likely to be familiar with the Phelps protests and whose vernacular commentary evidenced individual and collective efforts to shape political horizons and political communities (p. 92). [4]

Articulation theory informs our analysis. Following and extending the work of leading theorists of articulation such as Stuart Hall (1980) and Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985), contemporary scholars conceive of articulation as "both a way of understanding how ideological elements come, under certain conditions, to cohere together within a discourse, and a way of asking how they do or do not become articulated, at specific conjunctures, to certain political subjects" (Grossberg, 1996, pp. 141-142). That is, articulation theory motivates scholars to examine, amidst conditions of social complexity, how ideologies and ideological elements are invoked, mobilized, combined, altered, rejected, or ignored. Key outcomes of such analyses include specification of "the role of discourse in the constitution of the social world" (DeLuca, 1999, p. …