The Theology of Westboro: The “World’s Meanest Church” Is More Than Picket Signs

The most common misconception regarding Westboro Baptist Church is that members are driven by prejudice and not theology. In this RD 10Q, Rebecca Barrett-Fox busts that myth.

What inspired you to write God Hates?

I was fascinated by the energy that Westboro Baptist church members put into their anti-gay work. Why sacrifice so much—money, reputation, friendships, romantic relationships—to this cause? That was enough to get my research started, but then the church began to picket at military funerals. The public response to anti-military pickets was swift and left me wondering how Westboro fit into the larger conservative Christian landscape. It also raised questions about how other religious conservatives were using Westboro Baptist Church as a foil to advance their own anti-LGBT agendas and their own notions about God’s relationship to America.

When the church started picketing military funerals, I had to decide if I could continue. A sister-in-law and a brother-in-law were both serving abroad, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. They both lived in the area, and I had to figure out what it would mean if they were killed in action, and I had to attend a funeral picketed by my research subjects.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen. But something else did that thrust WBC into my personal life. They threatened to picket a mass shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, an event that, in various ways, injured many people I love. I took several months off from the project, wondering if I could still do it. In the end, I hope that my experience helped me understand the perspective of WBC victims with more empathy.

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God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism and the Religious Right
Rebecca Barrett-Fox
University Press of Kansas
June 2016

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Many of us would like to look at Westboro Baptist Church and say that they are an anomaly, not “real” Christians. But anti-gay religious bigotry is rooted in American Christianity broadly. And we can recognize that history while still rooting homophobia out of churches, if that is what we want to do.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

A lot about the history of Calvinist theology, particularly hyper-Calvinism, and the development of the Primitive Baptist strain of faith ended up going into a folder for future writing. I love denominational genealogy, but many readers don’t have the patience for it. And you could write an encyclopedia set about the historical divisions of various Baptist groups! But nothing I cut out is nearly as good as Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South: 1815 to the Present by John G. Mathis or Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine by Peter J. Thuessen, who present these ideas in a way far more engaging that I would have been able to do.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Characters clearly based on Westboro Baptists show up a lot in our pop culture—in films ranging from I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry to The Kingsman: The Secret Service (where they are victims of hyperviolence), in plenty of political cartoons, and in some pretty smart parodies. Very often, these images depict church members as uneducated, fat, slovenly, rural “backwoods” types with Southern accents. Yet, most members of the church have at least a college degree, and many have advanced degrees. Many people in the church are athletes, especially runners, who compete on the local level, and Topeka, Kansas, where the church is located, is a city of over 125,000 people—not a big city but also not a rural backwater. Also only one church member—founding pastor Fred Phelps, who died over a year ago—was from the South.

Our decision to depict anti-LGBT bigots using these stereotypes reveals some larger cultural prejudices. We’re very comfortable assuming that people like this are bigots and bullies, and it’s harder for us to imagine that well-educated people could still hold these views. But of course they can—and they do.

Probably the biggest misconception people have is that Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t have a theology and that its anti-gay picketing is inspired by personal prejudice. The church is actually very careful about rejecting potential members whose motivation is a personal dislike for LGBT people. For them, the motivation has to be theological, and they are careful to note that God’s hate, which is related to God’s justice, is not like human hate, which can be selfish. I have seen, in every day interactions, WBC members treat LGBT people with genuine concern and reject people who advocate for violence against LGBT people.

They don’t want people whose opposition to queer sexuality is too personal because those folks are harder to discipline—and by that, I mean harder to get and keep on message. They have a greater risk for acting out violently, which WBC members are trained not to do and which would bring them a lot of legal problems. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they don’t employ a politics of disgust when it is rhetorically useful or that their anti-LGBT teachings don’t contribute to violence against queer people. I just mean that they screen people carefully to insure that they aren’t bringing in a future mass shooter.

Another misconception is that the church provokes people into violence or into violating their rights, then sues them for large amounts of money that is then used to fund picketing. This isn’t true. It is the case that Fred Phelps was a lawyer, and all of his adult children who remain in the church (nine of 13) are lawyers. But the church rarely sues anyone, even when church members are victims of assault, which is not infrequent. They did sue the city of Bellevue, Nebraska, for arresting a church member when she was exercising her right to desecrate the U.S. flag as part of a protest, an act that is protected by law. Before she was arrested, she let the officer know that he was violating Johnson v. Texas, which protected her right to stand on the flag. He arrested her anyway, to the irritation of the judge who later had to award her the costs related to the arrest. In that case, the church member won some money, but she deserved it. And she didn’t taunt the officer into arresting her, and even laid out very clearly and calmly what would happen if he violated the law prior to her arrest.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Writing about currently living people is difficult because what you say could potentially shape how they understand their own experiences or change what happens next in their story. To that end, I was careful about how I wrote about children in the church since I don’t want to make it harder for them to leave in the future.

I also wanted the people of Topeka and Kansas to read the book and see their own experiences treated with respect, even when I sometimes was critical of their response to WBC. I wanted to be sure that the dead I wrote about—people like fallen Marine Matthew Snyder, whose funeral was at the center of the Supreme Court case Snyder v. Phelps—were treated with dignity and that their loved ones wouldn’t be hurt again by the details I shared or by my analysis. I also want the book to be helpful to people who are working to counter hate.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

The information in the book helps people see WBC members in a more complex, nuanced way, not because anyone owes that to Westboro Baptists, but because we are better at reducing hate and its resulting violence if we understand those who propagate it.

The people who are most likely to be angered by the books are those in the religious right. Anti-gay Christians who aren’t Westboro Baptists are probably not going to like the comparisons I make between them and Westboro Baptists. They spend a lot of time distinguishing themselves from Westboro by saying that they don’t think God hates people—he just sends them to hell because they are disobedient and refuse to stop being queer. But if you’re LGBT or love someone who is, you don’t care if someone is preaching to you that God sends queer people to hell because he loves them and hates their sin or because he hates them. The ideas about sexuality that circulate in the religious right are as poisonous as the ones taught at Westboro Baptist Church—maybe more so because they are heard so much more widely and creep into secular life, from school dress codes to abstinence-only education. So those people are likely to be irritated.

What alternative title would you give the book?

Redemption in Topeka: How the World’s Meanest Church Decided to Stop Anti-Gay Picketing and Spend Their Talent and Energy Ending Racism in the Heart of America. Previous to his anti-gay work, Fred Phelps was a civil rights activist who led considerable efforts to insure that Topeka’s African American community would benefit from Brown v. the Board of Education, which was just being decided when he took up the call to pastor at Westboro. Had he made different choices, I could have written a very different book.

How do you feel about the cover?

We had to be careful with images. I didn’t want to include any language or images that would contribute to further pain for people who have been picketed. That meant no pictures of WBC signs. The press suggested a play on the church’s own signs, using red, white, and blue, since the book also addresses the ways that the U.S. is crafted as a place of God’s special blessing by the religious right. It was so clearly perfect that I said yes right away.

This is embarrassing to admit, but when I submitted the title—which the press accepted without hesitation—I didn’t see the subtitle as a list of institutions that God hated. I saw the title as God Hates, then the colon, then the subtitle, which was a list of the three major topics I was addressing: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and The Religious Right. Not until designer Karl Janssen came back with the cover did I see the subtitle as a list of things that might be invoking God’s wrath, and I loved it, both because I question American nationalism and the religious right’s claim that God loves the United States. I think the press is trolling WBC a bit.

I have gotten some negative feedback about that lack of a colon, but I think it’s inspired. I have also gotten some negative feedback about the words God Hates (“God doesn’t hate anyone!” is the usual response), which is interesting to me because, according to WBC, they get more negative feedback about that theological claim than they do about their use of anti-gay language. That reveals our need to see God as loving—and our tolerance of homophobic language.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

In the Hands of a Happy God: The “No-Hellers” of Central Appalachia by Howard Dorgan. It looks at Primitive Baptist Universalists, who have resolved the theological paradox of God’s sovereignty and God’s love by saying that God is all-powerful and, in that power, sends no one to hell. It’s a theologically smart, happy, this-life-focused religion. Dorgan’s field work is sensitive, insightful and really joyful.

What’s your next book?

I’m co-editing The Encyclopedia of Hate Studies with my friend and colleague Dr. John Shuford. It’s good to do this kind of work—which can be emotionally very difficult—with a friend so you can watch out for each other. I’m also at the start of a project on family life in hate groups, again focusing on right-wing Christian religion such as Aryan Nations teachings. Unfortunately, right now is a very rich time for scholars of hate, and I fear that, whatever the outcome of the upcoming election, we’re going to be living with the consequences of a right-wing backlash against the first black president (and probably the first woman president) for a long time. I suspect I have a lifetime of work ahead of me.