The Westboro Baptist Church: It's Just About Hate
by David Riley
Almost every queer in America is familiar with the work of Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church and holder of the Internet domain name www.godhatesfags.com. He rose to national prominence by picketing the funerals of gay men who had died as a result of complications arising from AIDS/HIV. Standing near the gravesite with placards reading "God hates fags," "Turn or Burn," and a similar sentiments, Fred Phelps seems the very incarnation of bigotry. It is as if an anti-gay Jim Crow has come to life before our eyes.
I confess that I was made curious by Pastor Phelps' overwhelming chutzpah. Because the Westboro Baptist Church has such a strong Internet presence, I decided to read as much as I could and try to come to an understanding of the source of so much hate.
The Phelps story is not easily discovered. Indeed, the Pastor and his family have a penchant for law degrees and lawsuits, which more than one detractor has discovered somewhat chilling. Indeed, the misadventures of the Westboro Baptist Church and its members have resulted in numerous trials, several criminal convictions, reached the Supreme Court and, eventually, resulted in Fred Phelps, Sr. being disbarred in both state and federal courts.
A great deal of information concerning the Phelps family can be uncovered in the never-published article Addicted to Hate. When the paper that had commissioned the article declined to publish it, the author sued the paper and the article was included in the resulting court documentation. Since then, it has circulated rather widely on the Internet. In it, the reporter interviews Nate Phelps, who left the Westboro Baptist Church and his family. Nate recounts a frightening childhood filled with neglect, abuse, and a sort of random madness. The family Phelps, it would appear, is comparable to a good many other cults (Jim Jones's People's Temple, for example) which use violence, intimidation, and a siege mentality to recruit and hold members. Well, with one exception… other cults have been significantly more successful that the Westboro Baptist Church. Afterall, the members of the church all appear to be related to each other by blood or marriage. This is not a large-scale operation here.
I would like to introduce you to one of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, Benjamin Phelps, grandson of Fred Phelps, Sr. His home page, which has no anti-gay material on it whatsoever, can be found here. It is disarming isn't it? He refers to himself as a "stud" and urges the students he tutors to bring questions and concerns to him. He is the sort of person one might have as a friend. Compare this page with the criminal conviction Ben has for spitting on a man during a picket. It makes it hard to have a one-dimensional view of the guy, no?
Now, pause a moment and realize that the www.godhatesfags.com domain, currently hosted by spam-king cyberpromotions, came about because of Ben's work. His grandfather did not discover the Internet until Ben created a website for the Westboro Baptist Church that quickly took the Internet by storm. The stream of angry letters to both the church and Ben seem to have convinced the publicity hungry older Phelps that the Internet was a medium he could use. It was not much later that the registration of the controversial domain name drew publicity in almost every Internet news forum.
Some people have tried to work out exactly what sort of theology it is that the Westboro Baptist Church teaches. While I doubt the worth of the effort, it would appear to be a rather narrow form of primitive Calvinism. The Phelps' believe that the world is divided into God's elect and those who God will harden and cast away. They point out that the Bible says God hates workers of iniquity. And, from there, it is only one bigoted leap to "God Hates Fags."
However, it does not really seem to be theology that drives Pastor Phelps. Rather, it seems to be a need to hate. There is an anger about almost every word that he says that seems to burn right through him. The Phelps family, I suspect, is isolated, insulated, and simply glad that their patriarch has found a place to focus his rage outside of their number. We are, afterall, talking about a man who has picketed the funeral of President Clinton's mother, called Princess Diana of Whales a "Royal harlot," and picketed Maya Angelou with such force that she postponed an appearance. This is not about a gay social or political agenda; it is about lashing out, hurting people, and getting publicity. Sometimes, this leads to surreal self-parody. For example, on his website, one of the flyers reproduced as a GIF file, states that the Westboro Baptist Church has sent a letter to Col. Quadfaffi of Lybia. The letter advises the Muslim leader of a known terrorist state that his citizens, in the considerable experience of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, will be unable to get a fair trial in the United States and offers to send him the writings of St. Augustine. Read it for yourself.
The question that everyone who has met Fred Phelps, Sr. must eventually ask themselves is "what should I do?" The school district, police, and city of Topeka have all at various points in time tolerated behavior from the Phelps clan that would have landed any other person in jail. The legal might of Phelps Chartered, the family law firm, lies not in its astounding record of court room success (they lose most of what ends up in court), but their willingness to pursue every avenue of the law aggressively and never, never let a victim escape the pile of paperwork. All this while picketing outside the place of work, place of worship, and home of the target. It makes for considerable, effective intimidation.
Fred Phelps, Sr. does seem to be a friend to gays and lesbians after a fashion. He says aloud what the rest of the religious right only whispers to close confidants. The American Family Association, for example, is no less bigoted. But they seem to have a slicker marketing package. By serving as such a visible and scary image of the "anti-homosexualist," Phelps probably makes more enemies than friends for his cause. Certainly, Topeka (with the notable exception of the Westboro Baptist Church) is more sympathetic to gays and lesbians than it once was.
Ben Phelps, for his part, seems proud of his contribution to his grandfather's empire of hate. The website is well designed and seems reasonably well tended. There are, however, some curious elements in the mix. For example, in the FAQ on the website, the question "Are you a repressed homosexual?" appears. The answer includes the line "Are you a repressed hatemonger? :)" I couldn't resist a chuckle. The sense of humor is uncomfortably close to that which I have always identified with "outsiders." People whose separation from the majority of the community is fairly profound, tend to, in my experience at least, have a sharp wit which is as like to cut towards as away from themselves. In short, it is the kind of humor I would expect on a queer site.
I would imagine, however, that Ben is as much an outside to the Topeka community as any gay youth might be. Growing up as a member of the Westboro Baptist Church means living in the church compound. Comparisons between that compound and the Branch Davidians in Waco have led to the nickname "BranchPhelpsians" for members of the cult. Most people in Topeka are scared blind of the Phelps family. Ben's teachers, fellow students, and even co-workers are likely to give him a chilly reception. Many of them would know people who have at sometime or another been sued by Phelps Chartered. And, of course, as one of the few people with access to the real-Christianity (which incorporates God's hate to the point where outsiders have difficulty seeing any love), Ben is not encouraged to associate with outsiders. Indeed, in the court documents springing from Addicted to Hate, Nate Phelps claims that he was never allowed to talk to the neighborhood children (much less play with them), visit a friend's house, or have anyone over to his house. Ben was born to Fred Phelps, Jr. who was a product of this environment. He has known nothing else.
On a mailing list Ben visited briefly, a critic asked if as a Christian Ben was not obligated to love other people as he loved himself. Ben replied, "I do love other people as I love myself. That's why I preach." I can easily see a heavy and sad irony in those words. I fully believe that they are as true a summary of the life and mission of the Westboro Baptist Church as any words ever written. However, I do not think that Ben Phelps, as much a victim of his grandfather's egomaniacal hatred as anyone, realizes what a profound truth he surrendered when he penned those words.
This article made possible, in part, by the public service provided by The Fred Phelps Resource Page . The more you know, the less you have to fear.
Don't miss David's thoughts on The Episcopal Church and Us, a report from the convention.
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