Demonstrating the kind of lovingkindness that has made Westboro Baptist Church so famous around the country and indeed around the world, Timothy Phelps (the fifth son of the ‘Reverend’ Fred Phelps) jumped into a recent conversation here at Patheos to assert that his nieces Megan and Grace, who famously left Westboro Baptist “Church” recently, did not actually leave the church because of legitimate doubts about the church’s teachings but simply because they wanted to enjoy a little fornication every now and then.
Let me back up. Megan Phelps-Roper described beautifully what it was like to live within the Westboro Baptist way of viewing the world, how all-encompassing it was, and what it was like when the entire edifice began to fall apart, brick by brick. One of our bloggers, Stephen McCaskell, published a thoughtful reflection on the forgiveness God lavishes upon those who have confessed their sins, as Megan and Grace did, and the new being and the new life that are given to them in Christ. And there in the comments (the identity is confirmed as far as possible) is Timothy Phelps. He writes:
Here is the accurate view of these two ladies who in fact left for … hold your applause … you’ll be surprised (NOT) … sex: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”
He is citing Jeremiah 2:13, and also mentions 2 Timothy 2:19, as he denounces the preachers of “sloppy agape” who pretend to love people like Megan and Grace but do (he claims) the supremely unloving thing of not telling them the truth. And the truth is apparently that they are lost in iniquity and headed for damnation. As he explains in a later comment (ellipses his):
“Love” in scripture does not equal the fickle affection and lust of humans. It refers to the pure love of God … flows from God … and has to be in accordance with His standard, set forth in His book. Leviticus 19:17-18 describes it … and it includes the duty to warn your fellow man against proud sin. If you do NOT do so, you demonstrate hatred in your heart for that man. Megan stopped loving her fellow man … and replaced it with the Satanic hatred of encouraging them (beginning with her adultery-seeking sister Grace) to sin without restraint. She will be required of God to answer for her sins … and the sins of those she failed to sincerely warn ( if you credit Ezekiel chapters 3 and 33). Megan knows this very well.
So his niece Grace left Westboro Baptist in search of sex, and Megan is committing the “satanic hatred” of encouraging Grace to “sin without restraint.” Got it. Timothy Phelps is happy to say this publicly about his nieces, I suppose, because “those foolish girls” need to hear the truth, and he cannot communicate with them directly because they’re now shunned. That’s family love, Phelps style.
It’s hardly surprising that a member of the Phelps family would denounce “those foolish girls” in these terms. When other of Fred Phelps’ children or grandchildren have left the ‘church’ — including the sons who described their father as a drug-addled child abuser who formed the cult to vent his hatred upon the world — they too have been denounced as leaving in search of sinful pleasures. The fact that they may have found a more truthful way of reading the scripture, a more Christ-like perspective on God and life, is apparently impossible. The possibility that they may have seen through the veil, the hypocrisy, the fortress of ignorance that Mr Phelps has built around his family, likewise cannot be mentioned. Instead they must be leaving because their lusts have overpowered them. Riiiight.
What’s remarkable to me is the fact that we’re talking about this at all. Why does Westboro Baptist command such attention on the national stage? It’s a tiny congregation (it claimed 40 members in 2011, primarily members of the Phelps family, almost all of them lawyers). It’s a cult by any definition of the term, a hate group by all accounts, and it possesses no influence whatsoever within the Christian church. The founder of the group, Fred Phelps, was once a small-time celebrity for his work as a civil rights lawyer and then a budding politico in the Democratic Party (yes, you read that right). But once he founded his ‘church’ and they began to brandish “God Hates Fags” placards and picket the funerals of dead soldiers, surely the decent thing would have been to ignore them. Their ‘ministry’ requires the oxygen of media attention. So, starve them of the oxygen.
Unfortunately, for people with certain agendas, Westboro Baptist Church is highly convenient. It gives them a dark black brush with which to paint the whole of conservative Christianity. Never mind that evangelicals have no interest whatsoever in Fred Phelps and what he says. The message is: you may not be as bad as Westboro Baptist, but there’s a kind of family resemblance between their Christianity and yours, their condemnation of homosexuality and yours. Like the Koran-burner Terry Jones, the Phelps clan is helpful to certain critics of conservative Christianity because it serves, they would say, to show the hatred and the violence at the heart of the system. Or at least the hatred and violence that emerges with greater and greater clarity and force the further you move rightward along the spectrum. That the Phelpses cannot really be located on any coherent spectrum, religiously or politically, is conveniently ignored.
It was remarkable to witness the elation in some quarters of the internet at Megan and Grace’s departure. I’m glad too, for Megan and Grace’s sake. But the Westboro Baptist Church only has cultural power to the extent we give it to them. Why don’t we stop?
Note: Some WordPress issues resulted in an earlier version of the post title, where Grace was mistakenly called Alice, going to publish (a legacy still visible in the URL). Megan’s sister’s name is Grace, not Alice.