Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Where have I been? On discovering the existence of The Westboro Baptist Church

Perhaps I have been hiding under a rock—maybe a good strategy, considering—but until today I was blissfully ignorant of the existence of The Westboro Baptist Church and its history of picketing rock concerts and a wide variety of funerals. Upcoming events include the funerals of the Arizona shooting victims and of Elizabeth Edwards. They are also infamous for picketing at the funerals of soldiers whose deaths they consider evidence of god’s wrath. Although the name of their website is http://www.godhatesfags.com/  it seems their god hates just about unconditionally, and hell is either overcapacity or infinitely expandable. Dante’s nine circles could never suffice for all the people the WBC believe the almighty has consigned to eternal damnation.

I tried to go to their website, just as I recently tried to visit Sarah Palin’s, to read for myself contents reported by the media. In both cases, my computer could not connect, although connection to other sites was no problem. I wondered at first (in paranoid Luddite fashion) if somehow those websites can screen people like me who want to spy on their activities or at any rate decry them. Then it occurred to me that maybe those sites are so trafficked that there is an impassible jam. Either explanation disturbs me.

My husband, who is a news junkie, just walked in and told me he had never heard of The Westboro Baptist Church, either. Unaffiliated with any recognized Baptist conference or association, the WBC was founded by Fred Phelps in 1955. According to the Wikipedia entry, its modest membership (71 in 2007) consists mostly of Phelps’ family. Since 1991 the church has been actively involved in the anti-gay rights movement. Now clearly they have become experts at exploiting the media and attaching themselves to anyone with celebrity, including Lady Gaga whom they likened to “The Beast Obama.”

Lady Gaga counseled her fans not to engage with the picketers. In Arizona people will assemble not as counter-protesters exactly but as human shields for the mourners. Meanwhile Arizona lawmakers are drafting emergency legislation to prohibit protests at or near funeral sites.

How to respond to unabashed hate speech is a more and more pressing question in a culture that is driven by headlines, sound bites, and spin. Sometimes I feel as though all of us, reluctantly or not, are slowing down and rubber-necking the wreck of our civilization, ashamed of our horrified fascination, moved by compassion or outrage, unsure of how to act. Do we stop and offer volunteer emergency services, do we move on and let the professionals handle it? I am caught in the crux of this dilemma even as I read and write about The Westboro Baptist Church. Would the Phelps be harmless if they had remained obscure?

It is the mission of those who hate, righteously they believe, to spread their hatred or at least make their voices heard. So must the lovers of the world. Their mission may be more challenging. They have to love the haters, too, or at least not hate them. After her picketed concert, Lady Gaga posted on twitter: "Tonight love and hate met in St. Louis. And love outnumbered the hate, in poetic thousands. Hate left. But love stayed. + Together, we sang." Lady Gaga (whom I confess I heard of only a few months before I discovered the existence of The Westboro Baptist Church) surely knows something about grabbing headlines herself. We non-celebrities may not have the same knack, but we can sing, just the same. We can sing.

It seems appropriate to close with this line from a hymn written by Robert Wadsworth Lowry, an American Baptist Minister: “Since love abounds in heaven and on earth, how can I keep from singing?”


  1. Maeve speaking: I agree with Eliz about singing. We had to sing our arguments at Temple Magdalen, which inevitably pointed up to us our own absurdity. I did sing in the face of battle, too, and we halted the attack at least momentarily.

    Speaking of Red-Robed Priestess, the novel is about to go into production for a publication date of November, 2011. That seems a long time to wait for some of you. I've been waiting a lot longer than that for my story to be heard. Thanks for listening!

  2. Wonderful post, combrogo.

    I heard about Westboro a few months back, but it became increasingly real to me when I saw that they bothered themselves enough to threaten picketing the funeral of the recently departed musical goddess, Teena Marie (Our Lady of Venice Harlem). On their twitter account, they labelled her a "crack whore, unrepentant of her sins who is burning in hell", and also went after the many celebrities who mourned her death (a lady who, in actuality, was a 54 year old mother, who sang a message of love in the face of hate, and who quite effortlessly, brought people of varying racial, cultural, spiritual and sexual variations, together).

    I feel seemingly clueless when I read of churches like this. They are supposedly based on the teachings of Jesus, but they decry everything that he ever represented, stood for, died & resurrected for. I don't know if they are simply mentally incapabale of understanding the story...or if their own river of self-hatred runs so deep, they cannot even accept redemption for themselves, let alone those that they view as far worse than them.

    I find it challenging to respond to these hateful messengers with the same kind of ire that they preach with...it is only my logic that keeps me from doing so...Hate cannot respond to hate...I know that in my heart, but dear goddess, that is hard to live.

    Beautiful message Elizabeth. Thank you for spreading the gospel as St. Laura Nyro commanded us ("Love is surely gospel": If she said it, that's enough for me).

  3. They also picket all productions of "The Laramie Project," a play about the murder of Matthew Shepard. When they picketed my niece's production, a couple hundred people came to counterprotest in t-shirts that said "Canton is no place for hate."

  4. Love is stronger than hate: at least that's the aphorism. It's a lot more hard work.

    Unfortunately, as the Westboro case demonstrates, hate soundbites are easier to air--they're catchier.

    I was able to go to the GodHatesFags site. It cites a "sister" site that states that America is doomed, and another that God hates the world, apparently a catalog of all the countries God hates (all of them, I think, according to these people).

    It also has a page on God's hatred in the Bible, but clearly, referencing Tim, this is not the New Testament God. All the references are from places like Leviticus, Psalms, Romans and various prophets.

    If you want to find hatred in the Bible, you surely can find it, but why people want to find it is the big question.

    Thoughtful and thought provoking, Elizabeth.

  5. I think singing is really the only answer--but don't you just wish sometimes that God had a trap door under these people, and they'd all just fall deep into the earth never to be heard of again?

  6. Thanks, Elizabeth, for writing this. And congratulations for being blissfully ignorant of this group for so long. I wish I had been able to ignore them!

    One comment: anybody can call themselves a church, I suppose, but just saying you are, doesn't make it so.

    And another comment: I very much like the approach that some people have taken, which is to recruit counter-protesters dressed up in big angel wings to block their signs.

    Finally: If the press would stop paying attention to them, I bet they would fade away. All they really seem to want is publicity.

    Peace be with you and yours!

  7. More people hearing about the WBC is both a blessing and a curse-- they benefit a lot from publicity and gain followers this way, but I have to believe that there are way more people in the world that see they're lunatics and will protect us from them.
    I'm from KCMO, so unfortunately I encounter a lot and encounter people who agree with their sentiment too often. I have NOT seen the winged protesters, though, and love this idea! Surely you can't FIGHT hate with love, but maybe you can at least cancel it out.