Westboro Baptist Church: The Hate-Group of Christianit

by Emma Edmonds

Introduction

One of many picketing signs used by the Westboro Baptist Church.

The year is 1950 and American families, with their new cars, new suburban homes, and white picket fences, are the picture-perfect image of stability. With World War II behind them, Americans were in the midst of an economic boom that made consumer goods available to more people than previous decades had allowed for. On the surface, America appeared to be in great shape. And yet, the 1950s were also a time in which America experienced great conflict such as the Cold War and various civil rights movements.[1] One such civil rights movement that began in the 50’s was for the rights of gay and lesbian individuals.[2] However, the 1950s were one of the most conservative eras of the 20th century which meant that the LGBT community was not warmly welcomed, particularly amongst religious communities.

Flash forward to the early 2000s and the American attitude towards homosexual individuals has become more accepting, not just among the general public but among religious groups as well. Although the question of homosexuality as a sin was (and is) still heavily debated, there was a general belief held by most early 21st century Christians that God’s love and salvation was at least available to those who wanted it. This, however, was not the case for the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas, who essentially coined the phrase “God Hates Fags!” as their official church motto. The WBC’s reputation for hate speech, belligerent picketing, and controversial theology has flooded into the reputation for Christianity as a whole. With Fred W. Phelps as the founder and head pastor, the Westboro Baptist Church began its mission to share their belief that the world was bound for hell and homosexuals were the reason why. With a theology centered around a hateful God who “longs to see sinners burn in hell,”[3] the Westboro Baptist Church has undoubtedly left a hateful mark on the reputation of Christianity.

History of Fred W. Phelps; Founder of WBC

Reverend Fred Waldron Phelps was born on November 13th in 1929 in Meridian, Mississippi to highly respected parents, Catherine and Fred Wade Phelps. At just 5 years old, Fred W. Phelps Jr. experienced the loss of his mother to esophageal cancer and was left with his father and younger sister. Phelps’ Aunt, Irene Jordan, became the prominent caretaker for him and his sister, while his father continued to work for a railroad company. Unfortunately, Phelps and his family suffered another trauma by the death of their Aunt Irene in a motor accident, leaving Phelps with the traumatic experience of loss for two of his main maternal figures in his life. This happened all before he was even 21 years old.[4]

Although born into the era of America’s worst economical crisis, Phelps was able to live comfortably as his father maintained his position as a detective for the railroad.[5] This comfortable lifestyle was also partly due to Phelps’ father’s involvement in the Methodist Church, which granted them respect within the community. Furthermore, it was suspected that Fred Sr. had some sort of affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a relationship that supposedly fueled Phelps’ later desire to pursue an antiracist law career.[6]

Focusing the majority of his efforts on academics, Phelps excelled in his studies and graduated high school at age 16.[7] Unable to attend college at such a young age, he attended the local junior college while waiting for his next birthday that would enable him to attend West Point, a U.S. Military academy that had always been a dream of his to attend. However, Phelps’ plans dramatically changed once he attended a Methodist revival in 1946 which he claimed “was an experience of grace.” “I felt the call,” says Phelps in regard to the revival, “and it was powerful. The glory of God appeared.”[8] From then on, Phelps dedicated his young adult life to pursuing a full-time preaching career. After one year of studying at Bob Jones University in Cleveland, Tennessee, Phelps was ordained at age 17 and officially changed his religious affiliation from Methodist to Baptist.[9] Phelps continued his studies at John Muir College in Pasadena, California where he completed a two-year degree program in 1951 and began to receive his first national recognition as a fiery and mostly disliked street preacher on campus.[10] It is said that his “lunch-hour” sermons were centered around calling attention to the “sins committed on campus by students and teachers,” while they enjoyed lunch. His sermons included rebuking things like promiscuous petting, evil language, profanity, and cheating.[11] Disapproving crowds gathered around Phelps which ultimately called for police involvement, as police sought to remove Phelps from the area to insure his own safety. Foreshadowing Phelps’ future stubborn behavior of continuous picketing despite being unwelcome, Phelps immediately returned to the location in which he was preaching to finish his sermon after being released from the police.[12]

Phelps gained attention for his controversial preaching style and eventually became an associate pastor at a Topeka-based independent church known as East Side Baptist.[13] He was mostly welcomed by the East Side Baptist community and was encouraged to start a church in the Westboro area of town. Thus, with Phelps as head pastor, the Westboro Baptist Church was planted on November 27th, 1955 followed by a formal establishment in May of 1956.[14]

Law Career

Although Phelps married, began a family, and began pastoring at Westboro Baptist all by 1955, his drive for education and his clear ability to excel academically prompted his pursuit to earn a law degree in 1964. However, Phelps had trouble gaining admission to the bar exam as no judge would testify to his character. He believed this was due to their disagreement of the theology he taught at WBC and eventually was able to obtain admission through use of his Eagle Scout and American Legion awards.[15]

Fred Phelps in his later years (age & date unavailable) posing while picketing.

Phelps-Chartered Law firm was eventually established and Phelps began taking on discrimination cases. These cases frequently involved an anti-racist mindset from Phelps but the motives for which Phelps took these sorts of cases remains unclear. On one hand, there are those (particularly his relatives who still belong to WBC) who state that Phelps had a genuine dislike for racial discrimination and sought for an authentic change. On the other hand, many believe Phelps to have had hidden racist beliefs and to have taken the cases because he saw an opportunity for profit.[16] Whichever may be the truth, it’s clear that the public held drastically different opinions regarding Phelps’ character.

After a series of legal troubles in which Phelps was said to have had “more complaints filed against [him,] and more formal hearings into his conduct, than any other Kansas attorney since records have been kept,” Phelps was disbarred in 1979.[17] This, however, did not phase Phelps as he believed that “to be wrongfully disbarred by a corrupt court [was] a badge of honor.”[18] Phelps maintained a political (and religious) agenda despite being unable to practice law. He unsuccessfully ran for public office in Kansas multiple times within the years of 1966 to the late 1990s. With both his law and political career at a standstill, Phelps turned his attention to the only platform he had: the Westboro Baptist Church. From then on, the WBC began its development into becoming the “most provocative anti gay voice on the American religious scene.”[19]

Family Legacy

Daughter of Fred Phelps, and the most recent spokeswoman of WBC, Shirley Lynn Phelps-Roper, poses for a photo at one of the Church’s pickets.

Before diving into the exact theology of Fred Phelps and the rest of the Westboro Baptist Church, it is essential to note the family-based foundation of the congregation. The WBC is currently made up of around 70 members, 90% of which as directly related to Phelps.[20] With the exception of one or two families, this means that Phelps has essentially founded and cultivated his own congregation through means of his own blood line. This must be taken into account when looking at the zeal in which the WBC member’s preach their message. Most of these members have been raised to believe the theology in which Phelps preaches and therefore have not necessarily had their own revelations from God supporting their founder’s messages of an anti-gay, pro-hate, theology.

That being said, Fred Phelps and his wife Margie gave life to 13 of their own children, became grandparents to 54 (and counting) grandchildren, and became great-grandparents to 7 (and counting) great grandchildren.[21] While the majority of Phelps’ offspring still belong to the church, there are a few who have left and have thus been permanently disgraced and banished from returning.[22]

And yet, there is evidence suggesting that Fred Phelps himself was excommunicated only years prior to his death in 2014. The reason for this excommunication remains a mystery, as there has been no official statement from the Westboro Baptist Church regarding the accusation. Steve Drain is the supposed next in line for the role of head pastor although it has typically been Phelps’ daughter Shirley Lynn Phelps-Roper who has taken over as the spokeswoman of the church. However, as the church does not support the preaching of women, the pastorship is said to have been officially handed down to Steve Drain, the father of one of the few outside families omitted into the church.

WBC Theology

While the future leadership of the church is unclear, the theology of the Westboro Baptist Church seemingly remains consistent to what Fred Phelps initially preached. Focusing on a “primitive” or “old school Baptist” approach, Westboro Baptist theology is heavily rooted in the strict Calvinist understanding of predestination. Calvin’s T.U.L.I.P. (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints)[23] becomes the foundation for their preaching, commonly referred to as “hate-speech” by the public. With an emphasis on Calvinism and specific interpretations of the Bible, Westboro Baptist Church has produced a theology illustrating a hateful God who longs to see those whom He has not elected “burn in hell.”[24]

John Calvin and Predestination

In the 17th century, the debate over predestination was at the forefront of theologians minds. The argument was not so much based on if predestination was biblical, for both sides agreed that it was. Instead the debate was over how one knows that they are a member of God’s Elect.[25] On one side, there was the Armenian stance that stated that God’s love, and therefore an invitation into God’s Elect, was available to anyone who believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the other side, the strict Calvinists believed that God chose people to be in His exclusive Elect. This meant that all human beings who were not members of God’s Elect were bound for hell and there was nothing they could do about it. The ladder stance of Calvin is the stance in which the Westboro Baptist Church holds. Their theology is based on this idea of total depravity which declares that all human nature is thoroughly sinful as a result of the fall but that the Elect are the exception. The Westboro Baptist Church members believe that they are this exception; they are God’s Elect people, meaning everyone outside of the church is corrupt.

Emphasis on Homosexuality

When looking at the theology of the WBC, is it essential to understand the reason behind the emphasis placed upon the homosexual community. Many Christians of the 20th century believed homosexuality to be biblically wrong but what separates the WBC from the rest of the Christian community is their believe that gay individuals are at the forefront of the demise of the world. They believe that homosexuals are not only giving in to an especially horrible sin but that any and all who are enabling homosexuality to occur are committing an equally horrible sin as well. The WBC’s take on homosexuality is why they make signs saying “thank God for dead soldiers,” or “thank God for Katrina.” WBC believes that the sin of homosexuality has run ramped and God is executing His wrath on humanity by war and natural disasters that kill thousands at a time.[26] The “fags,” of the world, as WBC puts it, are one of the main reasons in which WBC believes America is doomed.

Hate Speech

While the Calvinist approach to predestination was certainly not popular during the 20th century, and continues to decrease in popularity today, it is the basis for what is perhaps the most well-known characteristic of the Westboro Baptist Church’s theology; hate speech. Because Fred Phelps established his church on the idea that it was him and his family who were chosen as the Elect, this meant that everyone outside of the church was bound for hell. Libby Phelps, the granddaughter of Fred phelps who left the church at age 25, stated that she was raised to believe that she “had been born a member of the only church on Earth whose congregation was going to heaven.”[27] This mentality eventually gave way to what the majority of those outside of WBC refer to as hate speech, referring to the signs and phrases yelled at the daily picketing put on by the church’s members. “God hates fags” is the church’s most well-known phrase and is even the domain of the church’s official website. Other phrases yelled and plastered on signs by the church’s picketers include statements like “Thank God for 9/11,” “Fags doom nations,” and “Thank God for AIDs.”[28] These statements, while viewed by the majority of the public as unfathomable hate speech, are believed to come from a place of love from those who are speaking them.

According to Libby Phelps, “this [hate speech was viewed] as the best way to love [your] neighbor” because “to love thy neighbor is to rebuke him or her.”[29] Even though the Westboro Baptist Church held a theology that declared the unavailability of heaven to those outside of God’s Elect, they still actively rebuked them as they believed it to be their duty to God.

Perhaps one of the most seemingly controversial aspects of their theology, the Westboro Baptist Church has listed a series of frequently asked questions on their website that pertain to questions of how a supposedly loving God could be supportive of such vicious hate speech. “Why do you preach hate?” one question reads, in which the response is:

“Because the Bible preaches hate. For every one verse about God’s mercy, love, compassion, etc., there are two verses about His vengeance, hatred, wrath, etc. The maudlin, kissy-pooh, feel-good, touchy-feely preachers of today’s society are damning this nation and this world to hell.”[30]

The response goes on to reference various verses such as those found in Jeremiah, Titus, Peter, and Isaiah that speak on the rebellious, sinful nature of the nation at the time it was written. Westboro Baptist church likens this sinful nation in the Old Testament to the state of America today, an interpretation that many Christians believe to hold little credibility due to how these verses were taken out of context.

Picketing

A picketing member of the WBC.

When analyzing the picketing of the WBC, it appears that their actions were to simply stir up controversy, a notion that is thought to be the opposite of what a church should be doing. However, the WBC believe that picketing is their way of acting dutifully towards God. Libby Phelps recalls a time when she was picketing at only 19 years old and how she got lost in the adrenaline of yelling phrases like “God hates you!” and “God hates fags!” but believed the backlash she was receiving was only a part of the job of being in God’s Elect.[31] She, and other church members like Lauren Drain who grew up in the church, were told that the rest of the world was utterly sinful and would of course hate the message preached by the WBC because they were under the influence of sin.[32]

Fear & Family: How Members of WBC Justify Their Actions

One of many questions that comes to mind when a WBC outsider experiences the hate speech of its members is just how they could preach such hate without questioning it themselves. How are they able to justify themselves as Christians when the rest of the Christian world knows God to be loving and merciful? One of those reasons can be found in the unique influence of Fred Phelps.

A picketing member of the WBC holding a “God is America’s terrorist” sign, a phrase declared by Fred Phelps after 9/11.

Typically speaking, advanced studies in theology were viewed as a threat to the democracy that Primitive Baptists valued because they believed it suggested that the Holy Spirit was an insufficient guide.[33] Hence, Phelps received some theological training but mainly incorporated a simplicity value to his church’s theology. Because Phelps was energetic and zealous, he captivated those who listened whether they believed what he was saying or not. For those who did believe, Phelps held a prophet-like reputation that only made his words appear to be even more true and god-given. Add in the fact that Fred Phelps was the founder and patriarch of his mostly family-based congregation and he becomes an unstoppable and unquestionable influence on those he preached to. The way in which a person is raised is believed to greatly influences how they will act, think, and behave in adulthood. Fred Phelps essentially raised his own church, meaning that whatever he said was believed as truth for his listeners who were mostly made up of his own family. These members loved and respected their family patriarch and were inclined to listen to what he said. They also had known nothing else but Phelps’ teachings their whole life, a key aspect in maintaining the number of the church.

Another key factor of Phelps’ influence was his use of scare tactics within his preaching. From the perspective of those belonging to WBC, they would call these scare tactics biblical truth. However, the harsh language and fear-based understanding of God made disagreeing with Phelps particularly challenging. For example, after the devastating event known as 9/11 in which thousands died, Phelps preached a sermon that said this:

“The deadly events of 9/11 were direct outpourings of divine retribution, the immediate visitation of God’s wrath and vengeance and punishment for America’s horrendous sodomite sins, that worse and more of it was on the way. We further told you that any politician, any political official, any preacher telling you differently as to the cause and interpretation of 9/11 is a dastardly lying false prophet, cowardly and mean, and headed for hell. And taking you with him! God is no longer with America, but is now America’s enemy. God himself is now America’s terrorist.”[34]

Picture hearing this come out of the mouth of your grandfather as a young child, not knowing anything about God besides what your family shares with you. It becomes incredibly difficult to argue against someone’s teachings when they use God as the source, especially when that person is a member of your family whom you deeply care for. Libby Phelps was exactly that child who said that she felt as though “Gramps loved [her] best when [she] was terrified for [her] immortal soul–which was most of the time.”[35] In her book about her journey of leaving Westboro, Libby writes of how her family no longer associated with her after her departure. They believe her to have chosen a sinful life upon leaving which has resulted in a completely severed relationship. With this as the outcome for simply leaving the congregation, it is no wonder why Phelps was able to influence his family into believing his theology and preaching hate.

Public Response

The Westboro Baptist Church has been given many titles by the public since the beginning of its establishment. “A religious cult,” “hate-group,” and “The Most Hated Family in America” have all been used to refer to the members of the WBC.[36] Their zeal for picketing the funerals of soldiers, such as Matthew Snyder in 2006[37], and of victims of hate crimes, such as Matthew Shepard who was murdered for being homosexual in 1998[38], have resulted in a nationwide dislike of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Particularly looking at the opinion of fellow Christians, the Westboro Baptist Church has left a confusing mark on the reputation of Christianity. Jeff Chu, the author of “Does Jesus Really Love Me?” recollects how his journey of finding Christ in the midst of his homosexual sexual orientation has been incredibly challenging. Chu believes in the Christian story and had wrestled with his homosexuality and whether or not Christ could love him. According to WBC, there is no relationship in existence between homosexuals and God,[39] a message that is clearly stated every time one of the members holds up a “God hates fags!” sign. Chu, however, had found that God does love him despite his homosexuality and he is not “bound for hell” as Fred Phelps would suggest. Upon visiting the Westboro Baptist Church, Chu comes to this realization:

“I know this in my heart; Their god is not my god, and there faith is not my faith, and there can be no middle ground. My logic is unacceptable to them–nothing more than the devil’s lies–just as their logic makes no sense to me. My heart and my head cannot accept a god so cruel as theirs, so cavalier that he would create people just to destroy them. And I cannot believe in a fear-based faith.”[40]

Chu is not alone in this analysis of the WBC’s theology. Many Christians have responded in the same way, declaring that the God in which WBC serves is not the God they know. As time goes on, the harsh words of damnation from the WBC seem to be losing its shock-value effect, as Christians and non-christians alike are adopting a “turn-the-other-cheek” mentality towards them. A big reason for this is the culture developing for 21st century Americans, in which many Americans, particularly those belonging to the generation known as millennials, are adopting a mentality of acceptance for one another’s differences. This mentality is seemingly carrying over to the religious culture as well. Christians are no longer demanding that people change in order to know God but that knowing God will change the person. Whether that be change regarding sexual orientation, lifestyle habits, or even fashion choice, American Christians all relatively believe that God is available to all who wish to know Him.

In short, the response to the WBC from the public has left a clear and hurtful wound on the reputation of Christianity. Because of their actions, God has become an unapproachable entity with hate, wrath, and shame as His main characteristics. For Christianity, a religion that historically longs to invite more believers into its group, the WBC’s message of a hateful god has reversed that intention and turned many away from wanting to hear the bible’s story. Because of the Westboro Baptist Church’s theology, God has become a villain longing to induce wrath and has taken Christianity’s reputation from inviting to utterly unapproachable and undesirable.

 

NOTES

[1] History.com Staff. 2010. “The 1950s.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. https://www.history.com/topics/1950s.
[2] Human Rights Campaign. 2018. “LGBT History Month: The 1950s and the Roots of LGBT Politics.” Human Rights Campaign. Accessed May 2. https://www.hrc.org/blog/lgbt-history-month-the-1950s-and-the-roots-of-lgbt-politics.
[3]“Westboro Baptist Church Home Page.” 2018. Westboro Baptist Church Home Page. Accessed May 2. http://www.godhatesfags.com/.
[4]Taschler, Joe, and Steve Fry. “The Transformation of Fred Phelps.” CJOnline – InDepth. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://web.archive.org/web/20130301061252/http://cjonline.com/indepth/phelps/stories/080394_phelps01.shtml.
[5]Taschler & Fry. “The Transformation of Fred Phelps.”
[6] Barrett-Fox, Rebecca. 2016. God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas., 15.
[7] Barrett-Fox, God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right, 15.
[8] Taschler & Fry, “The Transformation of Fred Phelps.”
[9] Barrett-Fox, God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right, 15.
[10] Taschler & Fry. “The Transformation of Fred Phelps.”
[11] “Religion: Repentance In Pasadena.” Time. June 11, 1951. Accessed April 30, 2018. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,814897,00.html.
[12] Taschler & Fry. “The Transformation of Fred Phelps.”
[13] Barrett-Fox, God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right, 16.
[14] Barrett-Fox, God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right, 16.
[15] Ibid., 17.
[16] Ibid., 17.
[17] Ibid., 18.
[18] Ibid., 19.
[19] Ibid., 25.
[20] Phelps, Libby, and Sara Stewart. 2017. Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing., 2.
[21] Westboro Baptist Church, “Westboro Baptist Church Home Page.”
[22] Phelps & Steward, Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church, 165.
[23]“The Five Points of Calvinism.” 2018. The Five Points of Calvinism, TULIP. Accessed May 2. https://www.calvinistcorner.com/tulip.htm.
[24] “Westboro Baptist Church Home Page.” 2018. Westboro Baptist Church Home Page.
[25] Gonza?lez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity:Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. Harper & Row, 1984., 83.
[26] Westboro Baptist Church, Westboro Baptist Church Home Page.
[27] Phelps & Steward, Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church., 1.
[28] Westboro Baptist Church, Westboro Baptist Church Home Page.
[29] Phelps & Steward, Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church., 6.
[30] Westboro Baptist Church, Westboro Baptist Church Home Page.
[31] Phelps & Steward, Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church., 6.
[32] Drain, Lauren, and Lisa Pulitzer. 2013. Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church. New York: Grand Central Publishing., 1.
[33] Barrett-Fox, God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right., 48.
[34] “Westboro Baptist Church.” 2018. Southern Poverty Law Center. Accessed May 2. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/westboro-baptist-church.
[35] Phelps & Steward, Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church., 2.
[36] Westboro Baptist Church, Westboro Baptist Church Home Page.
[37] “Facts and Case Summary – Snyder v. Phelps.” 2018. United States Courts. Accessed May 2. http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-snyder-v-phelps.
[38] Star-Tribune,Tom Morton Casper. 2011. “Matthew Shepard Funeral Put Westboro Baptist Church on the Map.” The Billings Gazette. March 3. http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/wyoming/matthew-shepard-funeral-put-westboro-baptist-church-on-the-map/article_fa10936e-cb5b-5170-afd8-e7eaa0a43aa8.html.
[39] “Westboro Baptist Church, Westboro Baptist Church Home Page.
[40] Chu, Jeff. 2014. Does Jesus Really Love Me?: a Gay Christians Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. New York: Harper Perennial., 71.