July 15, 2013

The Westboro Baptist Muzzle

By now, just about everyone’s heard of Westboro Baptist Church. They’ve gained national infamy for picketing military funerals, saying that soldiers’ deaths are the result of God’s judgment for the nation’s sins, especially for not punishing homosexuality. They are the living, breathing homophobe caricature. One can find photos of them at state capitols and SCOTUS, infamous “God Hates F**s” signs in hand.

But how much do we know about them? Yes, they make it above the fold on the front page, but what else? It seems our disgust at such revolting behavior keeps most of us from researching Westboro any further. However, I think it is incredibly important to know who and what Westboro actually represents since they have left thousands of Christians cowed in shame for believing in traditional marriage. Years ago, I qualified that I was not like “one of those Christians at Westboro”–I doubt I am the only one who has had to explain himself, especially to someone who is progressive and unfamiliar with the Christian world.

First of all, the Westboro Baptist Church congregation is incredibly small. There are about 70 members of the church, most of whom are part of the Phelps family, according to estranged member Libby Phelps Alvarez. One self-professed Westboro-er told a newspaper reporter that the congregation only had 40 active members. Need I remind anyone that you can convince forty people to do just about anything? In this case, it happens to be rancid hate and error.

The WBC also sounds short-lived: in a recent article, former member Lauren Drain revealed, “In the past 10 years, some 19 members have been able to escape the clutches of the WBC.” In that same piece, the Kansas City Star reported, “20 members had left the church since 2004, three-fourths of them in their teens or 20s. Since then, at least two others have left, including Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of church pastor Fred Phelps.

The character of Westboro is unfitting for a church. Drain wants to help people “escape the clutches.” Alvarez recounts sickening emotional manipulation and spiritual formation. This is the stuff of cults, not churches. Any theology from the congregants–if it could be called such–is rambling, inconsistent, deranged, and divorced from the Church’s historic understanding of biblical texts (or pretty much anyone besides head pastor Fred Phelps).

Westboro also boasts a minuscule protest presence. I speak from personal experience. I first saw them at United Methodist General Conference 2012 in Tampa and then later at the 2013 Marriage March in DC. At General Conference, there could not have been more than five protestors on the corner opposite the civic center. During the March, there may have been 10 nestled near the right side of the SCOTUS building entrance-way. Even though some carried four signs each, they were dwarfed by the LGBT protesters, who were in turn dwarfed by the surge of the marriage defenders marching through them. But it is Westboro that gets their picture taken by the photojournalists. They fit the preconceived narrative of liberal journalists and—what is more—they are a shocking spectacle, cast perfectly for cultural consumption.

The actual marriage defenders (Photo Credit: Flickr)

The actual marriage defenders (Photo Credit: Flickr)

Westboro is small, does not hold an influential theology, and is probably short-lived. For some reason, they still show up around the country to picket funerals, state petitions, court decisions, and even Taylor Swift. How do they afford all this travel? So far, this remains a missing puzzle piece. Fred Phelps, Sr. got his start as a civil rights activist and lawyer, often suing a variety of government organizations for different prejudices.  Now disbarred, he mostly sticks to his “pastoring” and protest duties, while evidently several of his descendants are also lawyers. At General Conference, LGBT activists in the “Love Your Neighbor” tent were warned, “Do not engage. Most of these people are trained lawyers and make their money off suing people. Do not touch them; they will find a way to take legal action.”

A more sensational conspiracy theory suggests that Phelps & Co. are backed by big time liberal donors. Even if Phelps truly believes his message, others don’t have to in order to write him a check. What better strategy is there than to represent your opposition with an organization that even the KKK finds hateful? As of yet, no evidence has materialized to substantiate these now-gratuitous claims.

This donation fantasy points to a broader issue: Christian shame for defending marriage. We muzzle our public voice in embarrassment. “We’ve cared a lot about abortion and the gays, but not a lot of other things, including gay people themselves. Just look at Westboro,” says the emergent guru. Besides resembling Kierkegaard with a lobotomy, this same hip, post-whatever pastor fails to notice that churches get the most flak for abortion and marriage because those are contested issues; thankfully, ministry to the poor and orphaned is not yet a problem for the powers-that-be. Westboro doesn’t represent the Church; it represents an egomaniac with a penchant for travel and protest signage.

Christians need to stand firm on these moral issues, in season and out of season. Sure, local congregations and other parachuch institutions have treated LGBT folks poorly in individual cases, but an obscure, mind-addled congregation from Kansas is never a reason to be ashamed of or silent on upholding marriage in the public square

Let it be known: Westboro Baptist Church is a little fraud that casts a long shadow. So speak bravely, Christian.

11 Responses to The Westboro Baptist Muzzle

  1. eMatters says:

    Good analysis. I also like to remind people that Phelps is a Democrat. They typically deny it, then go look it up, then come back and act like it doesn’t matter (as if they would ignore his party affiliation if it were an “R”).

  2. I’m reminded of a wonderful line from the 1920’s play by Ben Hecht, entitled “The Front Page.” (It’s been made into a movie two or three times.) In that play, the crusty old editor turns to a cub reporter and growls, “Do you know what (sex offenders) do?” (a long, silent pause follows, ending with). “The sell newspapers! That’s what they do!”

    Westboro Baptist Church is so over the top—even for thoughtful Evangelicals—that they cause a sensation. That’s why they get the press coverage. There are so many weirdos out there these days that one has to be spectacularly and egregiously weird to get press attention. Westboro, small and inconsequential as the facts would warrant, has perfected weird, along with threats of lawsuits that frighten most law-abiding folks, in a way that gets them attention.

    Plus, they have a website, “www.godhatesfags.com,” where they not only publish their poison, they solicit (and receive) generous contributions that pay for them to travel and spread their weirdness. They attract people who believe that anyone who is homosexual does not deserve to be treated as human, and find it easy to believe that God agrees with them.

    Brother Gingerich is right: conservatives who want to uphold a more traditional view of marriage need not only to say what they believe, but to stand up and condemn the actions of Westboro Baptist Church in no uncertain terms. What troubles me is that I hear Evangelicals actually do say more about condemning anything beyond the traditional view of marriage than I hear them condemning Westboro and its ilk.

  3. mrskbw says:

    True love cannot exist apart from truth! If the clergy in the in the UMC were walking in the truth the church would still be a mighty movement for the Lord Jesus Christ as in the days of John Wesley….

    Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.

    1 Corinthians 13:1-3

    As disciples of Christ our motive had better be – because we love. Truly love!

    The kind of love that does not rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in truth. (13:6)

    But, what does this kind of love really look like?

    I love my children with all my heart and would lay down my life for them in a moments notice. Any good and loving parent would! Only Jesus loves them more than I.

    Should I tolerate behavior that I know is harmful to them physically, emotionally, or spiritually? If I love them I WONT!

    When my daughter was in jr high, she went through a very rebellious season in her life. She actually hated me and truly believed that her dad and I were her worst enemy. Of course the true enemy wanted to keep her blind to truth, resentful, unrepentant and not submissive to God and her parents . (Eph.6:12)

    She was in a wicked spiritual battle that was out to kill, steal, and destroy. She along with us would have suffered great loss, if we had patronized, pacified justified, or overlooked her behavior.

    She was not yet spiritually mature enough to see and understand that we loved her more than all the compromising voices that excused and justified her rebellion.

    I cried many tears and anguished over the stand I knew that I had to take. I loved her far too much to watch her be destroyed by the deceitfulness of the enemy.The cunning forms in which it was disguised made it even harder. I had big gut wrenching choices to make.

    I hit my knees and cried out to the LORD – show me what to do and how to battle. I needed His intervention to help me make the hard decisions and the ability to love her every step of the way. I had to let God teach me how to stand and allow Him to fight an enemy I could not see. God had to teach me how to swing my sword.(Eph.6:17)

    God’s Word is a sword it cuts and divides. God’s Word is light and it exposes the darkness. God’s Word is living water it refreshes and gives life. God’s Word is bread it nourishes and satisfies. God’s Word is oil it sets apart , soothes and heals. God’s Word is a hammer that crushes a stony heart and makes it tender and teachable.

    God’s Word is truth, it sets us free to be His disciple not for our own glory, gain, or pleasure but, that in our freedom we glorify and honor Jesus Christ with our lives!

    God’s Word is Love!
    ………If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

    Does the UMC love folks enough to do and say the hard things? Jesus is our example and He never shrank back from doing and teaching the hard things.

    Do the hard things! Christ has gone before! Amen!


  4. Papa Mincho says:

    Bart’s main argument is that Westboro isn’t representative of mainstream Christianity because it’s not as big. Clearly, it’s not the ‘weird theology’, or he would have left behind his own Bronze Age book of talking snakes; clearly, it’s not the ‘liberal donors’ he so darkly insinuates, because he never names any of them.

    It’s hard to tell the supposed differences between the theology of WBC and mainstream Christianity when the article’s author is too afraid to detail what those differences are.

    • Andrew Orlovsky says:

      I believe Westboro holds to the heretical belief that “once a sinner, always a sinner” a believe that emerged among some backwoods hypercalvinist baptist churches in the 1800s. This is evidence by the “Fags can’t repent” signs that WBC members often carry. Westboro is not just guilty of being jerks.

  5. Not just DEMs, but very involved DEMs. Phelps chartered holds a well paying contract for representing children and family custody. The contract was granted by the democratic controlled Shawnee County Commission.

  6. […] The Westboro Baptist Muzzle | Juicy Ecumenism – The Institute on Religion & Democracy&#821…. […]

  7. Since Christians are supposed to love their enemy and also stand up for their principles, I think that Christians need to find a way to love and support gays without supporting gay marriage. Perhaps Chik-fil-A can pay gays extra. I don’t know. Anyone have any ideas?

    • Glenn E. Chatfield says:

      We love and support “gays” the same way we love and support all non-believers and sinners. We teach them the Gospel, and tell them that homosexual behavior is an abomination to God. If you love them, that is what you will tell them.

      Why should Chik-fil-A pay people more just because they participate in a perverted sexual behavior?

  8. Seth Merion says:

    If it is wrong to paint millions of people based on teh actions of 40, then stop doing that to gays and lesbians. The specialty of the organized Christian Right is to scour the internet for the most outlandish action or statement made by any gay person anywhere in the world, and then attribute it to “those people.” You are unfair and malicious and it is a joke to see Mr. Gingerich complain about being tarred by the same tactic.

    One other thing, Mr. Gingerich: “Sure, local congregations and other parachuch institutions have treated LGBT folks poorly in individual cases, but . . .”

    If you truly, genuinely cared about gay people, then their abuse at the hands of Christians would not cavalierly referenced in a sentence fragment, followed by the word “but.” You clearly don’t care about this abuse, because it doesn’t merit any substantive discussion whatsoever. You have been well-trained at PHC to make vacuous, tactical “concessions” as a means to constructing a political argument. Well done, sir. But your false heart shines through.

  9. Esme Jabanda says:

    Hmmmmm… The reality appears to be that Westboro Baptist Church is taken very seriously throughout the Protestant world as a respectable and important Christian institution. The “Baptist Press” website (“news from a Christian perpective”) includes a lengthy, fawningly respectful interview with Westboro leader Rev. Fred Phelps from 2003 – in which Mr Phelps was given ample space to present his case that homosexual men are a unique class of creatures excluded from redemption who should be systematically put to death by lethal injection. Indeed the Baptist Press took Phelps so seriously that it made a point of establishing whether stoning would be the right way to execute homosexuals: thus he was accorded the opportunity to explain that lethal injection would be his chosen method. On other occasions, “Baptist Press” and other Christian websites and journals have equally respectfully given attention to Phelps’ notion that homosexuals are (unlike other human beings) incapable of repentance and thus beyond any form of redemption. To be sure, his arguments may not have won the day – but many Christians take them seriously, it seems.

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