I admit it. I consider Fred Phelps and his followers in the Westboro Baptist Church nothing more than a bunch of spittle-spewing clowns. Their brand of hatred is so crazy that I’ve given it little thought beyond the obvious First Amendment debate that such behavior raises. As a matter of fact, my biggest beef with them is that they provide cover to other forms of homophobic faiths. “Sure, we’re against gay marriage, but at least we’re not holding up signs that say, ‘God Hates Fags.’”
Tomorrow, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments as to whether Westboro’s 2006 picketing outside the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq constitutes protected speech. So perhaps now is a good time to examine the motivations of hate from the Phelps family. Fortunately, in a series of articles, Amarnath Amarasingam, a doctoral candidate in the Laurier-Waterloo PhD in Religious Studies, has dug into Westboro Baptist’s philosophy and offers some insight into where such a twisted belief structure comes from.
His pieces are from September, but they’re definitely worth catching up on. His Huffington Post article, “The Westboro Baptist Church’s Search for the Jew ‘Elect,’” delves into their reinterpretation of Christian Zionism:
According to Westboro members, all the Jews who remain in America and most of the Jews who live in Israel during the end times will be killed. “Because they broke the covenant, and walk in the ways of their fathers in disobedience, and because they killed their Messiah, they have got a final indignation coming upon them,” Shirley tells me.
Whereas Christian Zionists give blessings and support to the state of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole, Westboro members believe that only the elect mentioned in the book of Revelation will be saved. As the end times near, Westboro members are on a new quest to find the 144,000 Jews who will convert in the last days (Revelation 7:4).
Amarasingam also analyzes the roots of the church’s Calvinist tradition for The Daily Beast in “Inside the Real Koran-Burning Church”:
Understanding the church and its actions requires an understanding of its history and theology. Founded in 1955, Westboro falls in with the Primitive Baptist tradition, and preaches the five points of Calvinism often called the TULIP doctrine (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a University of Kansas PhD candidate who has been conducting extensive dissertation research with the Phelps family since 2004, says Westboro members pay particular attention to unconditional election and limited atonement. “Those two together really mean a lot to them.” The doctrine of unconditional election states that there is nothing human beings can do to obtain salvation. The elect and the non-elect have already been decided by God before the beginning of time. The doctrine of limited atonement states that Jesus Christ did not die for the salvation of all humankind, but only for the elect.
Certainly most Christians don’t espouse such virulent hatred, and most people genuinely seem to abhor Westboro’s message, but as Amarasingam’s posts make clear, Westboro did not emerge from a vacuum, but rather from within a recognizable Protestant tradition that they use to promote their views as the “truth” delivered by the “elect.”