I was watching the coverage of the President’s speech at the Martha Coakley rally at Northwestern University today, when I noticed a pro-life heckler shouting. Par for the course anymore, right? I ignored it and kept tweeting. After the speech, they re-ran footage of the heckler being escorted out – and I could not believe my eyes. I had met this man only on Thursday, and he was carrying the same sign. I didn’t get his name at the time, nor did I get his also-protesting young son’s, but we had a very interesting discussion for at least an hour on Thursday afternoon.
It all started because I wanted to finish my tuna sandwich in peace. My friend Meredyth had been waiting for me to get out of the briefing so we could go visit the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian, because we wanted to see Asian art. I’d had a sandwich in my backpack that I’d intended to eat before the briefing – no such luck. After it let out at around 2:15 PM, I left the White House and met up with her in Lafayette Park, where we sat on a bench facing H Street and talked while I ate my long-overdue lunch. We threw bits of tuna-soaked bread to the squirrels. It was a good time.
And then we heard shouting from behind us. Protesters, we figured – nothing new. We figured we’d walk by on our way down to the Mall, see what the fuss was about. And then we saw the three men were carrying signs with pictures of unborn babies on them, and we heard the words Jesus and Obamacare, and decided we couldn’t pass this up. We had to talk to these guys.
I’ll admit it – talking to religious fundamentalists is really fun for me. I like to understand how people think, especially when – as in the case of religious fundamentalism of any stripe – I find it mind-boggling and difficult to understand. “These are the babies Obamacare will kill!” the main man was shouting, holding the sign and a Cabbage Patch Kid in a tub full of stage blood. “Obamacare will use your money to kill these babies! Jesus loves all babies!” Another man by the fence was holding up a characteristically-smiling cardboard cutout of the president, festooned with a plastic chain with skulls dangling from it and a devil-horns headband attached. I found the sequined headband to be in odd taste, but this isn’t really the month for costume shopping. “Hi!” I said, walking up to them, and smiling. “I just want you to know, it’s possible that I wouldn’t be existing right now, since my mom was single and not sure she wanted me after all. I’m glad she didn’t…”
“Well, that’s great,” the heckler said, smiling back at me.
“…but I’m also glad that she had a choice in the matter, that she decided to keep me around. I don’t think anyone should legislate that.” (For the record, I don’t like abortion overmuch because I abhor the destruction of potential, but I think it should be accessible – a necessary evil, if you will.) The cardboard cutout, leaning against the fence, blew over. The third guy took over holding the cutout from then on, near a young boy, who I later found out was the heckler’s son.
“Yeah, and we were wondering what specifically you’re against in the bill…looks like something to do with abortions, yeah?”
He proceeded to tell us how our tax dollars would go to fund abortions with the “Obamacare” bill, occasionally breaking stride to continue shouting his message at passersby as we waited. We asked him questions about how he viewed abortion in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger. He replied that the morality was up to God, and that adoption was always a viable option if the women didn’t want to keep their rape babies around as a constant reminder. I agreed with him about the virtues of adoption, as my cousin was adopted at birth, but disagreed that we should be denying women, especially in low-income areas, the choice to terminate the unwanted pregnancy. Meredyth asked him if he had any adopted children. He replied that he did not, but he and his wife wanted to – but the child had to be younger than his son and daughter because he didn’t want them to possibly present a bad influence. The Secret Service waved them down the road, since the signs were getting in the way of tourists’ pictures. We obligingly moved.
Then the inevitable question came. “Have you read the Bible?” he asked us. Meredyth replied that she’d started with the Book of Ezekiel and decided against continuing. “I’m in the process of it,” I said. There were approving nods from the two men taking to us. I waited a beat. “I’m also reading the Koran on my own.”
Simultaneous hissing intake of breath from both men. I turned to Meredyth. “Every freaking time,” I said. This happens every time I talk to people whose protests involve religion in some way. Williamsburg, where I go to school, aside from being Virginia’s prime retirement spot, is also a hotbed of Christian fundamentalists. We have a guy come on campus every week with a big sign naming who precisely is going to hell. Approving nods and encouraging smiles when I mention I’m reading the Bible – hisses of fear for my soul when I mention that I’ve also been reading the Koran. Never mind that I read both as literature and not as religious texts. The conversation soon turned to religious extremism. “The vast majority of Muslims are great people,” I said. “I have a lot of Muslim friends. I know an Iraqi guy – nicest person you could ever meet, always willing to help.”
“Scott Roeder’s not the prime example of Christianity, is he?” Meredyth added. “Nor Pat Robertson, right?”
“Christians don’t blow themselves up.”
“Not all Muslims think that the suicide bombers, the extremists, are right. Suicide is, in Islam, one of the greatest sins you can commit. Doubly so if you murder innocents in the process. That’s not martyrdom.” You get your crazies in all religions, we elaborated, especially in theocracies, when the information people have is controlled tightly and bent to the will of the government. It was around this point that the son, who his father had proudly told me preached at abortion clinics and got women to change their minds, began walking around and shouting about the kingdom of God for roughly ten minutes.
Meredyth and I realized that we had about two hours until the museum closed, and we still had to walk there. We said our goodbyes (they said they’d pray for us – a nice gesture, albeit insinuating we need spiritual improvement), shook hands, and said goodbye as civil people do. I asked the father if he’d mind if I shook his son’s hand. He didn’t mind at all. So when the little kid was done shouting, I bent over and shook his hand. “I think it’s great you’re so passionate about something you believe in at your age,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said. He was hoarse from shouting.
“Have a good afternoon!” We waved and began to leave. We were wondering why it was so quiet…and then the heckler-to-be began shouting again and waving the bloodied Cabbage Patch Kid at a middle school group that was looking at the People’s House. That, we thought, went a little bit too far. The kids hadn’t asked for that.
When we came back later in the evening, after the museum had closed, they were gone. We thought that was the end of it all. Then this afternoon, the heckler popped up on my TV.
If you’re reading this, Mr. Heckler, it was very nice to meet you, and we quite enjoyed our conversation. I’m glad that you’re exercising your First Amendment right, even if I disagree with you about some things, because that’s the hallmark of a healthy democracy. I wish you luck in your future endeavors, and not getting tackled by the Secret Service. You’re a lot more sane than many of the protesters, religious and not, I’ve met at the White House. Especially the “Obama is a sekrit Kenyandonesian mooooslim” ones. I don’t know what their issue is.
Video of the event today, including the heckler moment (h/t Taylor Marsh):
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