Westboro Baptist church protest

Westboro Baptist church protest Wikimedia Commons

Rather than picket Fred Phelps’ funeral, which now seems imminent, we should give thanks for his gift to American society. So what’s the gift? It’s that he made religious hostility to homosexuality repulsive.

Go to the Westboro Baptist Church website and you’ll find chapter and verse cited to justify, with a smile, the injunction to put “fags” to death. What Phelps preached was the inverse of the Prosperity Gospel: those that tolerate evil (read: same-sex relations) will be cursed and punished. Ergo the picketing of military funerals, the rejoicing in all domestic tragedies, the celebration of whatever punishment God allegedly metes out to Americans. No one, not even Sean Hannity and the KKK could stomach this stuff.

The only time I ever ran into a bunch of Westboro picketers was in January 2009 at the first Obama inaugural. They were on Pennsylvania Avenue, holding up their signs and talking to passersby. They were plenty offensive and if, like the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center, you want to call them a hate group, I’ve got no objection. But by their extreme advocacy, I say they’ve increased the sum total of tolerance in America. And that’s something to be thankful for.

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

22 Comments

  1. Mark: I exchanged emails with Phelps a half dozen times in the late 90’s when WBC was a relatively new phenomenon on the national scene. I was amazed at how he had hardened a form of Calvinism into such a rigorously hateful ideology. And that spurred my theological growth away from Evangelicalism, and for that I am thankful.

    I’ve often pondered how Phelps could go from white southern civil rights lawyer to hate-monger. And I want to throw out a wild wild conspiracy theory:

    Maybe it was all an act that he kept hidden even from his closest followers and family. Maybe he realized that the invention of “Fred Phelps” the hate-monger would push the country in the direction of greater civil rights. Maybe he decided to be the LGBT “Judas” to bring about a civil rights “resurrection”.

    That’s probably a crap theory that is wholly denied by every piece of evidence we have. But I’ve become liberal enough to hope that there is something that can be redeemed in even the most extreme bigots. May God have mercy on his soul, the souls of his followers, the souls of everyone he has hurt along the way, and on all of us who look down on Phelps too.

    • We have two similar theories in play here.

      One is Poe’s Law, which states that an extreme position is indistinguishable from satire without clear indications.

      The other is the premise of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night”, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Night
      [I would describe the novel/film’s plot but it would look like Godwin’ing]

      Could Phelps had been a real life religious version of “Howard W. Campbell Jr.”? We only have a limited time left to find out.

  2. I guess, I wish this was more true than I think it is. For a lot of us, homophobia has been repulsive for a long time/always. Fred Phelps made it easier for us to smear all homoantagonism by dramatizing — in an especially theatrical and hyper way — the synthesis of rabid bigotry and theodicy. I’m sure there are some more moderate bigots who may have become more tolerant, but I imagine his positions are just as easily dismissed by anti-gay groups as they are by gay-positive folks. Perhaps he did move the conversation in a way, by making homophobia less permissible by becoming its face in some media worlds — but I worry that actually makes it easier to ignore more “gentile” homophobia, which some might argue is “reasonable” by comparison. I also hope I’m wrong.

  3. samuel Johnston

    Religion gives cover to hate. “The devil is a great theologian”.
    Love and compassion require no creed or holy book. We know nothing of the beliefs of the Good Samaritan. It is by careful design that this obvious fact is not recognized by most Christians.

  4. Re: “But by their extreme advocacy, I say they’ve increased the sum total of tolerance in America.”

    I wouldn’t be too sure of that, when you’ve got legislatures in Kansas, Arizona, and Mississippi working to enact legislation that would legalize discrimination against gays. They’re working on it in other states too.

    It’s not enough for Christians just to pat themselves on their backs and congratulate themselves for not being the hateful lunatic that Fred Phelps is. They have to work to correct the Fred Phelps of the world.

    And in the case of Phelps, that never happened. He wasn’t halted because the “reasonable” Christians out there halted him; he was halted because he got old and fell sick.

    • Exactly. The Westboro Churches protests everything, but it actually praised Arizona’s recent “free-to-discriminate-against-anyone-based-on-religious-liberty” bill.

      That’s gotta tell you something.

  5. “he made religious hostility to homosexuality repulsive”

    He did no such thing. Phelps was unaffiliated with any religious body larger than his own extended family. No religious institution or denomination sanctioned his antics.

    Phelps was such a perfect foil for those advocating acceptance of homosexuality that if he had not existed they would have had to create him. And maybe they did — comments like Mr. Silk’s certainly intensify that suspicion.

  6. “religious hostility to homosexuality repulsive.”

    Actually Mark, sexual deviancy is repulsive to religious freedom for the Bibel tells me so – See I Timothy 1:10 – http://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/1%20Timothy%201:10.

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