The recent death of Fred Phelps has inspired joy in the hearts of many. In articles about his death he’s been called ‘monster’ and ‘Satan’s servant’, among others. It’s not hard to see why people are glad he’s dead. Described by Louis Theroux as ‘an angry, bigoted man who thrived on conflict’, he spent years fronting the Westboro Baptist Church, brainwashing his family – and others – into spreading hatred against all those who don’t fit the Westboro ideal. Which is basically anyone but themselves. Their infamous pickets, where they brandish signs with slogans such as ‘God hates fags’, ‘Fag troops’ and ‘Thank God for dead soldiers’, have brought them worldwide ‘fame’, for want of a better word. They are seen as evil cunts who think nothing of who they might offend or distress. But ask yourself this: in terms of what they believe, are they any different from a lot of other religious groups out there?
I see a lot of myself in the Phelpses. They are outspoken fuckwits who use foul language to get their point across. So am I. They thrive on conflict and argument. I too enjoy these things, to an extent. They are stubborn fuckers who won’t change their opinions for love nor money. Yep, me again. Of course, I also see major differences between myself and them. I don’t necessarily think I’m right all the time; I just think what I think. If someone disagrees, then fine. The Phelpses believe that they alone speak the truth: that God is punishing America by killing soldiers in war, creating natural disasters and giving people cancer, all because of America’s acceptance of homosexuality. I don’t intentionally go out of my way to offend people (although I accept that this is what I inadvertently do sometimes); the Phelpses love offending people, they love it when people shout abuse at them when they picket.
This week I’ve read a lot of articles about Westboro, and rewatched Louis Theroux’s two documentaries about them, and I’m still buggered as to why they do what they do. OK, they hate gay people and ‘fag enablers’ (I personally prefer the term ‘gay enthusiast’, a club to which I happily subscribe). So do many churches. But other churches seem to want to convert people in order to save their souls (which, admittedly, can be fucking annoying). But the Westboro Baptist Church don’t want to do that. They say they have no interest in winning souls for Christ. Jael Phelps, Fred Phelps’ granddaughter, said in Theroux’s documentary that, by picketing, they’re doing a ‘loving and courteous thing’. But going on their beliefs – that they are the only ones who will be allowed in heaven and everyone else is heading straight for hell – even if someone does heed their word and change their behaviour, if they don’t join the church they won’t be going to heaven anyway. By all accounts, it’s quite difficult to get into the church. They’re not exactly known for welcoming people with open arms. So, someone is going against the word of God, and Westboro tell them so, and, whatever path they then choose, they are condemned to hell. The church have no interest in taking them under their wing, so they’re definitely going to hell. So, the church’s idea of being loving and courteous is telling someone they’re going to hell, regardless?
Of course there’s one explanation for their behaviour. It gets them a fuckload of media attention. They seem to thrive on all the shit that is written about them. They believe it gives them power. Which is essentially what every church wants. Of course it’s false power: they’re a tiny church in a ‘bourgeois, middle-class area’, as Keith Allen put it. So, they exert their power in other ways. Such as excommunicating Fred Phelps last year. Not allowing the younger members to have friends outside of the church. Threatening members with expulsion if they don’t adhere to the doctrine. In recent years there are been many defections, and these ex-members are cast out with no chance of seeing their friends and families again.
The practice of excommunication is something they have in common with other religious communities, for example the Amish. They also share many other things with churches around the globe. A belief that they alone are following the scripture in full, when actually they’re picking and choosing what to believe. A belief that they have a right to judge people on how they live their lives because they are God’s ‘chosen ones’. A belief that pride has no place in worshipping Christ, and yet everything that comes out of their mouths is tainted with pride and arrogance. A belief that if you’re in a relationship with no intention of getting married then you’re only in it for fornication, when in reality it’s those who oppose sex before marriage that are obsessed with shagging. And, of course, hypocrisy: condemning others to hell for things which those in the church are also guilty.
Fred Phelps has left behind a lot of hate. And probably his death will only tighten the bonds of the church, making them more determined than ever. If only they saw what we saw. When they see themselves in the media, they see their message being spread and think this gives them power. Yes, their message is being spread, but it doesn’t make them powerful. It makes them look like the fucking brainwashed, ignorant, intolerant wankfoxes that they are.