Fear and Loathing in Fundamentalist America

Who hates whom?  Do “fundamentalists” hate the rest of us?

A new article about the hate-centric Westboro Baptist Church confirms what many of my secular, liberal friends and colleagues believe: fundamentalists hate.  Hate seems to be at the core of their fundamentalist identity.

But hate is a tricky thing.  Is it okay to hate the Westboro Church and its horrific tactics?  How about other fundamentalist groups?

Image Source: Top Ten Unbelievable Westboro Baptist Church Protests

Image Source: Top Ten Unbelievable Westboro Baptist Church Protests

The hatefulness of the Westboro sect is hard to deny.  Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jenny Deam offers a portrait of Westboro refugee Libby Phelps-Alvarez.  Phelps-Alvarez, granddaughter of Westboro founder Fred Phelps, shares a story of cultish indoctrination into the Phelps family business.  You’ve seen the images: soldiers’ funerals picketed by Westboro members holding up signs saying, “God Hates Fags” and the like.

As Deams’ story relates, Libby grew up with the family church.  She began picketing at age 12.  By her late teens, though, according to Deams, “Libby began to wonder: ‘Am I doing the right thing? Should I be telling people they are going to hell?’”

Eventually, Libby left her church and family.  But she seems strangely ambivalent about it. As Deams concludes, “Libby isn’t sure what she believes anymore. She no longer hates homosexuality, but her journey is far from complete: ‘Everyone thinks when you leave you do this 180. It doesn’t work that way.’”

Many other ex-fundamentalists take a much angrier tone.  For some, hating the haters has freed them to engage in their own brand of hatefulness.

Ken Ham has complained recently of vicious verbal attacks on him and his young-earth creationist ministry by groups of atheists.  Ham planned to speak at a Texas homeschooling conference, and Texas freethinkers posted their discussion about their planned response.

Most of their planning revolved around intelligent protests and information-sharing.  Vic Wang of the Houston Humanists made the intelligent point that their protests should not be against religion.  Rather, Wang argued, they should paint Ham as a specific sort of “extremist,” a “crackpot.”

Other speakers took an angrier tone.  “Sister Shayrah” equated creationism and conservative religion with child abuse.    She insisted that religious parents were free to teach their children their beliefs, but that no parent, in any sort of school, could be allowed to use religion as an “excuse for damaging or hurting or indoctrinating your child.”

Shayrah and other participants, such as Neely Fluke, noted that they had been brought up in the world of young-earth creationism and fundamentalist Protestantism.  That has left them angry.

I can’t claim to know what it is like to grow up in the world of fundamentalism.  Many of those who grew up that way, such as Jonny Scaramanga or “Forged Imagination,” have offered compelling insights into their feelings and transformations.

But whatever personal anguish or turmoil these folks may have experienced, it does not make sense in the cold light of cultural politics to use angry, confrontational language.  It doesn’t help.

Indeed, the beneficiary of this sort of anger seems to be Ken Ham himself. He has promoted this anti-Ham video on his blog and website.  As he says to his creationist readers,

Everyone needs to experience this video chat for themselves to get an understanding of the increasing intolerance and aggressiveness of many atheists against biblical Christianity. . . .

And let’s get churches in Texas aware of this intolerance by atheists and publically get out the word, including alerting the Christian media. Pastors should speak out about the increasing intolerance of atheists to their congregations. In fact, these video excerpts should be used by pastors across this nation to warn their flocks about the growing intolerance being directed at Christians and then equip their people to stand against these secular attacks. . . .

So, let’s use this video chat by atheists as a tool to offer some practical teaching about those people who oppose the Bible’s messages.

I can’t claim to know what it was like to be taught the doctrines of young-earth creationism or Protestant fundamentalism.  I understand that I might be angry if I had.  But like any political movement, venting too much spleen against our opponents only fuels the other side.  Hate may feel good sometimes.  It may feel righteous.  But it only digs deeper the culture-war trenches that have divided our country.


Leave a comment


  1. Well said. The tactics employed by some anti-religion or anti-Creationism campaigners are highly counterproductive. Richard Dawkins in particular seems to enjoy unloading both barrels into his feet (presumably to make it easier to put said feet into his mouth later on). He is not the only one.

    Of course, Ham is trying to pain atheism as monolithic, which it isn’t (logically, one would expect it to be even more diverse than Christianity, given that there is only one unifying idea that all atheists support). Still, often the ones using the most counterproductive tactics are also the ones trying to make atheism into a movement, which gives Ham some ammo (Hammo?).

    • Thanks, Jonny. In your work, you manage not to come off as particularly “angry.” I’d say your tone is more measured and calm than some of the ex-fundies out there. Is that a strategy for you, or just your personality?

      • It’s funny, fundamentalists tell me I’m just bitter and angry, and everyone else tells me I don’t seem angry. I suppose calling someone ‘bitter’ is just a stock fundamentalist way to dismiss someone’s point of view.

        I don’t feel angry about anything that happened to me personally. I suppose it’s both a strategy and a personality thing. I don’t get fired up often, but if I thought it would make a difference I suppose I would get angry.

  2. Cool post! These people legitimately believe they are helping us though. They don’t seem to be inspired by malevolence and hatred. True they preach that God hates certain people. But they think they are helping those people by passing on the message. This stuff is crazy but I find it hard to believe that anyone is truly malevolent.

  3. I have to admit that when I first left Christian fundamentalism and started encountering secularism/humanism/agnosticism/atheism for the first time, I recoiled slightly, because what I heard in the rhetoric of an impassioned minority sounded frighteningly similar to what I’d heard in church. I dug through it and realized that the vocal few did not represent the majority, but it took me some time. It was frustrating at first to see that some of the attitudes I wanted to escape were present in other environments.

  4. It is very possible that Ken Ham is misrepresenting The Nones as hateful. You might not want to take his word on it, and quote something hateful any of us said yourself.

    • @ Lilandra Nelson, I am no apologist for Mr. Ham. I do not share his religious beliefs nor do I want to promote his educational ideas. I agree that Mr. Ham is often intentionally provocative and given to hyperbole. In one of his blog posts about this Texas video, he makes it look as if he is quoting from the video, when in reality he is only paraphrasing. That is sneaky. But it seems to me the stock in trade of any polemicist. Mr. Ham, after all, told readers himself that this was a paraphrase.
      In this case, because I am aware of Mr. Ham’s history as a no-holds-barred culture warrior, I did not “take his word on it.” I viewed the video myself. In my original blog post, I noted that Vic Wang’s tone was measured and civil overall. Though Mr. Wang did talk about how “excellent” it would be to “confront Ken Ham directly in person,” I did not use those phrases to suggest that Mr. Wang’s attitude was excessively hostile or violent.
      Other speakers on the video struck me as significantly more provocative in tone. For the record, I said that “Sister Shayrah” used “angry, confrontational language.” I stand by that characterization. Sister Shayrah compared teachings like those of Mr. Ham to child abuse. In 2013 America, that is needlessly inflammatory language.
      All of us are painfully aware that minority religious groups have been targeted for physical attack due to charges of child abuse. Most egregiously, we have the example of the raid on the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints a few years back. Accusing a group of child abuse, in my opinion, crosses the line of civil discussion.


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