All in the Family: The Westboro Baptist Church

–Thanks to EH

“God Hates Fags.”  That is the line that has attracted so much attention for Fred Phelps and his cultish Westboro Baptist Church.  This is the tiny family-based church from Topeka, Kansas that pickets the funerals of American servicemen and -women.  They insist that such casualties are God’s just punishment for America’s sinful ways.

ILYBYGTH’s attention was drawn to a fascinating interview with Nate Phelps, one of the pastor’s sons.  Nate grew estranged from the family church and has taken to public criticism.  Nate Phelps tells an horrific tale of cruelty and terror justified by dogmatic if erratic Biblicism.

We here at ILYBYGTH have only joked about Phelps’ brand of extreme fundamentalism.  We know it’s not funny, but we also feel that Phelps is not representative of Fundamentalist America.  Rather, as my new hero “Ivan Fyodorovich” perceptively commented during an online discussion about Nate Phelps’ story,

There’s some weird codependent relationship between Phelps and progressives.  I’m here a couple hours away from Topeka in Kansas City, where my sister and her family are heavily involved in an enormous evangelical community (which played prominent role in that revival Perry appeared at in Houston last year) that is activist in the same culturally conservative causes as as WBC is — opposition to gay marriage, anti-abortion, theocratic civil governance, and all part of End Time preperation — and she had never heard of Fred Phelps when I mentioned him a few years ago.  Because WBC is a non-entity in this larger world that is much more active, much more powerful and influential than WBC ever will be.
And yet those of us opposed to this worldview spend so much time on Phelps and so little time on the millions like my sister’s ministry.  The reason for that is that her ministry absolutely doesn’t want the sort of press that Phelps gets.  They are more influential without the press than they would be with it.  But Phelps wants this kind of press, though, because it’s not about being influential in achieving his worldview, it’s about the fact that he’s an evil fuck with a cult who loves the limelight.
The views that we despise in Phelps are views we rightly despise elsewhere.  And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t oppose him, really.  He’s noxious.  But he’s not really the face of the enemy.  In a way, he’s the face the enemy wants us to have of them.  We’re not helping our cause when we place some much importance and attention on Phelps.

In our opinion, Ivan Fyodorovich hits the nail on the head here.  Phelps’ WBC is part of Fundamentalist America.  Fair enough.  But for many outsiders, especially for many anti-fundamentalists, Phelps’ brand of Bible-based noxiousity ends up standing in for the real complexity of Fundamentalist America.  It does not lead to real understanding if we outsiders simply assume that Phelps’ pathology can be taken as a demonstration of the meaning of conservative Protestantism.  Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not trying to justify or dismiss Phelps’ angry sect.  We need to understand Phelps as one of the frightening possibilities of fundamentalism in America.  But we must not fall into the outsiders’ trap of assuming that Phelps is representative of anything except himself.

A much better place to begin would be with Ivan F.’s moving description of his family relationships that helps demonstrate a clearer picture of life in Fundamentalist America.

Leave a comment


  1. Ed Brandt

     /  June 25, 2012

    I took the time to watch the documentary that Nate Phelps mentioned in his piece ( Truly disturbing stuff. I can’t help but wonder, though, if the media quits talking about Phelps (and the “Koran burning” pastor and Jerry Falwell and….), will they shut up? I honestly don’t know. Phelps only has a couple of dozen family members in his “church,” but his real victory is that we are talking about him today. Say what you will about Westboro–and I often do–but they are the little fundamentalist engine that could. Fortune 500 companies the world over would love some of that sonofabitche’s mojo.

  1. Medievalism and Fundamentalist America « I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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