With Baptists like these

godhates 01I’m not sure if it’s GetReligion policy or anything, but we try our best to avoid giving hatemongering Westboro Baptist Church any more publicity than that which its members so desperately crave and receive. But this month’s $10.9 million judgment against the group makes it a bit hard to ignore. The Baltimore Sun‘s Matthew Dolan went to Topeka, Kan., to see how Westboro has affected its hometown:

In the quiet shadow of the state Capitol, Bill Duckworth stands just inside the Tool Shed Tap bar and lets out a long sigh.

He’s a veteran and openly gay member of a community long unhappy about pickets by a virulently anti-homosexual religious group based here. But on this Saturday night, Duckworth says he’s still wary about the biggest news in town: the $10.9 million judgment against the group, Westboro Baptist Church, in a Baltimore courtroom.

“I felt like it might have been offensive, but that’s their right,” the 55-year-old printing press worker says of the military funeral protest in Maryland that prompted a deceased Marine’s father to sue Westboro. “That’s what our military is fighting for. It’s why our country was founded.”

Just how to deal with Westboro — whose members believe God’s wrath is killing soldiers because of America’s tolerance of gays — remains an open question for this exhausted prairie city. For more than 15 years, civic leaders have tried to rein in Westboro’s inflammatory picketing without violating constitutional rights.

I was happy to see someone raise Constitutional questions. I read a thorough critique of the jury decision at The Volokh Conspiracy but didn’t see anything in the mainstream media. This article, however, wasn’t about that. It was about how the town deals with its least favorite citizens — and the citizens themselves. It had some interesting tidbits. Fred Phelps Sr. was disbarred in 1979. Eleven of his 13 children are lawyers. Most of his congregants are related to him. At least four of Phelps’ children and several grandchildren “have left his church or been cast out as unworthy.”

All in all, Dolan paints a picture of a media-hungry group of extremists:

To its critics, Westboro is more a savvy cult of personality than organized religion. They say its acolytes carry signs with offending words and stick figures engaged in sexual acts because they want to attract the media spotlight. . . .

Inside the wood-paneled sanctuary with roughly 20 small pews with burnt-orange cushions, Phelps hosts a weekly Sunday service. Men mostly dress without ties, but women cover their heads. A baby grand piano sits on one side of the front of the room, and maps of the biblical Holy Land fill the other side.

A hymn begins and ends the two-hour, noontime service. In between is Phelps’ fiery preaching. . . .

Though church members describe their ministry as both fundamentalist and evangelical, they expect almost no one to agree with their message or join their church. Almost all members are part of the Phelps family.

As for what Dolan mentioned, I think he navigated things well. He emphasized Phelps’ domination of Westboro Baptist Church rather than trying to make it seem like Westboro was a mainstream Baptist group. However, he neglected to mention — even in a cursory manner — any religious content that would help the reader place the group in context of its place among Baptists or American religious adherents in general. The article tried to explain how Topekans have responded to Westboro. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to talk to some local Baptists about how they like sharing a name with this group?

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  • Joseph M. Smith

    I too wish there were a way to make sure the world out there does not connect Westboro with the rest of the Baptist tribes, but aside from a boilerplate sentence or paragraph in every story, I do not know how it can be done. The home page of the American Baptist Churches, USA, denomination also runs a statement informing the reader that Westboro is not an ABC church. But even if there were, disciplining an errant congregation is not something Baptists are set up to do, at least not well.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K.

    “they expect almost no one to agree with their message or join their church”

    I would have liked to see the writer make a mention of why other Baptists or Christians would not agree with their message. Fred Phelps teaches his congregation that God does not ever forgive homosexual acts. However, Scripture doesn’t say that there is any sin which is forever unforgivable, but Fred Phelps does.

  • Dennis Colby

    I’m still curious as to how Jesus fits into the Westboro group’s worldview. I’d like to see a news story focus on their actual theology, but that’s probably easier said than done; my limited experience with the group indicates they aren’t very cooperative with interviewers.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    BTW, if anyone is interested, I wrote my Scripps Howard column on this precise topic last week.


  • Eric G.

    I read Tmatt’s article and had to either chuckle or cringe at the church’s statement that “we … insist that the doctrines of grace be taught publicly to all men.” Statements of faith can’t always be taken at face value, I suppose.

  • Hans


    Phelps is a hardcore Calvinist and, as tmatt’s column indicated, thus believes in a limited atonement. From what I understand of Phelps’ theology, the immoral lives of homosexuals indicates that they are the reprobate, predestined by God to go to Hell and thus reveals that, according to his view of the atonement, Jesus did not die for them. So, as I understand it, that’s the horrendous way in which Jesus fits into Phelps theology.

    The funny thing about Phelps is that, you don’t merely have to be a homosexual or defender of homosexuality in order for God to hate you. All you have to do is not be a Calvinist.

    I’m a student at Concordia Theological Seminary. Our seminary’s choir was, a few years ago, touring near Westboro Baptist Church. At this time, Phelps put out fliers accusing the sem’s choir of being a bunch of sodomites, merely because Concordia Theological Seminary does not teach double predestination, the limited atonement, or various other hardcore Calvinistic doctrines.

    Something that much of the press fails to note, which I think is important, is that Phelp’s congregation, from what I recall, is only about a hundred-some-odd people, the vast majority of whom are related to him.

  • Katie Reyes

    I do agree with Mollie on the fact that the original article should have done more research on the Westboro’s denominational standing. I understand why the media wrote about the community response to the protesting, but in order to determine why they are protesting, we all need to know what they belief and stand for first. I also enjoy the constitutional debate about their freedoms, and how some Americans almost want to fight this, just to get the protestors to “be quiet.”

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I finally got through to the “new” site, and they respond to Tmatt’s “What kind of Baptists…?” with “We’re John Baptists read the Bible dummies.”
    I’m glad we got that straightened out.

  • Maureen

    Why don’t articles like this focus more on Westboro’s really wacky distinctives? I mean, they’re scarcely your everyday Calvinist on the street.

    The thing where they believe they’re all descended from some guy who fought in King David’s army, for example.

  • Gary

    Fred Phelps is not a Calvinist.

  • cam

    This Westboro Baptist church say they hates the Gay-Community. But they also hate African-Americans, Canada, Sweden, the Fire Department of NY, victims of 911, other Christian Churches, The Pope, Judaism, America, Our American Troops, and the list goes on and on. Many of the groups they despise are specifically named on their hate propaganda, picket signs, and their many websites. They not only hate, but wish death on all that they abhor.
    This sick, so called church spreads its hate through picketing in our streets, provoking attacks, with abusive vulgar language,and flag desecration, attempting to create a confrontation.
    This is not about protesting, this is about a life of hate. They are not peaceful. They are not a “church”. They go after any thing that can get them in the news. This group will protest anything to get its face on TV or in the news. It is about an old man lost in the darkness of hate, but will put his grandchild in danger to save himself. They protest at the funerals of our troops. Do we have a real need to protest at any funeral? Is that a real Freedom?
    The city of Topeka, the state of Kansas and the U.S. at large, its citizens and their Churches, schools and events are all held hostage by this “hate group” – always at the tax payer’s expense.

  • http://david-jaime-jason.blogspot.com Jason

    Why doesn’t the press call WBC a cult and be done with it?

    If these folks can be called a cult, so can Fred’s group.

  • Eric Taylor

    Julia Duin’s piece in the Washington Times seemed to help distance the Baptists from the Westboro cult; however it failed to investigate the implied association of Phelps with Calvinism. Perhaps she could have quoted any number of Calvinist Baptists (John MacArthur, John Piper, Mark Dever come to mind) to lay that notion to rest. Gary is right: Fred Phelps is no Calvinist. He hides behind that label just like he does with the Baptist one.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Because “cult”, as actually used, means nothing beyond “I don’t like Them.”

    My church is on every list of “cults” I find promulgated by self-styled “real Christians”.