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by Mark Tooley
You may not recognize his name, but you almost certainly have seen him and his followers on television. Invariably, at some event tied to homosexuality, however obscurely, Fred Phelps is there with his small flock. Their placards and their chants proclaim a single message: “God hates fags.”
Phelps protested at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the young homosexual murdered in Wyoming. He has demonstrated at a recent spate of homosexual “weddings” conducted by United Methodist clergy (against their own church law) in Chicago and Sacramento. He protested at the funerals of Sony Bono, Frank Sinatra, Barry Goldwater, and Bill Clinton’s mother, all of whom Phelps targeted as proponents of homosexuality.
Rarely does Phelps have more than twenty of his adherents with him, but the media attention is always generous. News broadcasters invariably shake their heads, as they contrast Phelps’s venom with the “love” shown by same-sex couples. He is the embodiment of alleged conservative Christian “hate” towards homosexuals.
Usually unmentioned is the fact that Phelps does not represent more than a few dozen friends and relatives who attend his small Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. He claims 200 members for his congregation, but only about 50 or 60 attend. Most seem to be family members. He has 13 children and 42 grandchildren, most living in the Topeka area.
The church seems to be self-funding and does not accept outside contributions. Eleven of the children and some of the grandchildren are lawyers. (Phelps himself is a disbarred attorney.) Their combined incomes and legal firepower make the family congregation a potent little group. The church reportedly spends $250,000 a year flying Phelps and his demonstrators from one publicity stunt to the next.
The Westboro Baptist Church has not successfully attracted new adherents, which is probably just fine with Phelps. His demonstrations across the country over the last seven years appear to be comprised entirely of relatives. The church does not seem to have any denominational tie. It describes itself as primitive Baptist and strict Calvinist.
Calvinism stresses God’s sovereignty in determining who is “elected” to salvation by divine grace. In Phelps’s interpretation, God “hates” the non-elect. This notion would surprise Protestant reformer John Calvin himself, who wrote in his Institutes on the Christian Religion: “We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love. . . . Whatever the character of the man, we must yet love him because we love God.”
Phelps no doubt would have angrily demonstrated outside Calvin’s sixteenth-century church in Geneva. Indeed, he spends a lot of time protesting against modern religious conservatives whom he deems “soft” on homosexuality. Jerry Falwell called Phelps “nuts” when he showed up outside Falwell’s Liberty Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Phelps was upset that Falwell had declared that God loves homosexuals.
Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, is a bastion of Christian fundamentalism, but Phelps (himself an alumnus) and his friends have demonstrated outside its campus because it declines to officially ban all homosexuals from visiting the university’s art museum. Phelps has also demonstrated against Oral Roberts University, another conservative Christian school located in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“You can’t preach the Bible without preaching hatred,” explains Phelps, who denounced Falwell’s affirmation of divine love as “kissy-pooh stuff.”
Last year, the Family Research Council disseminated a news release condemning Phelps’s promotion of hatred. The statement, from perhaps the most prominent conservative Christian group in Washington, drew almost no media attention.
In contrast, Phelps has little trouble getting attention for his news releases. Although he is largely a one-man media machine with help from his immediate family, the media eagerly consume his stream of faxed statements as well as the vitriol on his extensive web site.
Phelps’s organization, in short, is a clan, not a church or national organization. He does not speak for any significant segment of American Christianity. No denomination or major church leader shares his views. His widely publicized protests are comprised mostly of his children, grandchildren, and in-laws.
The media is naturally drawn to persons with outrageous views and a simplistic message regarding an incendiary topic. They provide more dramatic sound bites than more reasonable but nuanced leaders.
Still, the attention lavished on Phelps is ridiculous. At the very least, his extremely limited following should be reported by responsible journalists. In fairness to Baptists and to all Christians, Phelps should not be described as simply a Baptist minister from Kansas. Phelps is a crude caricature of Christianity, not a legitimate spokesman.
Every major Christian tradition, Baptist and otherwise, considers homosexual conduct, along with non-marital heterosexual behavior, as morally wrong. Every major Christian church sees all persons as sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. And every branch of Christianity proclaims God’s universal love.
It’s a message that is a little more complicated than a news release from Pastor Fred Phelps, but it is not so complex that journalists cannot explain the distinction between Phelps and the rest of Christendom.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.