Rebecca Fox-Barrett did six years of ethnographical research about the Westboro Baptist Church, which included spending a lot of time with the church. You can read the resultant doctoral dissertation that she wrote on the church here. She recently gave a very interesting interview to Sojourners. Here are just a few interesting bits to highlight in particular:
Westboro members say their purpose is not to convert souls. So why do they picket?
They say it’s obedience to God. They feel like God told them to do this, so they’re going to do it, regardless of public response. They use the same biblical passages used to justify any kind of preaching by any church: “Make it known to the world,” that kind of scripture.
They would say they know their preaching won’t save anybody. They are absolute predestinarians who believe that God chooses not just salvation and damnation, but everything. Not a sparrow will fall without it being God’s will. These beliefs, when taken together, make up the core of hyper-Calvinism. You are not saved because you heard them preaching; you are only saved because God wants you.
Did the actual church service resemble mainstream Christian worship?
I had seen them preaching hate-filled messages on the streets. What amazed me was that they were saying the same thing in the church service—how do people come back Sunday after Sunday to hear this? Nothing new is being presented. I saw a lot of circling the wagons, with sermons about things like Noah and the flood and how only eight people got on the ark. This church is the ark, so if you’re a part of this church you’re getting on. The sermons are actually very typical of themes addressed in Calvinist teaching: questions of how you know that you are in or how you know that they are out.
So the attraction is the appeal of being part of the “in group.”
Exactly. And I could see the attractiveness of that in a world that is fragmented and scary, especially if you are not okay with doubt or gray areas.
Fred Phelps’ preaching is really a rhetorical act. You want to laugh at the jokes he’s making, and you want to be part of that group. He would say, “As it says in …” and then he would drop the scripture and one or two people would call it out, or sometimes he would say, “Jon, what’s that Bible verse again?” And Jon better know it. It almost reminded me of law school, the level of pressure in a service.
How do church members discipline their children?
They are disciplined parents. I’m not saying that their kids don’t get spanked, but I have never seen or heard of a child being spanked there. They just have very high expectations, and they communicate those expectations very effectively. And they are very much with their children. As soon as those children are born, they come back to church.Do the children of the church seem happy?
Yes. In some ways, that’s a disappointing finding, because you expect to see them being really unhappy. But the children who have left, the adult children of Fred Sr., talk about physical abuse and certainly mental abuse. Other members of the family say there wasn’t abuse, including one member of the family who has left the church.
These generations of grandkids and now great-grandchildren in the church are pretty happy and very normal. They go to public school. They participate in track, play saxophone, though what they can do is limited. The kids are very smart.
How does the group finance traveling to all those protests?
Everybody pays their own way. They are Calvinists in the very traditional way: They work really hard. They don’t pass a collection basket during services, and if you try to donate money to them, they won’t accept it. But the church’s travel budget is a quarter million dollars a year. A lot of them have careers in law, health care, and nursing, as sonogram technicians, and in computer science and robotics. Almost everybody has an advanced degree.
Fred Senior is a lawyer, and 11 of his 13 children are lawyers; they have a family law practice. If you looked at it, you would think it was a progressive firm. They do tribal law in the area, some family law. They won’t represent you in a divorce if you are in your first marriage because they don’t believe in divorce. But if you are in your second marriage, that doesn’t count anyway, so they will represent you. And they do a lot with immigration. Fred Sr. actually made his career as a civil rights litigator; he won settlements on behalf of African Americans. He reopened Brown vs. Board of Education in Topeka, and won.
I once heard somebody say that being in court against him was like being in a knife fight. He was disbarred for unethical behavior, once at the state level and once at the federal level. At the state level he badgered a witness—attacking her personal life, especially her sexual behavior. At the federal level, he made disparaging remarks about justices.
And an important takeaway bit of advice:
How do you think people should respond?
I don’t think if you ignore them they will go away, because they are not motivated primarily by a response. I think what’s more important is showing solidarity for your community: Make sure that those being targeted are loved and supported.