by Barton Gingerich (@bjgingerich)
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.
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.