Hating the Haters

Should Fred Phelps’ funeral be a protest site?

Insta-pundits have debated the issue.  With the anti-homosexual founder of the Westboro Baptist Church possibly on death’s door, would it be proper for gay-rights activists to protest at Phelps’ funeral?


Fred Phelps in Action

Phelps attracted the most attention, after all, for his policy of hateful protests at the funerals of US servicemen and –women.  His “God Hates Fags” signs became a byword for extremist fundamentalism.

Should those opposed to Phelps’ awful tactics engage in those tactics?  We think not.

While it might be satisfying to stand with “God Hates Haters” signs, it would only exacerbate the culture of hate.


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.


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.