Religion Sociologist Christine Woodman offers a step-by-step guide for defeating Westboro Baptist Church – and it’s not what you think.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in August, after the Sikh temple shootings. Because of recent news of the shootings in Newtown Connecticut, we wanted to once again share Ms. Woodman’s advice regarding how best to make Westboro go away – which is, essentially, to ignore them.
As someone who studies the sociology of religion, I have to admit that I am often jealous of those in the “hard sciences” who get to cure diseases and create cars that run on hydrogen. Sciences like chemistry, physics, medicine and psychology are making the world better in very concrete ways. Meanwhile, our work is pretty much theoretical stuff that even policy wonks have a hard time digesting.
Then two days ago as I was slogging through yet more piles of PDF’s filled with charts and data, I heard the horrible news about the shooting at the Sikh temple, and the truly ugly twitter response issued by Westboro Baptist. That is when it hit me: sociology of religion can do something about as important as finding a cure for the common cold. We know what makes religious groups succeed, and more importantly we know what makes them die. That’s right folks, we can help you shut down Westboro Baptist and end all of their truly despicable behavior.
Think of us as infectious disease specialists. We can give a diagnosis, explain how the infection is spread, and recommend a course of treatment that should be highly effective. But ultimately implementing the cure is up to us as a society. If we behave like so many people with strep throat have done and stop taking the treatment as soon as we are feeling better, the infection will return with a vengeance.
For those of you who just want the prescription so that you can be on your way, I’ll offer that in the next paragraph. But for those of you who want a diagnosis, to understand how the infection spreads, why Westboro is such a dangerous bug and why the treatment is likely to work, I will go into that in the next section.
Here is the prescription: take two pills of apathy and never call them in the morning. We have to stop caring, stop listening, stop following their tweets and stop reacting in any way shape or form when they do horrible things. But this course of treatment must be applied religiously, if you will forgive the expression.
We must insist on a total media blackout. If a news outlet reports on Westboro, we must deluge the outlet with calls, emails and twitters demanding that they never mention Westboro again. We must refrain from blogging, Tweeting or Facebooking and when our friends do it, we must remind them that shunning is a more effective method of social control than armed soldiers. The way that we as a society have been responding to Westboro is like pouring Miracle Grow on kudzu. By paying attention to all of their horrible stunts we have been doing everything possible to ensure their success.
President Obama said that we would protect the funerals and graves of soldiers as “sacred ground.” We need to refer to the law not as a measure against Westboro but as a way of honoring fallen soldiers and their loved ones. Westboro will undoubtedly challenge the law in the Supreme Court, but we need not ever mention the church or what it does when discussing the case. We can simply ask if religious free speech should be allowed in every place including the places we hold sacred.
Now that I have given you my prescription, let me explain why it is necessary, how it will work and why. But before we begin that discussion of the religious marketplace in America, I feel that I should clarify what it means when Westboro calls itself a Baptist church.
To start with, there are no requirements a church must meet to call itself Baptist. Calling your church Baptist is like calling your restaurant a Pizzeria. The food/religion police are not going to come around and shut down your restaurant/church if you are serving Chinese food or teaching what most Baptists would consider heresy. So asking other Baptists to hold Westboro accountable or damning all Baptists based on the actions of Westboro is again, like asking other pizzerias in a town to shut down or swearing off all pizzerias because of the one who did not serve pizza at all.
If you really want to know who is to blame for Westboro Baptists, we have to go back to those pesky framers of the Constitution who gave us all freedom of religion. What that means, in economic language, is that they created a free market for religion. We can think of each religion as a firm, competing for its share of a religious market. Some of the firms, like the Catholic church, are gigantic multi-national firms with franchises in every burg. Then there are mega-firms like Joel Osteeen’s church. They don’t have franchises, but they dominate the market in their local area. For mom-and-pop firms who are not a franchise and are located in an area like Topeka, the religious marketplace is a hard-knock life.
Small firms have three choices: they can stagnate, in which case their pastor had better have a day job and the church can expect to die as its founding members age. They can hire a charismatic pastor. Unfortunately for Westboro, Fred Phelps is about as charismatic as the proverbial old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. Their third option is to have a very strict religion that creates a great deal of tension with society so that the few members a small firm has will devote themselves almost entirely to the church.
It would make sense that people would be more devoted to religions which are popular, exude compassion and forgiveness and do not have a lot of strict rules for their members. But sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke found the exact opposite to be true. The stricter a church is on its members, the more it condemns outsiders and the more contentious its relationship is with society, the more dedicated its members will be. If Felps chilled out, his church would survive a year, two at the most. Certainly it would not generate enough income to make him a full-time pastor. More importantly, if society simply refuses to be contentious with an extremist religious group it will often simply wither.
The way that the law of supply and demand works in the religious marketplace is that the more controversial and contentious a religion is, the more attractive it is to the followers who are most likely to be devout. The more mainstream and ubiquitous a religion is the less people will be devoted. There are few Anglican extremists for a reason. England has a relatively open religious market, but it also has a state religion. People just stop giving a damn when a religion becomes sanctioned but not mandated.
What makes Westboro so unusual is that they broke out of the relatively small religious marketplace of Topeka and figured out how to carve a niche for themselves in the national religious market. They did this by committing outrageous acts that would garner media attention. While this has not made them grow in terms of numbers, their little band of forty now works almost exclusively for the church. In essence, they have forty full-time employees.
To put that in perspective, the average mega-church in America has right around 4000 people who regularly attend and 40 full time employees. That is a ratio of 100 for every 1 full-time staff person for mega-churches. Talk about downsizing; Phelps has figured out how to have all of the human resources of a church with thousands of members without having to actually minister to all those people.
So, why is it important to make sure that Phelps’ little firm goes out of business? It is important because they are setting the ceiling in terms of cost for the religious marketplace. They have created such an extremely contentious relationship with society that they have actually set a new ceiling for the religious market in the United States. In other words, they are creating hate-inflation. For other firms to compete they have to have a relationship with society at least within shooting distance of Westboro. And that is how we end up with pastors trying to burn the Quran for media attention.
Stark and Finke figured out that the religious marketplace follows a bell-curve. On one end are the very conservative and contentious firms and on the other end are the very liberal. Most religious firms will fall in that big middle area. So when we get firms like Westboro who keep moving the ceiling further and further into contention with society, the entire religious marketplace is dragged along behind it. Churches now have to declare that they are being persecuted by the government in order to even remain competitive.
A good first step to bringing down the level of contention between the Christian Right and liberals is to shut down the firm of Westboro Baptist and other similar small firms who are creating this inflation. We do that by cutting off their supply of the one thing they need: conflict with society. We stop feeding the kudzu of religious extremism the Miracle Grow of outrage. Shunning—not fighting—is how we win.
Editor’s note: Despite the massive availability of photographs of Westboro members and their horrifying hate-filled protest signs, we have made a conscious choice not to reproduce those images, messages or the faces of Westboro’s members in this post.
Lead image of a church steeple courtesy of Shutterstock