Should he stay or should he go?

20050615 idaho god hates fagsAs much as we here at GetReligion like to prod mainstream local newspapers to do a better job of covering religion news, we really should pause, every now and then, to discuss an even bigger problem. Hardly anyone in television news, national or local, has created a religion beat.

Thus, GetReligion reader John I. Carney dropped us a note to point out that WKRN-TV in Nashville — home of the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters and many other major religious institutions (not to mention more than a few musicians who mention faith from time to time) — has created a religion and ethics beat. Not only that, but reporter Jamey Tucker at News 2 has created a blog on which he discusses journalistic issues linked to his beat and, well, football. Football is a religion in parts of the South and Southeast, so this makes sense.

Anyway, Tucker just posted an interesting question and asked his readers for feedback before his coverage of a controversial issue. In fact, he asked for input on whether to cover the event at all. (By the way, thank you Mr. Carney for sending us a full URL for the Tucker blog item. This makes blog work much easier on our end!)

Here is the blog item in question:

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I’ve got mixed feelings about a story this week. The God Hates Fags folks are picketing another funeral at Fort Campbell. Now I don’t want to give these nimrods a second of attention or publicity. But, I would love to go and find out what part of the Bible they find that God hates anyone. I’d also like to talk to them about the overall negative opinion of Christians that others might have because of their words, their actions and their lack of compassion.

So, what do you think? Should I take a camera to Kentucky and talk to them? Or would ignoring them be better?

What we are talking about, of course, is the fundamentalist (he embraces the term) preacher that leaders in the gay and lesbian movement love to hate and, well, he feels the same about them, I think. His name is Pastor Fred Phelps and his church is Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

Now, personally, I think News 2 ought to cover the story — in large part because Nashville is an amazingly diverse religion town and it has a solid opportunity to cover this group on the radical, way-out-of-the-mainstream right, from a wide variety of perspectives including the sane left (lots of interesting voices in Nashville) and the truly mainstream right, which would be the SBC leadership and others. There is more than one way to reject Phelps and what he has to say.

I say quote Phelps and his folks, within reason, and then let other people respond. It’s journalism. Don’t settle for the same old crazy photos. Do the news story. When you visit Tucker’s blog, you’ll notice that his readers are all over the map on this question.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joe Perez

    What I found amusing about this article is that the reporter says he might want to go just to share his belief that the Bible would never say that God hates anyone. That’s just too funny. On there being a whole crapload of hate in the Bible, Phelps is right… and the mainstream and liberal religionists are wrong. As I said in “In Defense of Fred Phelps”, I’d rather take a messy, ugly Bible with its hate-filled, ugly, ethnocentric, tribalistic God than the whitewashed version that says God is Love and Peace and Harmony and Fuzzy Bunny Rabbits. That’s a God hard to reconcile with the ugly truths in the Bible, unless you’re willing to see that our understanding and consciousness of God is continually evolving. For seeing that much when the mainstream Church is willfully blind, I give Phelps a tiny bit of credit.

  • John I. Carney

    One thing I didn’t mention in my tip is that there’s one special thing about WKRN which helps allow it to create a “faith and ethics” beat, or any other niche beat. The station has switched from the traditional reporter-and-cameraman crews to a system of solo “videojournalists” (or “VJs,” but don’t tell Martha Quinn), each of whom functions as both reporter and camera operator. This, in effect, doubled their news staff — although some journalists seem skeptical about the idea, and there are some other stations that are said to be watching WKRN closely before deciding whether to take the plunge themselves.

    Tucker’s blog is also part of a station-wide initiative. The station manager and a number of on-air personnel have them, and the station also sponsors a Nashville-area blog aggregator, Nashville Is Talking.

  • Harris

    The difficulty with the situation is that given the current culture war any effort to pop Phelps’ bubble could be seen as supporting gays; those who aren’t for us are against us, etc. etc.

    That said, the story probably is the one about their witnessing around the country, about the non-sequitar-ishness of it all. Why protest at the funeral of a soldier in Kentucky? Focus on the actions and the rationale, and leave the theology behind. Phelps, and not his theology of hate, is the proper focus.

    I know, I know, this puts the ghost back in print. This approach does subordinate his convictions, but isn’t that implicit in the story? Neither you nor Mr Carney believe Phelps’ viewpoint is especially worthy of attention. A judgement has already been uttered, if only under the breath. But the real story may be something else, it is not about religion, but about the person’s obsession that leads him and his followers to pop up in all sorts of venues, disconnected from his church or the purported issue he is speaking to.

    Another strong story would perhaps be that of tracing Phelps’ travels with those of the now-dead soldier. Two parallel lives, all the more if the soldier was a person of faith. Implicit in that would be the question of accountability to one’s time.

  • John I. Carney

    Harris, please be more careful in your remarks. I have not expressed any opinion whatsoever about Phelps or his viewpoint; all I did was tip GetReligion about what I considered an interesting blog post.

    I do, of course, find Fred Phelps reprehensible, but I had said that prior to your post or been quoted by anybody as saying that, nor have I expressed any opinion whatsoever over whether the fellow from WKRN should cover the story.

  • John I. Carney

    I omitted the word “not” from my last sentence; it should read “… but I had not said that prior to your post …”

  • Harris

    Sorry about the misattribution. I had not meant to refer to Mr. Carney, but Mr. Tucker, the reporter. I was thinking that the hesitation he expressed also made a judgement of sort, whether it was aesthetic (“that is SO tacky…”), religious, or otherwise, I couldn’t say.

  • Molly

    Phelps thinks “God turned Jarramy Steven’s hands to stone”.

    That might explain Seattle’s three failed attempts at the end zone Sunday.

  • Michael

    I actually think the theology is the most interesting point of this story. There’s lots of whackjobs out there, but they all don’t operate a Baptist church and suggest that their hate is God-inspired. Where is the line between “God hates fags” and “God believes gays are sinners?” How many steps removed is the Southern Baptist Convention from Fred Phelps? And how far will the church go in condeming someone or will the condemn him at all?

  • Erik Nelson

    Hey, I’ve actually *tried* to talk to these guys before, at the 2003 Episcopal Church General Convention. Don’t bother. They don’t answer questions. You could go up and ask them what color the sky is, and they will tell you you are going to hell. If you’re not picketing with them, you’re condemned. They don’t do interviews. Mostly I think it is a waste of time to even try to get an answer out of them. Interesting as a real interview would be, I doubt it will ever happen. Phelps and his “church” (which is really just a group of a few dozen members of his family) doesn’t have a coherent theology. It is a group directed by the whim of Phelps himself. And he’s got them trained well. They know exactly what to say and do to get the most possible attention, and they stick with the script. Go and try to talk with them if you like, but you’re not going to hear anything new.

  • tmatt


    “Where is the line between “God hates fags” and “God believes gays are sinners?” How many steps removed is the Southern Baptist Convention from Fred Phelps? ”

    Don’t lock in on the SBC in that case.

    If the issue is SIN, then 90 precent of the world’s Christians believe that homosexual activity is SIN. The Vatican, world Anglicans, the Orthodox, the whole world of Charismatics…

    The liberal mainline world is TINY, but powerful in the white West.

    But you have nailed the heart of the story. What is the difference between hatred and the belief that 2000 years of Christian doctrine is accurate in its teachings on the sacrament of marriage and sex out side of marriage?

    SIN is the word. That is the hidden issue in all of these stories.

  • Michael

    You said it more eloquently, Terry.

  • Michael

    I’d add that while sin is the story, it’s also how faiths prioritize sin.

    Why has Phelps latched onto homosexuality, which is barely discussed in the Bible. Why doesn’t he focus on much more discussed sins, like wealth or not helping the poor? Why do so many faiths focus on a sin that’s only given a passing reference while ignoring other sins that are more clearly disapproved of in the Bible and of greater consequence?

  • Erik Nelson

    Because, Michael, none of our churches are explicitly saying that ignoring the poor is not a sin but a virtue, or that being greedy is a virtue, not a sin. Granted, the actual witness of church members doesn’t always reflect that, but at least the actual official teaching does. And most church members would agree with that teaching, even if they admit they don’t always live up to it.

    But now some of our churches are saying that homosexuality is good and holy when Scripture actually says the opposite.

    As for “greater consequence”, I think that’s a matter of perspective. When it comes to individual souls (and that it what this is really about), even the “inconsequential” sins matter. Christ died for those sins too, you know, not just the big ones.

  • Theway2k

    I just have say one thing. God does not hate “fags.” God does hate sin and homosexuality is a sin. Nonetheless, Jesus came as a result of the Love of God to redeem humanity trapped in bondage to sin. Jesus the Son of God did not come to zapp individuals to hell but to save them from hell. God has offered a free choice: choose life of choose death. Death is the spiritual death that separates from God. Choose life and be one with God through the Savior Jesus Christ.

    Incidently, “hate” is a sin.

  • Scott
  • Megan B.

    I am definitely one of those who disagrees that there’s really any story here. Phelps has been holding protests with the same messages for ages. The only difference is where he’s picketing, and since as far as I can tell that’s largely another publicity ploy, I don’t really consider that particularly interesting or newsworthy.

    In terms of what interesting story there may be there– there have already been a bajillion stories on who Phelps is, what his relationship is to mainstream Christianity, what are the subtleties (or non-subtleties) in the theological differences involved. Although like most Christians I think his funeral-picketing behavior is largely appalling, I really don’t think this is a moral judgment. Reading essentially the same story over and over again is boring. I’d just rather not have reporters waste religion coverage on it, especially when all he’s done is wave his hands again all “come write a story about me! nothing’s changed, but look how extreme I am!”

    Incidentally, I do think “What is the difference between hatred and the belief that 2000 years of Christian doctrine is accurate in its teachings on the sacrament of marriage and sex out side of marriage?” (Terry’s hidden issue) is an interesting question. I just think that addressing it in the context of Phelps has been beat to death, AND I think that consistently choosing to address this important issue primarily in the context of Phelps and similar extremists does a disservice to the complexity of the question and the many many many other people trying to deal with that issue in American Christianity.

  • Joe Perez

    tmatt: I disagree that SIN is a major ghost in the story. As you correctly say, 90% of Christianity teachers homosexual sexual behavior is a sin, so there’s nothing new under the sun about Westboro unless it has to do with something else.

    The real ghost, I think, is that the BIBLE TEACHES HATE. For all his flaws, Phelps gets the Bible-as-hate-literature better than the SBC and others, and mainstream Christians turn against him because they aren’t willing to look at that ghost. You, tmatt, included.

  • Avram

    The real ghost, I think, is that the BIBLE TEACHES HATE

    Hate of what, Joe? Sins or sinners?

  • Mike the Geek

    Phelps is way off base on way more than his picket signs. I don’t wnat to look it up here at work, because I don’t want a traceable link to these people on my laptop, but Phelps is no more orthodox than the Moonies or Jehovah’s Witnesses. The best thing the reporter can do is demonstrate that these folks are not Christian in any meaningful sense.

  • Ryan Richard Overbey

    I think Mr. Perez is on to something serious: with the exception of Fred Phelps and a few other premodern crazies, American religious traditions have undergone truly dramatic transformations. What’s the chance of having another Burned-Over District? The revivals that do occur these days center almost entirely around wealth generation and self-help.

    The question I have for modern American Christians is this: was Jonathan Edwards right or wrong? When I read Phelps, I don’t see much of a difference between him and Edwards. Both dote lovingly and voyeuristically on God’s wrath, his very personal grudges against sinners of all stripes, the raging fires of hell awaiting deserving sinners.

    Remember these words?

    “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”

    Those are the words of one of America’s greatest evangelists. Modern SUV driving soccer moms would probably recoil at that image of God, but it’s a well-established one. Tmatt might even dare to call it “orthodox.”

    I think the Jeff Sharlet article on Sam Brownback in Rolling Stone was dead on: the fire-and-brimstone approach has been replaced by “the fusion of hellfire and Hallmark.” So Phelps, and anyone else who takes seriously the theological implications of hell, probably seems weird to any safe, well-fed, suffering-free suburbanite American.

  • Joe Perez

    Avram: Only sinners. The phrase “hate the sin” does not appear in the Bible. Sorry if that answer isn’t politically correct enough for you, but I’m right. Look it up.

    For a more complete reply, see my earlier link… or why don’t you just read some of the Bible quotes selected by the Westboro people? My view is that the Bible is a record of the spiritual journey of the Hebrew people and early Christian communities, and it includes a lot of hate and evil falsely attributed to the voice of God.

  • Steve Nicoloso

    Well, Joe, you’re right the exact phrase “hate the sin” and by implication “not the sinner” does not occur, but the principle seems to be implied in Jude 22,23 and in the story of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel. You’re absolutely right though that the Bible does not present uniformly and unequivocally a nice, loving God suitable for our hypothetical SUV-driving soccermoms. And I’d agree (if you’re suggesting it) that we suffer (and orthodoxy suffers) far more from the Warm-n-Cuddly god than it does from Phelps’ Criminally Insane one…

  • Herb

    Take a computer Bible concordance and type in the word “hate” and see how often it comes up in connection with God. Not as often as man hating God, but there are some definite things, yes and even people, that God hates. Check it out.

  • Herb

    I should say that in Mal. 1:3, the past tense of “hate” is probably very important.

  • Jamey

    Just a quick post to respond to Joe Perez’ comment about a post from me on the aforementioned “faith and ethics” blog.

    I didn’t say I wanted to share my thoughts with the folks from Phelps’ church. I did want to hear them explain where in the Bible it says God has anyone. Mal 1:3

    We did interview three of Fred Phelps daughters who did explain why they believe God hates homosexuals (fags, as they say), they say He hates the media too by the way. I then interviewed a religion professor at Vanderbilt.

    Limited for time, we didn’t get to the hate issue but did look at whether these folks give all Christians a bad name or whether most people knew the difference or if there even was a difference.

    Just wanted to clear that up. I’m not trying to “save” the people I interview or share my faith with them.