This Westboro voice sounds strangely familiar

The Westboro Baptist Church saga has always intrigued and appalled me, in large part because of my background in church-state studies and First Amendment rights. I am also intrigued with people who are so radical that they defy easy description. As the old saying goes, sometimes people go so far to the right that they end up on the left (and vice versa).

Thus, I have always wondered what would happen if mainstream reporters actually listened to the Westboro Baptist folks and tried to describe, for example, why they think that Southern Baptists and ordinary evangelicals are raving liberals. Dig deep into this search file and you can see traces of that, as well as in this Scripps Howard News Service column from last fall. Note, in particular, the links to a 2003 Baptist Press piece about the radical theological beliefs of the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., and his flock.

Anyway, last week something unusual happened during the spring ’11 College Media Convention in New York City. One of the legal minds in the Phelps family — which is full of lawyers — sat down and took questions from a room packed with young journalists, no holds barred. Before the Q&A session, attorney Margie Phelps was interviewed by a top-flight journalist and researcher, Gene Policinski, the executive director of the First Amendment Center operated by the Freedom Forum. Both of them took the encounter very seriously (click here for a rough, but helpful, video).

I learned all kinds of things from taking notes while biting my lip and listening carefully to this event. But here is the key. For the Westboro Baptist believers, the “you” in all of those “God Hates You” signs they carry is not primarily the family of the dead soldier whose funeral is the location of their media-friendly picketing. No, they insist that the “you” is America, especially America as symbolized by what Phelps & Co. call the pro-America “pep rally” that surrounds them wherever they go.

As Margie Phelps told the young journalists: “We’re not picketing the funeral. We’re picketing the pep rally.”

So why am I sharing this with GetReligion readers? Here’s why.

For almost 23 years, I have kept my Scripps column rooted in a kind of news analysis style, as opposed to a full-on, first-person opinion style. However, it is a column and my point of view is in there and I know that. Still, I rarely take big leaps of logic and ask readers to jump with me.

Maybe I should have done that this week. As I worked with pages of Margie Phelps quotations, I kept hearing another specific voice inside my head. To tune in that voice, please read the end of the column:

To understand Westboro and its beliefs, stressed Margie Phelps, it helps to know that the church’s tactics have evolved during the past two decades and the 45,000 protests it claims to have staged at a variety of public events, including about 800 funerals. For a decade, the central message was that America needed to repent and turn away from sin. But as the death toll kept rising in Iraq, she said Westboro’s leaders concluded that, “It’s too late now. … This nation is doomed.” Above all, they were infuriated when many of the funerals for the fallen turned into patriotic rallies.

“We watched as the politicians, the media, the military, the citizenry and the veterans used the occasion of these soldiers’ deaths to publish a viewpoint,” said Phelps, describing the First Amendment arguments she used before the Supreme Court. “And we said, ‘We don’t agree with your viewpoint. God is not blessing America. It is a curse that that young soldier, the fruit of your nation, is lying in there in that coffin.’ …

“That is not a blessing of God. … The soldiers are dying for your sins.”

The bottom line, concluded Margie Phelps, is that Westboro Baptist simply “joined that public debate” on public sidewalks, while following all existing laws that govern public protests. Now, national outrage about the court decision has strengthened the convictions of the Phelps family.

“These are desperate times, calling for desperate measures and we are going to get these words into your ears,” she said. By focusing on military funerals, the leaders of Westboro Baptist “know that we are hitting three of your biggest idols — the flag, the uniform and the dead bodies. … We are going to finish this work. The Lord God Jehovah has our back.”

Do you hear another voice? Yes, it could be one of these guys — because the theological approach is similar. The formula goes something like this: America takes a certain set of actions, refuses to repent and, thus, calls down the wrath of God.

However, I also heard the voice of someone else who made big headlines three or so years ago by using the same basic theological point, only with a different sin as his theological starting point and framing device. Can you say, “God damn America!”

So, here is my question: How big a leap would it have been to have included the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in this column? After all, this would have meant explaining what he said and why he said it, as well as what I mean when I say that he is using essentially the same theological approach as the Phelps crew. This would have required a big leap by the readers, to follow the thread of that analysis.

Yes, I know that. But does anyone else hear that voice?

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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.

  • Tim Hutchings

    Notice that Westboro and Wright are talking in different tenses, with different degrees of specificity. Wright calls on God to damn America, and it’s completely unclear what that might mean. Westboro declares that God is already punishing America, right now, by killing its soldiers. That’s two massive differences in theological approach.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    TIM:

    I see the difference, between God will and God has. But I don’t think that the formula is radically different.

    BTW, do you hear Wright URGING God to damn America? I don’t, but some made that argument. That, for me, was journalistic reaching.

  • Bob Turner

    TM,

    My goodness you are gutsy. Not often I read something and say/think, “bingo”. Wonderful juxtaposition. Good thoughts too on the Phelps clan. I think (maybe) I hate them just a little less today. Still waiting for a greiving parent at a Phelps attended funeral to say, quietly, into the TV camera: “I’m so proud of my boy. He believed in their right to be here and say whatever they want.” Still waiting. Bob T.

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    Yes, their voices are both there. And they share the same characteristics of those false prophets about which we were warned.

    What would make a worthy journalistic analysis (for me, anyway) is how those who profess to be Christian use the prophetic voice. After all, for Christians, Jeremiah (the real prophet) has been supplanted by Paul who, yes, exhorts often quite strongly, but he does so with a characteristic agapic love. (I don’t recall hearing 1 Corinthians 13 at a Westboro rally.) For anyone who wears the label Christian proudly, they should be balancing Justice and Mercy without watering down either.

    It would be interesting to know if a mainstream journalist has noted that Westboro and Wright have taken Christian apocalyptic/prophetic style without bringing the Gospels along for the ride.

  • Dave

    Yes, the two damnation-of-America approaches are rhetorically parallel. That they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum simply shows that 1) politics =/= religion; and 2) Scripture holds so many ways to earn God’s wrath that damnation cannot be politically limited.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    I’ve never listend to more than a dozen words from either Wright or the Westboro crowd. Both had seemed beyond reason to me. Thanks, Terry for posting this. It made me listen to them more closely.


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