Fred Phelps in the European news

fred phelpsOh to be back in London right now. Or even Paris.

Europe’s Sky News is reporting an undercover “investigation” on highly controversial religious leader Fred Phelps. With reporting like this in Europe on religion in America, Europeans will be loving us about as much the Israelis appreciated their Roman rulers. The problem in this case is that you can’t really fault the Sky News report for overly hyping the basic facts in the story.

A peek at Phelps’ website makes the Sky report seem tame, and his Wikipedia article confirms the belief system portrayed in the article, which follows:

The Sky Report has secretly filmed one of America’s most controversial Christian ministers praising the London bombings.

Fred Phelps says that terrorist outrages and natural disasters such as Hurricane Rita are examples of God’s wrath against countries such as America and Britain for tolerating homosexuals and homosexuality.

Fred Phelps, who set up the controversial Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, told our undercover reporter about the attacks, which killed 52 people:

“Oh I am so thankful that happened. My only regret is that they didn’t kill about [a] million of them. England deserves that kind of punishment, as does this country (America)”.

This is just great. Phelps and his 150 followers (about 90 percent are related to him in one way or another) are now the face of American fundamentalism (a much-abused term, I might add). But according to Wikipedia, even fundamentalists don’t like this guy.

And it gets worse:

Phelps made news just last month when the Daily Telegraph reported that the Swedish royal family were consulting lawyers after discovering that he had made outrageous claims about their sexuality on the internet.

Several members of the Westboro Baptist Church congregation were planning to visit Sweden — placards in hand — ready to spread their message that Sweden is, “a land of sodomy, bestiality and incest”.

I remember how The Washington Post Magazine handled a profile of perennial candidate Lyndon Larouche a year ago. Rather than hyping the craziness of Larouche and his campaigns, it took a very thorough look at the organization and showed it for what it is and how dangerous it can be.

Sky News is doing us all a disfavor in this report. Sure, Phelps has made outrageous comments, but he by no means represents any serious group of Christians or Americans. While you can’t ignore people like this, because there is an obvious news angle for the European broadcasters, this type of reporting does not qualify as quality journalism.

(Note: my criticism in this piece is on the media coverage, not Phelps, who we’ve written about here and here. People can say what they want to say, in my humble opinion, so try to keep comments focused on the Sky News report, not Phelps and his group.)

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  • Lucas Sayre

    I wholeheartedly agree. Skynews should have made it explicit how fring Phelps and his followers are.

    Instead they basically gave the contrary representation.

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  • GOrd

    I agree. But then I wonder…do we do much different with the MidEast? Does MSM try to get a picture of all the points of view towards the West or delight more in picking up the latest report on Al-Jazeera and treating it like it is automatically the majority view?

  • webwalker

    Actually, I think this bears more relationship to the MSM quoting Robertson/Falwell/Dobson for their predictable shock factor. They go back and back and back to them because they’ll always get a ‘scare the sox offa the ACLU’ reaction that sells papers. I don’t really see this as anything different. You can always find some crackpot with an axe to grind. By not putting Robertson/Falwell/Dobson *or* Phelps in their actual influence context, its a dead pushover to represent their views as mainstream in a sub-culture.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The mainstream news media’s job is to get ratings or sell publications. Thus, a sensational story about a Phelps is far more a marketable commodity than- say- the tremendous (and mostly uncovered) herculean charitable work many Christian Churches have carried out in the Gulf region and elsewhere in the face of unprecedented natural disasters. And, since most polls of mainstream media personnel show they have an overwhelming negative attitude toward religion (especially Christianity), they couldn’t care less about the distorted, twisted, image they create of Christianity.

  • Tom Breen

    I think this is a lot different than quoting Falwell/Robertson/Dobson. First of all, all three of those guys have actual followings. Phelps is a freak show.

    Of course, the media should occasionally cover the freak show. To me, Fred Phelps is like the Danish restaurateur who got in trouble in 2003 for not serving French or German tourists because their respective countries didn’t join the Iraq war effort. Nobody really argued that this guy was representative of Danish opinion, or Danish restaurant opinion, or whatever: It was just a one-shot freak show story.

    Phelps is such a story, but the problem is the media keeps covering him like he’s news. People in Kansas know Phelps’ shtick goes back almost 50 years; he’s hardly news. I have no idea why Sky had to go “undercover” to get the Phelps quotes; his Web sites are far more outrageous.

    There are interesting Fred Phelps stories to be written – like how his followers don’t call themselves Christians but rather “Tachmonites,” and how they believe they’re writing a “new Bible.” But the “Fred Phelps says something stupid” story is distinctly old hat.

  • Michael

    From a European perspective, where Islamic fundamentalists are more common than Christian fundamentalists, he’s a great story and not so different from how the U.S. media–including the conservative media–depicts Islamic fundamentalists.

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  • Erik Nelson

    I wonder if they’ll go into Phelp’s politics in any depth. He’s an odd duck. He’s a fundamentalist, but he also styles himself a Democrat and has made a point of spouting off a lot of the same conspiratorial talking points about the Bush administration as you find on the extreme left and neo-isolationist right. He’s not only spewing hate toward homosexuals, but toward just about everyone else as well–blacks, asians, Jews, Muslims, etc.

    I got a close look at these guys at the Episcopal Church convention in ’03, and at the consecration of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire. He and his followers are not fundamentalists in any recognizable way. They are something completely different, more akin to a personality cult than anything else.

  • Roberto Rivera

    I know that you wanted the focus on the coverage but part of the story is the utter failure of MSM to acutally ask a simple question: in what sense, apart from his beliefs about gays, is Phelps actually a Christian? As Kathy Shaidle said, the answer isn’t “because he’s a wiener.” It’s his theology. Again quoting Relapsed Catholic:

    What does Fred Phelps actually believe? It is, somehow, even weirder than you expected:

    …In fact, it appears that Westboro has created not just an incredibly vulgar and non-Christlike approach to homosexuality, but that it’s working on a new religion altogether, complete with new scriptures.

    Members of WBC generally avoid the name “Christian” when referring to themselves, preferring the mysterious term “Tachmonite.” This apparently refers to a servant of King David’s, but I’m not sure of the derivation or the intention.

    The Tachmonites believe Phelps is “the last prophet,” with the power to determine who will be damned and who will be saved. They themselves, as followers of Phelps, also have the power to condemn souls to hell. Most people are destined for hell, but “Good Samaritans” who help the Tachmonites (for example, police officers who prevent counter-protesters from assaulting them) may be offered an indeterminate “reward” for their good conduct. Apparently “sola fide” is not part of the Tachmonites’ creed.

    The new scriptures consist of the group’s own writings, which are divided into two categories: “delectable epics” and “letters to heretics.”

    The “delectable epics” (the term is the group’s) are based loosely on Acts in the New Testament. The epics detail the Tachmonites’ various protests against gays, President Bush, Elton John concerts, and the military and portray the Tachmonites alternately as invincible “super heroes” and defenseless victims of brutal rage. Some of the epics are in prose, and some in poetry.

    There’s a word for this and, of course, it’s “cult.” Yet, not a word about this in the coverage about Phelps. Heck, I doubt that very many orthodox Christians know this.

  • Michael

    A “cult” with the word “Baptist” in the name of the church. I understand the desire to distance onself from idiots, but he identifies himself as a Baptist.

  • Micah Weedman

    What is AP style concerning the use of “Israelis?” I’m pretty sure Israelis didn’t exist until the middle of the 20th century, when the state of Israel was created. I think it would have been the “Israelites” who were ruled by the Romans, though I should be quick to point out that most scholars would actually say it was the Jews who were ruled by the Romans, since they stopped being called “Israelites” after the kingdoms were invaded and Yahweh-worshippers sent into exile.

  • Tom Breen


    Fred Phelps may call his group Westboro Baptist, but he’s not affiliated with any other Baptist congregation. At some point, there has to be a limit to the respect for self-identification. By all means, the media should report that the group is identified as Baptist, but that doesn’t mean it should take those claims at face value. I believe the standard when it comes to Messianic Jews is not to call them Jews, because it offends Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. A similar yardstick would be helpful in Phelps’ case.

  • Michael

    I’m curious whether anyone at the Southern Baptist Convention (or any other large, Baptist organization) has denounced Phelps.

  • Tom Breen
  • Michael

    Thanks, Tom.

  • Maureen

    Tachmonite is from 2 Samuel 23:8. It’s really Hachmonite like in 1 Chronicles 11:11.

    Anyway, the little quote in question is “Josheb-basshebeth the Tachmonite was chief of the officers. He wielded his spear against 800 [men] he killed at one time.”

    So basically, not a good sign.

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