1b3c8be7-3051-4868-b223-65e255d364e6.jpgLast April 13, a former Ku Klux Klan leader stormed into a Jewish center in Kansas, shooting and killing three people inside.

Even after the recent death of its leader, the Westboro Baptist Church shows no sign of dampening its message or ceasing its protests at funerals and other events.

These and other extremist/hate groups exist and operate in the U.S. every day. Outside violent acts like the one in Kansas, these groups also operate legally. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Westboro’s right to picket funerals on First Amendment grounds. And I agree that these groups ought to be allowed to exist and operate, so long as violent and illegal behavior continues to be punished.

Lest anyone draw any false conclusions from this, know that I absolutely detest these extremist groups and their positions. Furthermore, I won’t pretend to debate the validity of their views with anyone. What they profess and practice is absolutely counter to Scripture and for that reason alone, I stand against it.

Yet I still believe they should be allowed to operate. My thinking on this stems from both political philosophy and my faith.

First, the problem of citizens united behind causes that are ultimately harmful to society is not new. In Federalist no. 10, James Madison discusses these harmful unions, called factions, and how to address them. He claims they are inevitable because the only practical way to prevent them is to abolish liberty, which is contrary to what a free people wants.

Thus, Madison wrote we must control the effects of faction and the best way of doing this is to have a large nation of many people, that the extremist voices of faction would be drowned in a sea of more moderate ones.

Though Westboro and the KKK didn’t exist in Madison’s time, I think his principles are applicable. On the surface, it seems reasonable to ban these groups or at least prevent them from speaking publicly. Surely the First Amendment isn’t meant to protect hateful groups like those.

But who gets to decide what constitutes a hate group? Is this designation based on some enduring principles or is it simply what the majority of Americans agree they find distasteful? To give the government the power to silence voices simply because they are found to be distasteful is to put anyone with something controversial to say at risk.

For example, many left-leaning individuals regularly label socially conservative groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council as hate groups simply because these organizations’ condemn homosexuality on religious grounds. Clearly, respecting the First Amendment only where it is popular to do so is dangerous and contrary to the reason the amendment was established.

Liberty is dangerous. We are sinful, broken people and liberty sets us free to do and say as we see fit. Madison and the Founders understood this, realizing that faction would always be a problem as a result. However, in the end, they decided the risks of liberty are worth the great rewards.

Very well, you might say. Perhaps we must tolerate these groups on a political level, but surely not a religious one! I’m afraid I must disappoint you.

In order to understand my thinking, I must ask you to be as objective as possible, perhaps even to an extreme. I treat it as basic truth that all sin is equal, that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).

Saying this, I do not mean that the physical consequences of all sin should be the same. The maintenance of civil society depends upon the rule of law and consequences for actions that directly harm others.

However, this truth should impact how we, as Christians, view extremists and their beliefs. Before we heap scorn and anger upon the Phelps family or the KKK, it is sobering to remember that they are no more sinful or in need of redemption than we are. It goes without saying that their ideas are hateful, false and not of God. As Christians, what do we accomplish by speaking out in anger against them?

Finally, can people truly be good if not given the choice to do evil? Extra or pre-marital relations, pornography and some unethical business practices are all legal in this country despite the fact that they are no less evil in God’s eyes than the hateful words used by these groups.

It is in a world where such evils are readily available that we can shine all the brighter by choosing, of our own free will, to cling to what God finds pleasing.

So, the next time you see WBC members picketing a funeral or the KKK distributing leaflets, remind yourself that you have could just as easily been as blind and misled without the redemption of Jesus. Remember also that tolerating such groups is a small price to pay for the liberty we enjoy each and every day.