One way to cover Westboro Baptist

w7vo40w6Hey reporters! You can run, but you cannot hide. Sooner or later, the tiny flock of activists known as the Westboro Baptist Church will show up in your zip code.

We’ve had some interesting GetReligion discussions through the years about the people behind the signs, including a thread focusing on the question of whether mainstream journalists should simply ignore them.

The problem with that approach, of course, is that these protests affect real people — such as the grieving families of soldiers killed in action. The Westboro crew is also raising important First Amendment issues, for better and for worse. It’s kind of like trying to ignore the Neo-Nazis as they march through Skokie, Ill., the suburban Chicago home of scores of Holocaust survivors.

So a small cell of Westboro Baptist members showed up the other day and the Indianapolis Star put the focus of the resulting story right where it needed to be — in the statistical insignificance of the demonstrators. Here’s the top of the story:

The protesters were outnumbered by the counter-protesters — by about 200-to-5 — … at North Central High School.

As five people from the self-proclaimed Westboro Baptist Church gathered on the north side on East 86th Street about 3 p.m., a crowd of about 200 gathered on a sidewalk on the south side of the street outside the high school.

The Westboro group earlier had announced plans to picket the high school to protest a performance of The Laramie Project, a play about the slaying of a gay man in Wyoming and its effect on the community. About 22 Indianapolis police officers also had gathered at the school.

In other words, it was business has usual. However, I do want to note the journalistic strangeness of the phrase “self-proclaimed Westboro Baptist Church.” What’s that all about? There are legions of different kinds of Baptists, from national conventions (think Southern Baptist Convention, etc.) to totally independent, we-answer-to-God-alone congregations that range from megachurch size all the way down to congregations in which the leaders can count the membership on one hand.

Who or what is a “Baptist”? A Baptist is someone who says he or she is a Baptist. Surely there is someone on the Star staff who is part of an independent Baptist flock and can explain this to the copy desk? I guess every simple independent congregation in American is “self-proclaimed” to one degree or another. What’s the point?

The rest of the story consists of quotations from counter-protesters and others who were there to oppose or control the Westboro crew.

GodhatesfagsI do have another question: Did the editors who assigned this story specifically instruct the reporter and the copy desk to omit any quotes at all from the protesters?

I realize that the Westboro people tend to say the same things over and over. However, it does help to let the public know what they are saying, thus illustrating the views that are at the heart of the First Amendment cases that continue to swirl around them.

So what’s the goal? Here’s some questions I would ask, if stuck on the sidewalk covering these people. What are their doctrines? What scriptures do they use to justify their outrageous tactics? And we already know that they are rejected by the religious left and secular authorities. So what do evangelical and even self-defined fundamentalist Christians in the area think of these views? How do patriotic conservative Christians feel about this “God hates America” crowd?

Call other voices in the middle and on the right. Please.

Put everyone on the record, on the left and right.

What is the journalistic case for only quoting one side of this particular story? What is the journalistic case for only quoting the “usual suspects,” when it comes to talking to those who oppose the Westboro folks? Just asking.

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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.

  • http://paulcawley.posterous.com/ Paul Cawley

    Really thought provoking article… thank you

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Frank Page, former SBC president,has been critical of the Westboro folks. Here’s what he said about Westboro in an interview, just before leaving office:

    “People have said, ‘Does it bother you that they are called Baptist? “I say, it bothers me even more that they are called a church. Remove the Baptist from the issue or the argument. To call yourself a church should hold you to a very high calling and high standard that they do not live to.”

  • http://www.bedlamorparnassus.blogspot.com Magister Christianus

    I teach at the high school in question, and a group of students in my Theory of Knowledge, a required class for the International Baccalaureate diploma, discussed deeply and meaningfully what was going on just before the protest began. These students argued, in the best sense of that word, and powerfully, a variety of understandings of what was going on. We are in the midst of a unit on language, thought, and perception, and this event proved an excellent, real-life study for the application of what we have been exploring. My students were far more even-handed in their discussion than the news accounts, being willing even to consider whether and to what degree our high school was responsible for the WBC coming to protest. No side of the argument was off limits in our discussion.

  • Jay

    Not expecting this to get published, but I do think it is quite telling that GR is worried about “real people — such as the grieving families of soldiers killed in action,” as though the homosexuals who are their real target are not “real people.” …

  • carl

    So what do evangelical and even self-defined fundamentalist Christians in the area think of these views?

    You are kidding, right? In the minds of the media, Westboro Baptist Church is the epitome of the “fundamentalist Christian.” They think most “fundamentalist Christians” are just media-savvy enough to hide it. Sort of like David Duke trying to put a new face on the Klan. That’s why WBC gets covered – as an implicit journalistic act of guilt by association.

    carl

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JAY:

    An interesting point: I was referring, of course, to the events that Westboro has been targeting in recent years. Have they, in fact, protested at any mainstream GLBT events in the past decade or so?

    Also, for those interested in different approaches to theology — left and right — on these issues, I do urge that you seek out a copy of “What Christians Think About Homosexuality,” by the gay evangelical Larry Holben.

    http://www.amazon.com/What-Christians-Think-about-Homosexuality/dp/0941037835/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1250965986&sr=1-1

  • Ben

    I am an Evangelical in the classic sense of the word and I went to North Central. Otherwise, I am quite a bit uninformed as to the Westboro drama. Even at first blush I think I’ve a concern worth mentioning. What bugs me is the idea of mean-spirited Christians standing with the secular world against their (very misguided?) own.

    If these guys are Neo-Nazi’s or of some equally deplorable persuasion, then such a mistake seems understandable but still not quite right. (But are they even that bad? I don’t know.) When standing for the love of Christ means standing against our brothers’ behavior and disassociating from them, it also means (1) not standing against them, as people, and (2) not doing so with the secular world (which has three fingers pointing back at itself). If my hunch of what happened is correct, I want to be praying not just for the Westboro crowd, but for the unbelievers and believers on the other side of the street.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    CARL:

    That is way, way too simplistic. I know so many cases of journalist who do not fit your straw man attack.

    I don’t think I’ve ever MET a journalist who thought that the Westboro crowd was typical of anything other than its own strange point of view.

    Again, please check out:

    http://www.amazon.com/What-Christians-Think-about-Homosexuality/dp/0941037835/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1250965986&sr=1-1

  • Daniel

    I’d like to answer the author’s questions on behalf of the evangelical community, if I may. The vast majority of our reactions to the Westboro “Baptists” are in line with those of the rest of America: we’re sickened and appalled by their hate-mongering and their monstrous insensitivity toward grieving people, and like everyone else, we shake our heads and wonder what aberrational beliefs would give rise to their behavior. …

    Because we know and love God (and because he’s clearly the Boss,) we are (or should be) genuinely dedicated to obeying His wishes. And most if not all of us know on some level that, while God does expect us to stand up for our moral convictions, He clearly commands us to love people and forbids us to hate. We may not always live up to it, and many of us have a tendency to be horrifically disrespectful to people with whom we disagree. But the fact remains that if we practice hatred and cruelty, we are not following Christ. …

  • Jay

    … The photos you use that had nothing to do with the actual demonstration that is covered in the story is further evidence of GR’s intentional disregard of the suffering of gay people. You seem to distort the very story you are critiquing in order to make it about something else than it really is, perhaps on the assumption that everyone agrees that the grieving families of dead soldiers should not be targeted by hate, but, hey, there is no consensus about the fags.

  • Brian

    I think the journalist uses the phrase “self-proclaimed” as a way to acknowledge to readers that she knows that many (or even all other?) Baptist groups do not want to be associated with this group that calls itself Baptist. It is her way of saying “I am just calling them what they call themselves.”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JAY:

    I chose these photos because I don’t like reproducing images of the gay-specific signs. AND, in the past, when we used those we got complaints from — gay and liberal readers.

    BTW, you would support Westboro’s right to protest on public sidewalks? Painful, but legal?

    BRIAN:

    The term “Baptist” is accurate, for better and for worse. This is another reason why I think it’s crucial to quote other voices on the doctrinal right on these issues. You also have to quote Westboro people, so that readers can get a sense of who they really are.

  • Jay

    tmatt: yes, I support Westboro’s right to protest. I think it is useful for people to know what a segment of Christians think. You consistently censor any comment that relates to the fact that there is a clear continuum from the doctrine and scriptural citations of Westboro and its ilk to other conservative Christians: again, I think that you do not get religion insofar as it relates to homosexuality. I think the mainstream media knows that there is a real relevance of the Westboro folk and the more sedate people in the pews of churches across the land every Sunday.

  • Dave

    there is a clear continuum from the doctrine and scriptural citations of Westboro and its ilk to other conservative Christians

    Jay, there’s clearly a doctrinal spectrum but I would not call it a continuum. Westboro deals in insensitivity and calumny against individuals and proclaims a God of hatred, not of love. Those are doctrinal breaks, not a continuum. I would fault the MSM for not making that clear.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    As to “self-proclaimed,” it does seem fair to wonder aloud how a group of relatives can be called a church, although there are enough small rural congregations in America where 95% of the 30 in worship on a Sunday are related to make this an unfair critique.

    But there is something about Phelps’ cadre & kin that would make me grope for a word other than “church” to describe them.

  • blestou

    Jay,

    Lots of gay-friendly comments get posted here. The fact that we can still read your comment #13 is proof of that.

  • blestou

    Brian@11 wrote:I think the journalist uses the phrase “self-proclaimed” as a way to acknowledge to readers that she knows that many (or even all other?) Baptist groups do not want to be associated with this group that calls itself Baptist. It is her way of saying “I am just calling them what they call themselves.”
    I agree. Most Baptist groups have denounced this church so many times…I think she was trying not to make all the rest of us Baptists moan again at the association.

    Still, tmatt is right on the theology.

    I think a better way to phrase it would be “the unaffiliated Westboro Baptist Church” (not “independent…”). This phrase signifies that this church stands on its own, but also remains neutral to their theological and congregational understanding of themselves.

  • Jon in the Nati

    re: Jay

    Despite the fact that we are not here to discuss such things, I would argue (and have in the past) that the WBC folks, and the doctrinal positions which they hold, cannot be considered Christian in any real sense of the word. They bear little resemblance to any widely recognized Christian doctrines, past or present.

    Of course, while those of us intimately familiar with such things know this, many people do not, and it is not the job of the MSM to make this point. Because they call themselves “Christian”, newspapers and such are more-or-less bound to refer to them as such.

    And again, just so you recognize it, the WBC folks have major beefs with a lot of groups outside the GLBT community; homosexuals are just one group they despise.