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Trying to get to the nub of what is wrong about the theology of the Westboro Baptist Church tells us a lot about the core of Christianity
Fred Phelps, the founder of the bigoted Westboro Baptist Church, has passed away. Much has been written about his death but I’ve yet to see anything that addressed Phelps on his own terms: as a purported messenger of God.
It is perhaps easy to see why this is. The church and its outrageous behaviour seem to positively invite analysis through an anthropological lens: they can look like a very strange tribe that happens to be found in Kansas rather than Papua New Guinea. By contrast, engaging seriously with its theology feels odd. Aside from its extremism and talent for generating publicity for itself, it is a pretty unremarkable outfit. Certainly its size does not command respect: it is ‘a church’ in the sense of a congregation not a denomination. Phelps had only a handful of followers who were mostly members of his extended family. Nor do they speak for anyone beyond this tiny circle: he achieved the remarkable feet of making his anti-gay crusade as unpalatable to conservatives as liberals. And it does not seem like Phelps ideas will be illuminating ones to engage with. In Louis Theroux’s documentary the Most Hated Family in America, the filmmaker is berated by one of Phelps’ followers for asking “the guy who has by far the most scriptural knowledge of anyone crawling on this earth” about anything other than theology. Yet when Theroux interviews Phelps again and this time questions him about his belief system, what becomes apparent is not the wisdom of the supposed scriptural supremo but the fact that he is not articulate enough to explain what he thinks in an intelligible way. Therefore, one could be forgiven for not bothering with the ideology of this unpleasant little cult.
However, I would argue that we should. We can debate whether or not they are a cult. But it is clear that unlike a stereotypical cult, their religious beliefs are not esoteric but recognisably Christian. Fred Phelps began his career as a minister within the Southern Baptist Church. And while he’s strayed far from even this very conservative denomination, his faith still retains the core elements of Christianity: Jesus, the Bible etc. It is instructive to ask how one of our own has reassembled these elements to build something so grizzly.
Their theology states that, as hyper-Calvinists, that not only does God predestine who is going to heaven or hell but every other thing, good and bad, that happens to people. While the WBC does not believe that anyone can say who is saved and who is not (not even them), there is no hope of salvation outside of the church. Not everyone inside the church may be “elect” (saved), but it’s pretty clear that those outside the church aren’t. The church is like Noah’s Ark. All the people banging on the door of the Ark to get in as the flood waters rose — that’s the rest of us. Being on the outside of the Ark is terrifying. Nate Phelps, who left the church a generation ago and is a self-described atheist, has said that the fear of hell, a hell that is consistently described to members in graphic and horrific detail, is almost inescapable. This trauma is common for ex-members.
So what’s wrong with this picture? There are perhaps two obvious answers suggested by the Church’s behaviour. Firstly, that its hostility to ‘faggots’ and ‘fornication’ is wrong. However, this is beside the point: many Christians share these positions but don’t wind up holding signs saying ‘faggots eat poop’ by funerals. The other obvious answer would be that they need to be more loving. That’s true but trite. It just begs another question: what error lead them to a position so devoid of love.
I would suggest that the problem is that they make Christianity about damnation rather than salvation. They are ‘spreading the gospel’ not so that people will follow it but so God can punish them for not doing so. In Theroux’s documentary Shirley Phelps – Fred’s daughter and the day to day manager of the Church – actually scoffs at the notion that they are trying to save souls. The Church seems to luxuriate in the notion of God judging sinners. One of Phelps’ granddaughters smirks while explaining that Theroux will go to hell. When he asks her why, she explains it gives her “pleasure to know that God will…carry out his wrath.”
This focus is at odds with scripture. The Apostle Paul explains that: “God our Saviour…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” The Church’s central claim that God came to earth, died on a cross and resurrected himself so that a single family in Kansas could be saved is absurd. To claim that he would delight in the demise of the rest of humanity is to insult him.
Phelps’ beliefs are so manifestly inaccurate and so universally condemned that I would be prepared to describe him as a heretic. All people remake God in their own image: for Phelps that meant making him into a bile spewing shepherd of tiny flock of Kansans. He would leave many victims in his wake, not least among them members of his own family. For his sake, I hope he finds God far more forgiving of heretics than he dared to imagine.