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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,  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).  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.  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). 
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. 335); exploration of the connections between elements within ideologies, between ideologies and social forces, and among different social groups in a social movement (Makus, 1990, pp. 503-507); and explanation of how seemingly contradictory and often oppositional forces coalesce to construct relations of dominance or opposition.
More specifically, we employ the concepts of thematization, combination, and antagonism to account for the ideological work that is performed in vernacular responses to the Phelps funeral protests. We follow Angus (1992) in his call for analyses informed by articulation theory to account for both "the thematization of elements from the undifferentiated background of interconnected presuppositions and the combination of these distinct elements" (p. 541). Additionally, we attend to key antagonisms. Defining antagonism within the conceptual constellation of articulation theory, DeLuca (1999) notes "an antagonism occurs at the point of the relation of the discourse to the surrounding life world and shows the impossibility of the discourse constituting a permanently closed or sutured totality" (p. 336).
Refracted through the lens of articulation theory, then, our simple research question about milbloggers' sense-making sharpens into the following questions: What ideological themes and linkages set in motion by Phelps and the WBC do milbloggers accept, and which do they reject? What ideological work do milbloggers perform in their disarticulations and rearticulations of Phelps' themes and linkages? What key antagonisms emerge in milbloggers' discourse, and how and to what extent do they foreclose ideological totalities?
We argue the following: while the themes of sexuality and religion shape the ways in which blog commentators make sense of the WBC, bloggers emphasize the theme of nation, particularly the subtheme of freedom of speech, as the crucial site of Phelps' assault. Further, despite Phelps' legacy as an antigay crusader and despite some bloggers' thematization of homosexuality, bloggers overwhelmingly foreground Phelps as an antiwar or antimilitary provocateur; doing so warrants underinterrogation of the role of sexualities in the constitution of the military, citizenship, and the nation (see Berlant & Freeman, 1997; Berlant & Warner, 1998; Bloodsworth-Lugo & Lugo-Lugo, 2005) and thwarts possibilities of queer/military identifications or coalitions against Phelps. More generally, scholars and citizens alike err significantly in dismissing the WBC as "evangelical camp" or the "Phelps Family Freak Show," for the WBC successfully exposes key ideological tensions in contemporary U.S. politics.  Expressed as antagonisms, these tensions involve freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression, enactments of citizenship, injustice in the justice system, and disciplined military bodies out of control.
We focus on three prominent themes of sexuality, religion, and nation. In its protest signs and slogans, the WBC emphasizes these themes, thus establishing a framework of controversy. We begin our discussion of each theme with a brief summary of the ideological terrain of each theme and the linkages that WBC protesters mobilize.  We follow each summary with an account and critique of milbloggers' vernacular responses. Notably, in our discussions of sexuality and nation, we address a wide range of subthemes. Commentary on these subthemes is sometimes contradictory or fragmented, and among all three themes there are, to be sure, points of overlap.
When "God Hates Fags" and "Fags Doom Nations," and when the United States suffers from its status as a "Fag Nation" (according to Phelps' protest slogans), sexuality leers extravagantly as an ideological theme. More specifically, Phelps explicitly thematizes the disorder of homosexuality and its potential threat to God and country. In Phelps' logic, "fag" and "faggot" refer not only to same-sex practices and identities that proliferate within national borders but also to liberal and decadent policies that compromise the nation. Indeed, Phelps' shift from protesting funerals of queers and people with AIDS to protesting funerals of military personnel represents a shift--an expansion--of the meaning of fag and faggot from behavior and identity to policy. Emblematic of the dual meaning of fag is a series of Phelps' protest signs that portray two male stick figures engaged in anal intercourse. Each of the four main branches of the military has its name appended to the same image. Literally, the image and text suggest the practice of anal intercourse between men in the armed services; more figuratively and more importantly, the image and text depict feminized and thus enfeebled armed services that place the nation at risk. 
Bloggers in the milblog webring address the theme of sexuality and Phelps' articulation of homosexuality's heretical national insecurity through strategic silences and amplifications. We examine these silences and amplifications at three levels: the sexuality of dead soldiers; sexuality as a component of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell ..." policy; and homosexuality and gay rights generally. Among blog participants, there is moderate awareness of Fred Phelps' history as an antigay advocate and protester at the funerals of deceased queer people and people with AIDS. Some bloggers provide links to news stories about his antigay protests or to Phelps' notorious website, godhatesfags.com. In a few cases, posters offer first-person accounts of having witnessed an antigay Phelps protest. Bloggers do not readily draw upon this familiarity, however, to make sense of Phelps' vexing presence at military funerals.
Indeed, despite bloggers' awareness of Phelps' history as an antigay advocate and despite Phelps' deployment of "God Hates Fags" and similar slogans at military funerals, the linkage between dead soldier and fag--the implication that Phelps posits a queer sexual identity upon the dead soldiers he protests--simply does not stick. That is, overwhelmingly blog posters do not perceive the presence of antigay protesters at the funeral of a dead soldier as queering the soldier in any serious way. Shbinga (The Stupid Shall Be Punished) expresses one of the few considerations of the linkage when, writing about National Guard Corporal Carrie French, he or she remarks in an aside "if she was gay as phelps & co seemed to believe."  Other instances in which Corporal French's husband appears in a parenthetical reference and Army Staff Sergeant Christopher Piper is described as "not gay" (brgonzo, Blackfive) indicate recuperation of a slandered, queered sexual identity for the deceased soldiers, but overall we discern feeble defense of the soldiers' heterosexuality and little mobilization of heterosexual …