Westboro nutjobs protest Billy Graham

As we’ve lamented a few times (or a million) here at GetReligion, nobody puts on a staged-for-media hatefest like the spiritual termites of the Westboro Baptist Church.

This week, the Westboro nutjobs brought their tired, “God Hates Fags” spectacle to the Rev. Billy Graham’s North Carolina backyard. The local paper — the Asheville Citizen-Times — provided front-page coverage.

I’ve said it before, but I’d be perfectly happy if I never had to read another word about Fred Phelps, Westboro’s certifiably wacky pastor, or his family. In most cases, I believe the best media approach to Westboro is to ignore it. In the case of the Asheville story, I don’t know enough about the circumstances to say whether the paper should have covered the “protest” or not.

But if for whatever reason — be it the splash Westboro made in the community or the law enforcement resources assigned to the protest — the Citizen-Times determined that coverage was necessary, then it could have been improved in a few ways.

The top of the story:

ASHEVILLE — A controversial Topeka, Kan., church known for its anti-gay protests at events across the country took aim Tuesday at Billy Graham, saying the renowned evangelist was more interested in wealth and power than preaching the Gospel.

About a dozen sign-carrying protesters from Westboro Baptist Church picketed outside the Billy Graham Training Center in Swannanoa, then traveled to nearby Montreat to continue their protest.

Also on hand were about 20 counterprotesters from Asheville, who called Westboro members a hate group not welcome in North Carolina.

A dozen officers from the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, N.C. Highway Patrol and Black Mountain and Montreat police departments stood by to maintain order.

“Billy Graham is one of the most influential men in the world, but he has not used his bully pulpit to preach the Gospel,” said Westboro member Paulette Phelps, daughter-in-law of the church’s pastor, Fred Phelps.

Keep reading, and the story pits Westboro’s extreme anti-gay statements against the views of counterprotesters who suggest that a loving God has no problem with homosexuality. Graham seems almost an afterthought.

Not until the 17th paragraph of the story — two paragraphs from the bottom — does the paper provide Graham’s response:

In its only comment on the protests, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association noted in an emailed statement, “The central message of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association today is the same message Mr. Graham has faithfully preached for more than 70 years — it’s a message of God’s love for all people and the hope that only comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ. While they have the right to express themselves, we don’t share their opinions or condone their methods.”

Shouldn’t that statement have appeared much higher in the story?

Meanwhile, while Graham’s teachings/views/beliefs on homosexuality seem to be at the center of the story, the paper never provides any context on his past comments on that issue.

Maybe everyone in Asheville already knows exactly where Graham stands, but someone new to the issue might be left wondering. If the Graham camp wouldn’t talk, surely a Graham expert could have been found to explain to readers what he has said and where he stands, if anywhere, on the issue.

In just the last month and a half, Graham made news by weighing in on a same-sex marriage referendum in North Carolina. USA Today reported:

“At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage,” Billy Graham’s statement said. “The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote for the marriage amendment” Tuesday.

That background would have been helpful in the Asheville story.

Another omission that GetReligion has stressed repeatedly in its critiques of Westboro stories: The paper does not make clear that Westboro is an independent, fundamentalist outfit that has no ties to other Baptist groups — such as the Southern Baptist Convention, to which Graham belongs. Again, that background would have been helpful.

Now, please slither away, Westboro.

Billy Graham image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • James

    Yes, the statement from Graham’s people should have appeared higher in the story. But the elephant in the room here is whether Graham is in possession of his mental capacities. I find it very strange that in the North Carolina constitutional amendment election, the Graham organization took the ads out endorsing the amendment, but no one has actually heard Graham say those words. It seems to me that if he is able to weigh in on the referendum, he ought to be able to appear in public and say the words themselves. Otherwise, people like me will remain very suspicious about whether he is simply being used by his not very admirable children and others who have profited off him for so many years.

  • Jerry

    Bobby, I’ve been on a number of internet forums when trolling becomes an issue. Typically the advice is “do not feed the troll”. In other words, ignoring someone, shunning them if you will, is very effective. But it’s hard to do in practice because some people and groups are very effective at what they do.

    Given all the religious news stories out there, to comment on a Westboro one is to help keep their ability to get their message into the media alive. As people have found, being denounced is very effective in promoting a book or a message.

    I struggle with this temptation as well so as one sinner to another, we’d be better off resisting the temptation to give energy to such a group by giving them attention even indirect attention.

  • revaggie

    Bobby, after listening to Phelps’ daughter on the talk show Fighting for the Faith, they would very much object to being called fundamentalist. They are hardcore Calvinists. Check out their about us section on their website. Fundamentalists consider Calvinism the darkside and Calvinists return the favor.

    I have seen you guys harp about the casual throwing around of the term fundamentalist so be careful you don’t fall into the same trap.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Jerry, Are you saying that GR is part of the problem by critiquing media coverage of Westboro?

    revaggie, I have not studied their theology. I was basing that description off a past GR post by tmatt that described Westboro as both “self-proclaimed” fundamentalist and fundamentalists as defined by AP style.

  • Nemo of Erehwon

    It has been elsewhere (http://kanewj.com/wbc/)reported that WBC “members” make much of their living by provoking a physical response from counter-protesters and others who object to their hate-filled display, and then bring civil suit for damages.

    If anyone else was doing this, they would be regarded as running a con more than a church, though I refrain from assigning motives in this case since I do not know them personally.

    But any story about the “church” should, it seems to me, at least make readers aware of these allegations.

    DO not feed the troll. It’s what they live for, and in the end it may cost you a sizable chunk of money.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Reported where? URL please.

    They do make money off winning lawsuits and getting fees. They are VERY careful to follow laws on demonstrations. It’s part of their MO

  • Revaggie

    Ok, I get the AP style even though I disagree with it in this case based on theological definitions within the Christian community. But what is the source for self proclaimed. I must have missed it when I read tmatt’s article.

  • Bill

    I am reminded of a story that surfaces perennially about the reemergence of the KKK in western Maryland. Every year, a few dozen yahoos don robes, burn a cross and make crazy speeches. They are surrounded by hundreds of protesters and scores of reporters. A phalanx of police and emergency are deployed, adding flashing lights to the spectacle. It’s a perfect setup for TV anchors to shake their heads in concern and display their gravitas. (Remember when they wore out that word?)

    When a donkey brays, is that news? Ignore the jackasses.

  • http://eavice.wordpress.com Elizabeth

    Sojourners has an interesting interview with a lady who studied the Westboro folks for a study in the sociological background of the group. For example: the Phelps family are primarily lawyers. It helps you understand their methods and motivations better.

  • Jerry

    Jerry, Are you saying that GR is part of the problem by critiquing media coverage of Westboro?

    Yes, that’s what I was trying to state. It’s pretty minor in the greater scheme of things, of course, but why not ignore the coverage of them and focus on one of the many other stories that need analysis.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    Elizabeth, I hope you are not passing a blanket judgement on lawyers.

  • Dave

    Bobby, I dispute your premise. Westboro is odious but is part of the American religious spectrum. As a Pagan I can never agree that the media should decide to marginalize a small religious movement. IMHO we have enough of that already.

  • northcoast

    Maybe the media could just report the facts that are readily available: X pickets from the WBC protested . . . funeral at . . . on . . . The proclaimed object of the protest was homosexuality, but on their websites the WBC expresses opposition to Jews, Catholics, and Muslims. Recently they have denounced the Rev. Billy Graham.

    Their posted picket schedule seems to be mostly directed at Catholic congregations. I don’t remember reading anything about that in the news.

  • sari

    Until they do something new, covering Westboro is just so much of who cares. Stop coverage and make them pay for PR. Right now the media is giving it away
    for free.

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com/alternative-health/limit-carbohydrates-rather-than-fats-to-prevent-heart-disease Karen V

    They were out picketing Billy Graham during his 2005 visit to New York City. It isn’t anything new.

  • http://paulwilkinson.wordpress.com Paul Wilkinson

    I agree with the “do not feed” rule as it applies to the broader media, but the editors in Asheville can be forgiven if the story landed in their backyard. Their local readers would expect some coverage, but providing some context and understanding of who the protesters really are and how they fit in to the larger scheme of things would have been their greatest contribution to those readers.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Billy Graham has a long history of conflict with fundamentalists, primarily because of his ecumenical work that ranged from liberal protestants to the dreaded Catholic Church. So in that sense, the Westboro clan and their antics are not news.

    I agree with Jerry’s point in general, but also the rebuttal that as long as those clowns are getting press, GetReligion should be analyzing the coverage. For one thing, I’ve read claims that Christians don’t repudiate Westboro. The point of GetReligion is not to make that repudiation, but ya’ll do that that happy effect.

  • cb

    Westboro Baptist Church spreads its hate through picketing in our streets, provoking attacks, with abusive language and flag desecration, attempting to create a confrontation. This is not a church, this is a hate group. This is not about protesting, freedom, or God. They are in it for the money and the press; this is a family law firm. They are not a “church.” It is a scam. They go after anything that can get them in the news. This is a family of lawyers!

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    And, of course, all lawyers are alike in total depravity.

    Er, what was that about stereotypes?