The Rev. Billy Graham is a Baptist and so is Bill Clinton.
The Rev. Rick “Purpose Driven Life” Warren is a Baptist and so is the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The Rev. Bob Jones III of Greenville, S.C., is a Baptist and so is the Rev. Al Sharpton, Jr., of New York. The Rev. Bill Moyers is a Baptist, or used to be, and that’s also true for the Rev. Pat Robertson.
There are all kinds of Baptists, so saying people are “Baptists” may do little to clarify what they actually believe.
But two things are clear. The first is that the Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., is a Baptist. The second is that millions of other Baptists wish Phelps and his infamous flock would stop calling themselves “Baptists.”
“It does make you cringe when you read about Phelps and Westboro, because you rarely see anyone stress that these people have no connections to Southern Baptists or to American Baptists or to anybody else,” said Greg Warner, editor of the Associated Baptist Press, one of two news agencies that cover Baptist life.
“This is just some of the baggage that comes with being Baptist. It goes with the territory.”
Phelps and his followers make keep making headlines because of their protests at military funerals, featuring signs with shocking slogans — such as “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The church has about 60 members, most of them related to Phelps, and teaches that God is punishing America because of this culture’s growing acceptance of homosexuality. A jury in Baltimore recently handed down a $10.9 million verdict against Westboro because of its ugly protests at the March 2006 funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who died in Iraq.
At its website — GodhatesAmerica.com — the church offers this history: “Established in 1955 by Pastor Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas still exists today as an Old School (or, Primitive) Baptist Church. … We adhere to the teachings of the Bible, preach against all form of sin (e.g., fornication, adultery, sodomy), and insist that the doctrines of grace be taught publicly to all men. These doctrines of grace were well summed up by John Calvin in his 5 points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Although these doctrines are almost universally hated today, they were once loved and believed.”
The church does not, however, appear to be part of the National Primitive Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. Then again, it isn’t linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Churches, the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., the Conservative Baptist Association of America, the American Baptist Association (Landmark Baptists), the Regular Baptist Churches, Reformed Baptist Churches, Free Will Baptist Churches, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Evangelical Life and Soul Saving Assembly of the U.S.A., the Independent, Fundamental Baptist Churches or any other known Baptist group.
Obviously, it’s hard for Baptists to agree on a common definition of what “Baptist” means. One online definition states: “A member of an evangelical Protestant church of congregational polity, following the reformed tradition in worship and believing in individual freedom, in the separation of church and state, and in baptism of voluntary, conscious believers.”
However, various streams of Baptist life predate the birth of the modern “evangelical” movement. And would Baptists agree they are “reformed” churches or “Reformed,” as in rooted in Calvinist teachings? Do Baptists today share a common understanding of the “separation of church and state”? Of course not.
All Baptists would, however, stress a congregational approach to church government and the autonomy of each local congregation. This means that it’s all but impossible for any Baptist flock to tell another flock what to do — unless they’re part of a larger voluntarily association or convention.
“Just about anyone can get themselves ordained and then say that they’ve started a church,” said Will Hall, head of the 16.4-million-member Southern Baptist Convention’s official Baptist Press news agency.
But in the case of Westboro Baptist, he said, it isn’t even enough “to call them an independent Baptist church, because they’re not typical of the many independent Baptist churches and missionary Baptist churches out there across America. This is a tiny church that’s out there all by itself and that’s the way they want it.”