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Westboro vs. Southern Baptists lefties

Back in my Colorado journalism days, I attended a national conference that drew a wide variety of people who backed the ordination of women. As I walked around the campground scribbling notes (often with a sharp journalist named Douglas LeBlanc), I became aware of just how much diversity was present in that body of believers.

Suffice it to say there were plenty of evangelical women there and ordained Pentecostal women as well, which is fitting since Pentecostal flocks have been ordaining women as evangelists, missionaries and pastors for decades — long before liberal Protestants took that leap. As you would expect in the Rocky Mountain West, there were also plenty of women present from the left side of church aisles, including clergy from Episcopal, United Methodist, Presbyterian (PCUSA), Lutheran (ELCA) and other similar churches.

Then again, there were evangelicals and charismatics from the Episcopal Church, too. It was a complex scene.

I quickly learned that while these women were united in their support for the ordination of women, they often had completely different reasons for this innovation. Also, there were larger issues — moral and doctrinal — that separated them, including issues linked to biblical authority, Christology and salvation. Some of the women had edited, slashed or redefined chunks of the Nicene Creed, while others had not.

But wait, I hear you saying out there in cyberspace, what in the heckfire does this have to do with the Rev. Fred Phelps and his infamous crew from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.?

You see, the editors at Baptist Press recently recirculated a report from 2003 that did something very interesting. It allowed Phelps — whose small, completely independent Baptist congregation is dominated by members of his own family — to answer some basic questions about what he believes and even why he believes it. This included allowing him to bash the Southern Baptist Convention, which he believes is a highly compromised, even liberal, denomination offering what he called a “kiss-pooh” theology of love.

In other words, what we have here is a truly radical figure who, on the surface, may seem to share some important beliefs with the giant SBC, America’s second largest religious body after the Catholic Church. In many mainstream press reports, journalists often assume that Phelps is merely another conservative Baptist, leaving readers to assume that millions of other Baptist conservatives in America — in a wide array of SBC and independent flocks — hold similar beliefs.

In reality, Phelps and the SBC tend to disagree even when it appears that they agree, or they have radically different reasons for believing what they do believe. Like I said, as a journalist I have seen similar things happen on the religious left (take conferences on environmentalism, for example) as well as the right.

Needless to say, the Baptist Press report contains all kinds of things that are sure to tick off liberal Christians of all kinds. But there is much there to interest those who are willing, for journalistic reasons, to listen to the actual voice of Phelps and to hear him state some stunningly radical — and for traditional Christians, heretical — beliefs. There are quotes here worth using again, with proper attribution, of course, the next time Phelps and his crew come to a venue near your newsroom.

Check this out:

To say that his views are on the fringe of evangelical belief would be an understatement. He doesn’t believe the sin of homosexuality is forgivable. Thus, he doesn’t believe that homosexuals can be saved.

“No, I don’t think that homosexuals can be saved,” Phelps said. He pointed to Romans 1, where he says homosexuals have “been given up by God. … It’s the only sin that by definition the adherents are proud of. You’ve never heard of an adulterous pride parade. You’ve never heard of anybody boasting and bragging about their sin.”

Interestingly, Phelps says that he’d “be glad if they all get saved,” although he doesn’t believe it’s possible. Questioned about Christians who have come out of the homosexual lifestyle, Phelps said he has yet to see a solid example.

“I’m still waiting to see one,” he said.

Then there’s the death penalty for homosexuals. Phelps is for it — although not by stoning. He once sent letters to every member of Congress — as well as every United Nations leader — telling them that capital punishment for homosexuals was the first step toward worldwide repentance.

“We [would] do it by lethal injection and other more humane so-called means,” he said. “But however this or that state does it, every last state ought to make it a crime and assess the penalty for it at death.”

Like I said, this will be hard reading for all kinds of people on the left and right. But It’s good to see Phelps spell out his beliefs on the record. File this, if you have a strong stomach.

Westboro’s swing at anti-Semitism

We’ve debated before whether Westboro Baptist Church is worthy of newsprint. Probably not. But the group likely won’t go away if we simply ignore it, which seems to be what The Washington Post had in mind when leaving any mention of Westboro out of this story about their protest at the school the Obama girls attend.

Westboro is notorious for protesting outside soldier funerals and for its slogan “God Hates Fags.” Lately, Fred Phelps’ church has turned its attention to “filthy, Christ-reject Jews.” (Excuse their poor grammar and check out the e-mails I’ve been getting.)

Religion News Service picks up on this strategic change for the “anti-gay church.” From reporter Matthew E. Berger:

Taking a break from yelling at passersby and singing homophobic lyrics to the tune of the Jewish celebratory song “Hava Nagila,” Margie Phelps explained the change in tactic. “We’ve protested this nation’s love of f**s for 20 years,” she said. “And Jews have been carrying the water for the homosexual agenda.”

“This is more about generating ink and outrage than it is about attacking Jews per say,” said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “But their language is absolutely Hitler-esque. They talk of filthy Jews and Jews murdering Christ.”

Since April, Westboro members have protested more than 200 Jewish institutions and sent thousands of anti-Semitic faxes to American Jewish officials. “I guess they felt it was a successful tactic,” said Deborah Lauter, the national civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League.

The knee-jerk reaction from many Jewish groups has been to counter protest, and some Hillels and Jewish organizations have formed elaborate programs to drown out Westboro’s cries. But because the church’s protests are often small and short, Jewish leaders have suggested organizations ignore them instead.

“They’re doing this to try and provoke, so we don’t believe it is in the community’s best interest to engage with them,” Lauter said. “We believe it’s just giving them too much attention.”

But sometimes it is hard to fight the urge.

There is a lot packed into this story — a lot of great details which really paint the picture. But Berger doesn’t really answer the question of why it may be hard to fight the urge. Maybe he thought it was too painfully obvious, but not all readers would agree.

Just look at what Westboro did with Hava Nagila in the above video.

There is a much deeper historic context here. It’s hundreds if not thousands of years old. (Actually, it’s most certainly the latter.) It’s quite different to attack Jews for supporting gay rights than for, saying, killing Jews and using the blood of gentile children in their matzo, but how might protests directed at Jews as Jews look like the anti-Semitic attacks that every Jews grows up learning about — and many still experience, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on college campuses.

To be sure, Berger picked up on a trend here that I have seen mentioned nowhere else — a trend that hammers home the fact that Fred Phelps and his Westboro follows aren’t going away. The forest is there, and so are the trees. But the general landscape seems to be missing.

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.

Westboro worthy of newsprint?

The Westboro Baptist Church must be the most objectionable Christian community in the United States. You know them from their “God Hates Fags” and “God Loves Dead Soldiers” posters and from their inability to find communion with pretty much any other Christians. They are a fringe organization, not simply “fundamentalists,” with less followers than countless minority religious groups spread across the country.

I can’t remember the last time I saw an article about Jainism, or even Buddhism, so when should journalists spill ink on the Westboro Baptist Church?

That’s a question Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear, who chose not to pay any attention to Fred Phelps and his Westboro congregation when they showed up in Chi-Town to blame Jews for killing Jesus, asked at her blog, The Seeker. Brachear doesn’t actually answer the question, but, in a blogging style that is more reportorial than most, she speaks with a few rabbis and the head of Religion News Service about whether Westboro is worthy of newsprint:

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover of Temple Sholom in Chicago said members of the congregation faced the same “tough decision” I did and decided shouting back would give the group too much legitimacy.

“There are lots of different and creative ways to protest,” Conover said. “But the more we do to get press coverage for them, the more we do a disservice to religion in general.”

Kevin Eckstrom, president of the Religion Newswriters Association, said “you can’t not cover them. The question is how much coverage do you give them.”

“The best way to cover them is to put them in perspective,” he added. “Say they’re radical, fringe, outside the mainstream and let their rhetoric speak for itself.”

I tend to agree with Eckstrom, though I think Westboro only needs to be covered when they are actually making news. (See: the lawsuit that followed their protest of Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral.) But at the same time reporters should be mindful that when they devote one of a finite number of daily news stories to a single church notable only because of the noise they make, that inevitably means there is that much less news space for more significant religion stories.

Not to extol the reportorial balance of Michael Moore, but in this video a skinnier Moore invites Phelps onto a very unholy bus

What’s in the Westboro name?

Westboro Baptist ChurchIt is interesting to watch how journalists cover the ongoing legal saga of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church. The most recent news has a judge cutting in half the punitive damage award granted by a jury to the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder after the group protested at the Marine’s funeral.

If you haven’t heard, this group isn’t you average set of protesters. They show up at soldiers funerals and hold signs that say “Thank God for dead soldiers” and say they believe soldiers are being killed overseas as part of God’s punishment for “the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.”

Here’s the Associated Press in The Kansas City Star:

BALTIMORE — A federal judge in Baltimore has upheld the October jury verdict in the lawsuit brought against a Kansas-based fundamentalist church group for its anti-gay protest at the 2006 Maryland funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq….

Westboro members believe U.S. deaths in Iraq are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Needless to say, these protests are especially disgusting, and it would be hard to find a journalist out there that would want speech such as this protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. It would be interesting though for a journalist to find a group or person that believes that this type of speech should be protected outside the Westboro group. My guess is that finding someone would be pretty difficult.

Since free speech is not really the issue anymore in this case, the big question is whether or not $10.9 million is a proper amount of money to both deter the group and restore the family of Lance Cpl. Snyder.

As the author of The Baltimore Sun version of the story rightly states, the federal judge’s reduction in the punitive damage award to $2.1 million may not ultimately stand. The jury in the trial granted additional compensatory damages totaling $2.9 million.

This Sun story does an especially good job describing the legal posture of the case and accurately explains the issues at stake. But take a look at how the author frames the Westboro group in both the lead and later on in the story because it has some significant implications:

A federal judge in Baltimore substantially reduced Monday the amount of damages a Kansas-based anti-gay group and three of its leading members must pay for their protest at a Marine’s funeral in Westminster….

Made up almost entirely of relatives of its founder, Fred Phelps Sr., the fire-and-brimstone Christian group, based in Topeka, has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

The story refers to the group as a church several times throughout the story but only refers to its claim to be a Baptist church once, and that is when its technical title is mentioned. Clearly there are plenty of Baptists out there who would not want to associate with the Westboro group. While it is necessary to include the group’s given title, it might be worth noting that the church is not affiliated with any Baptist conventions or associations and no Baptist institution recognizes the group.

Also note that the AP described the group as fundamentalist. Can journalists really use that word to describe anything these days? There are so many ways to criticize the use of that word that it’s grown rather useless for the purposes of news reporting.

Of course there is the question of whether or not it is appropriate to call this group a church. They claim to follow Calvinist and Baptist principles, but some believe that the group is more accurately described as a cult than a church. Of course, how you define a cult? As Terry pointed out earlier, it’s not easily done.

Do skewed churches deserve skewed coverage?

Funny, isn’t it? So many people recoiled in horror at the judgmentalism of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Now that he’s dead and gone — but the church is still here to kick around — a lot of journalists seemingly can’t spew insults fast enough.

One of the thickest volleys of darts flew from the International Business Times, which listed tweets of the rich and famous — and judgmental. Some vented spite on a fire-and-brimstone level. “If there is a hell, then he is there,” TV host Andy Cohen tweeted.

And Roseanne Barr used the occasion to damn all faith: “Fred Phelps liberated millions of ppl from slavery to religion by exposing its heart of darkness.”

Yes, these are lively direct quotes. But IBT’s Maria Vultaggio wasn’t content to quote. No, she had to try a little skewing herself:

Infamous Westboro Baptist Church head Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. died in Topeka, Kan., Wednesday night, a few days after he was reported to be excommunicated from his own church. The notorious group, which many consider a cult, gained national notoriety for its hateful antics.

Granted, Phelps and his Topeka, Kan.-based church were not exactly popular. To say the least. These folks have waved pickets, stood on American flags and fixated on homosexuality and their imagined mission to confront it. They’ve spread anguish at the funerals of veterans and terrorism victims. And the “About” page of its own website says “hate” or “hates” or “hated” six times — and links to “sister sites” that tell how God also hates Islam, the media and for that matter the whole world.

And when you combine anti-gay attitudes, institutional religion and a small, easily targeted congregation, the temptation is apparently too much — even for media that are supposed to deliver facts unskewed.

The Huffington Post catalogued 10 counter-demonstrations by gays and other liberals: bikers, grandmas, children, human walls, a man dressed as God, women dressing as angels, men kissing in front of the Westboro picketers. HuffPost even dipped into 2011 to recall a pro-gay song by the Foo Fighters.

But we’re not sharp enough to get the point of all that propaganda. HuffPost also felt the need to tell us:

Not missing the chance to fight hatred with love, many inspiring advocates of equality have come out over the years to counter-protest the WBC. These peaceful demonstrations show the power of love, compassion and gentle humor to combat the WBC’s message of intolerance.

Some music writers revved up verbal chainsaws after hearing that Westboro planned to picket a concert in Kansas City. Here’s a good example from the Kansas City Star:

Pucker up, people. The Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest pop star Lorde’s concert at the Midland on Friday and she has a suggestion: Plant a big ol’ wet one on a protester.

You know, a little man-on-man, woman-on-woman action.

The “Royals” singer – who was influenced by an old photo of George Brett when writing her monster hit – sounded excited to hear that she had made Westboro’s playlist.

“Hahaha omg just found out westboro baptist church are going to picket my show in kansas city,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

She tweeted two more suggestions: Everyone wear rainbow clothing to the show and “everyone try to kiss church members who are same sex as you they will so love it christmas comin early in kansas city.”

Not that Westboro people act like meek martyrs. The Star writer quotes a remark from the church website:

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Say what!? A Phelps story even Joe Friday would approve

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Bad journalism makes for good GetReligion posts.

See “‘Fred Phelps has been excommunicated’ and other gossip” and “Do journalists need to crank up the Phelps vitriol? Really?”

Those excellent posts by Jim Davis and Terry Mattingly highlight the media’s sins in reporting on the dire health situation of Phelps, founder of the famous — for all the wrong reasons — Westboro Baptist Church.

Our tmatt, in super-punctuation mode, urges:

So journalists, please just quote people. That. Will. Be. Wild. Enough.

How wild is this? I’m going to praise a reporter for using a technique straight out of Journalism 101 to report the Phelps story.

Here’s the straight-news lede — inverted-pyramid style — atop CNN Godbeat pro Daniel Burke’s report (hint: he just quotes people):

(CNN) – Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas congregation known for picketing funerals with anti-gay signs, called reports that its founder, Fred Phelps, is near death “speculative.”

“Fred Phelps has health issues,” the church said in a statement Sunday, “but the idea that someone would suggest that he is near death, is not only highly speculative, but foolish considering that all such matters are the sole prerogative of God.”

Nathan Phelps, the estranged son of Fred Phelps, posted a Facebook message Sunday saying his father was “at the edge of death” at a hospice in Topeka, Kansas, where Westboro Baptist Church has long been a controversial presence.

Nathan Phelps also said his father had been excommunicated from the church. “I’m not sure how I feel about this,” he added. “Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.”

Westboro declined to say whether or not its patriarch has been excommunicated. The church’s statement said that “membership issues are private” and that eight unnamed “elders” lead the Westboro congregation.

A church spokesman declined to respond to follow-up questions.

Burke attributes the disputed details to named sources and leaves it to readers to determine each party’s credibility.

In his post, tmatt suggests:

Meanwhile, it’s crucial for readers — journalists and news consumers alike — to grasp just how wild the doctrines of the Westboro crew really are, when compared with Christian orthodoxy.

The CNN report provides this crucial background:

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Do journalists need to crank up the Phelps vitriol? Really?

At this point, it’s pretty clear that coverage of the demise of the Rev. Fred Phelps is going to test the limits of what mainstream journalists are willing and able to print in hard-news stories in mainstream newspapers.

As our own Jim Davis noted yesterday, the editors at The New York Daily News approved a clever, but rather column-esque, lede on their basic news story on the reports (originating from estranged son Nathan Phelps) that the anti-gay patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church was on his death bed, after being kicked out of his own congregation for reasons that have not yet been documented. For those catching up on that story, the lede stated: “No one’s going to protest against this guy’s death.”

I think that what they really meant to say was that “no one’s going” to mourn “this guy’s death,” as opposed to saying that no one is going to protest at the Phelps funeral, whenever that event takes place.

Actually, if the key elements of some of these stories hold up, I would say that there is a pretty good chance that members of the Westboro Baptist Church are going to protest at his funeral. Also, I would be stunned if no one on the cultural left, or from the cultural middle, or the normal cultural right, showed up at his funeral with signs of various kinds, either obnoxious or graceful or all points in between. No one expects Phelps to go quietly into that good night (see this USA Today report as a sign of things to come).

Interestingly enough, there is evidence that the original Daily News lede contained even blunter language of a rather editorial nature. One former GetReligionista, on her mobile, saw an original version of the daily story that referred to Phelps as the founder of the “hate-fueled Westboro Baptist Church.” This language quickly vanished, but remained alive on other pages — see this screen-capture image.

Also, echoes of this reference showed up in the International Business Times, which noted:

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