Escape from Westboro Baptist, for some reason or another

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Let’s face it, the edgy folks at the Westboro Baptist Church are not easy to cover in a fair and accurate manner. You think?

However, did I miss something? When did the Westboro people join a liturgical church or pack up and move to Louisiana (or maybe Canada)?

What am I talking about?

Find yourself a decent online dictionary and look up the word “parish.” You’ll usually find something that reads like this:

par·ish … n.

1. a. An administrative part of a diocese that has its own church in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and some other churches. b. The members of such a parish; a religious community attending one church.

2. A political subdivision of a British county, usually corresponding in boundaries to an original ecclesiastical parish.

3. An administrative subdivision in Louisiana that corresponds to a county in other U.S. states.

I think it is safe to assume that the independent Westboro flock — which preaches a brand of free-church Protestantism that even the most conservative of Baptists would consider bizarre if not heretical — has not jumped into a Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican diocese. Also, I think the church is still up in Kansas.

Why do I bring this up? Read this Toronto Star copy carefully:

It was a different kind of coming-out moment for two members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

In a blog post published Wednesday, Megan Phelps-Roper and her younger sister Grace announced their exodus from the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based parish made infamous by its “God hates fags” campaign.

“We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes,” wrote Megan Phelps-Roper. “What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on. That’s our focus.”

The Westboro Baptist Church was started in 1955 by Fred Phelps, Grace and Megan’s grandfather, exclusively for the Phelps family. The parish has been lambasted for protesting the funerals of American solders, whom they claim died because of America’s acceptance of homosexuality.

What? Did the people who wrote and edited this story assume that a “church” or “congregation” is the same thing as a “parish”? It would appear so. They made that mistake more than once.

This is a bizarre, but rather symbolic, little mistake. The bigger problem found in this story is more common in Westboro coverage.

While it is clear that the church is tiny and struggling, the story never gives the reader any indication of just how isolated it is from the mainstream of conservative Christian and/or Baptist life.

In fact, other than the content of its bizarre signs, the story tells readers next to nothing about what Phelps and his clan believe and how that contrasts with the beliefs of others.

It’s hard to know why Megan Phelps-Roper walked away, when you don’t really know the specifics of what she Walked away from. Thus, readers get passages like this:

It’s unclear from Phelps-Roper’s blog post exactly what changed her mind.

“Until very recently, this is what I lived, breathed, studied, believed, preached — loudly, daily, and for nearly 27 years,” she wrote. “I never thought it would change. I never wanted it to. Then suddenly: it did. And I left.”

Nate Phelps explained that for many ex-parish members, something in the doctrine just stops making sense.

“The thing that makes any of us leave is that we have taken information that wasn’t made available to us in that environment and somehow it sticks, it changes our minds. Each of us is unique in how it happens,” he said.

Some of the pronouns in this passage need to be defined, to say the least. Take that phrase, “this is what I lived,” etc.

Meanwhile, over at the Kansas City Star, the very basic story doesn’t confuse a congregation of Baptist independents with a liturgical parish, but it also does little to flesh out the beliefs of the Westboro believers.

There are new quotes here, including his rather spectacular reaction:

Steve Drain, a spokesman for the church, said in an interview Wednesday that the sisters had rejected the Lord.

“We can’t control whether or not somebody decides, when they grow up, that they don’t want to be here,” Drain said. “Those two girls were kind of straddling the idea that they wanted to be of the world but that they would also miss their family, the only thing they ever knew. If they continue with the position that they have, those two girls, yeah, they’re going to hell.”

Now, what is the question that needs to be asked right there? How about, “Why?” So, why are these sisters going to hell? What, precisely, was there unforgivable sin?

Answer that question for readers and you would provide some crucial info about Phelps and Co.

You see, in traditional Christianity there is only one unforgivable sin. Study the beliefs of the Phelps folks and you’ll find they they believe many different sins cannot be forgiven, even after repentance. Readers would know more about the bizarre and terrible nature of what the Phelps church does if they had some idea what they believe and, thus, why they do what they do.

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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://picturesonsilence.wordpress.com Emma

    I enjoy reading your comments on reporting… I don’t know if you’ve seen this article or not: https://medium.com/reporters-notebook/d63ecca43e35
    I’m not very familiar with the source website (medium.com), but the article seems much fairer than the ones you quote here. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Huh. I submitted a link to a story on this that I thought was done far better: https://medium.com/reporters-notebook/d63ecca43e35

    I thought you’d like it.

  • Kate

    While it’s true that Megan Phelps Roper’s blog post (https://medium.com/turning-points/83d2ef8ba4f5) doesn’t say why she walked away, it does link to this piece (https://medium.com/reporters-notebook/d63ecca43e35) which says it quite explicitly. Chu quotes Megan identifying her turning point as a Twitter exchange that caused her to doubt exactly the doctrinal position you mention. She noticed the inconsistency between holding that “Anyone can repent, if God gives them repentance” and the number of things which the Westboro church held to be unforgivable. So there is definitely a place in covering this story to discuss what is known about the teachings of the WBC and how they differ from mainstream Christian belief.

  • http://www.danhotchkiss.com Dan Hotchkiss

    Point well taken: all churches are not parishes. Only those that are (or belong to traditions that once were) geographic generally use that term. But this has little or no relation to how “liturgical” the church is, as any New England Congregational or Unitarian Universalist parishioner will tell you!

  • Kate

    One of the two Kansas City Star reporters recently did a lengthy profile of Megan, so they probably thought their readers were already familiar with the Church and her role in it. http://www.kansascity.com/2011/11/19/3275645/megan-phelps-roper-an-heir-to.html

    • Conja

      That’s an accurate analysis, Kate. We here in the Kansas City area are very familiar with Westboro and the Phelps family. So, in depth analysis would have been superfluous. The Star has relatively limited news inches, like many papers. So, the print article couldn’t re-report those details. The online article linked all the old articles on Megan.

  • http://davidhitherto.wordpress.com/ David P

    Being based in the UK, I’ve often found odd references to the “parishioners” of Baptist or Pentecostal (etc) churches. I tend to think, “But Baptists don’t operate a parish system, so have can they have parishioners?” At least in Church of England usage, “parishioners” does not mean regular participants in the congregation but rather everyone who lives within the geographical bounds of the parish, regardless of their beliefs, church attendance or lack thereof. I think this is tied up with a sense that clergy of the national church have a spiritual duty of care for all who live within the bounds of the parish, not just those who show up to church on Sunday: everyone is a parishioner of the Church of England whether they like it or not. (Conversely, these days many active participants in Church of England congregations live outside the bounds of that parish and are thus not parishioners.) I have the impression that perhaps in British Catholic usage “parish” and “parishioners” do correspond more to the active Catholic community, perhaps including a school as well as a Sunday congregation, though I could be wrong about this. Are references to “parishioners” in relation to churches and denominations that don’t operate a geographical parish system indicative of pond difference, denominational difference, or just incorrect usage?

  • Patrick

    Why is this tagged as referencing ‘same-sex marriage’?

  • Julia

    David P: I think you answered your own question when you noted that the Church of England is a national church. The Catholic Church in Britain is definitely not the national church so its parishioners are those who belong and show up.

    Tmatt: “You see, in traditional Christianity there is only one unforgivable sin” I’ve been a traditional Christian for 68 years and can’t figure out what the unforgiveable sin is.

    • Jonathan

      Tmatt is referring to the sin against the Holy Spirit. I don’t have my Bible handy, but it’s a reference to a statement that Jesus makes that THAT is the only sin that will not be forgiven.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    One quotation jumped out at me from the Kansas City Star’s story: “Steve Drain, a spokesman for the church, said in an interview Wednesday that the sisters had rejected the Lord.”
    Steve Drain? The director of the documentary Fred [Phelps]: The Movie (2000)? Yes. Justin Kendall of Pitch in Kansas City told Drain’s story in May 2011: http://goo.gl/HwF6o.

  • ceemac

    tmatt,

    FYI,
    Parish and congregation are used interchangeably in my Presbyterian circle. As in “When I finish seminary I am looking into chaplaincy and not parish ministry.”


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