MTV star and Religious Studies scholar Susie Meister spoke with two members of the Westboro Baptist Church because she believes we can all learn something from them.
Hate Group. Cult Members. Fearmongers. Bigots. I know what people say about the Westboro Baptist Church. This Kansas church run by leader Fred Phelps, Sr. (a former civil rights attorney who is now disbarred) and comprised mostly of Phelps family members has made quite a name for themselves with their colorful signs reading “God Hates Fags” and other inflammatory slogans. They picket at military funerals and other high-profile events. They are openly jubilant when innocent people die, claiming it was in God’s just plan. I know who they are and what they believe, but I chose to interview them for my podcast, The Meister Piece, anyway.
Many think the constant media exposure of the Westboro Baptist Church is part of the problem. People ask why we would give them so much attention when all we’re doing is promoting their hateful message. In preparing my guest list for my podcast I was faced with these same thoughts. Why would I use my platform to provide a voice for a group who openly condemns homosexuals, uses slurs, and believes God not only allows, but orchestrates, horrific acts on humanity for their disobedience?
As a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies, I was interested in speaking to the Westboro Baptist Church to better understand their theology. In the same way it is important to study the life and politics of Adolf Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan, it is also important to understand theology (however revolting it might seem). I wasn’t interested in debating with them or condemning them publicly. I decided my intellectual interests and genuine curiosity justified my interview. I knew that it would be seen as a provocative and I ran the risk of being accused of being an accomplice to their hate.
Steve Drain, who is a convert to the church, handles all of their media requests. Incidentally, his daughter recently wrote a book, Banished, describing her experience in and excommunication from the group. I requested an interview with Shirley Phelps-Roper who is an outspoken media presence and has appeared on “Tyra,” “Hannity and Colmes,” and other shows. I was told I could get an interview, but I wasn’t told with whom. We “met” over Skype and the caller was Rachel Phelps Hockenbarger. She is a daughter of Fred Phelps, and says they have been on the streets picketing for 22 years.
She was attractive, articulate, charming, and sweet. She said a lot of things that most people find offensive, but she also revealed a commitment to her community, her family, and, of course, her faith. A mother of seven children, Rachel had just come back from hot yoga, and apologized for her rosy cheeks. The idea that a member of the Westboro Baptist Church does hot yoga was fascinating to me. She said her kids get all A’s and one of her sons wants to be an animator. I know a lot of you are probably angry that I would even bother to include this information—why would I want to humanize someone who spews judgment and seems to condone violence towards innocent people? I guess the short answer is because that’s how I would want to be treated and I believe in the “Golden Rule.” Her behavior has no influence on how I believe she should be treated. And her beliefs do not change my call to love my neighbor.
Two days after our interview, bombs went off in Boston. I chose not to post my interview, and instead asked Rachel if I could speak to her one more time to ask about why they see the bombs as God-ordained. She agreed. When she called on Skype this time, there was a sign behind her that said, “God Sent the Bombs.” She believes the bombs were an act of judgment towards Massachusetts for being the first states to legalize same-sex marriage. In her theology, God actively intervenes in good and bad ways to demonstrate his approval and disapproval towards humans. While most of us see the bombs as a demonstration of evil or at least very sick thinking, the Westboro Baptist Church believes they are a part of God’s divine plan.
Theologically, the Westboro Baptist Church is a testament to how one’s interpretation of the Bible (or most sacred texts) can make almost anything defensible. In their worldview, love includes condemnation of the things they believe God hates including homosexuality. They are Calvinists who believe everything that happens is pre-determined, both on earth as well as in the afterlife. They are not interested in converting you. They believe God has already chosen who He wants to be saved and damned. They see their picketing and the hateful signs they hold as a demonstration of love. They say that their focus on homosexuality is merely in response to society’s obsession with it. They have an affinity for the God of the Old Testament, who was quite merciless in his judgment, wrath, and hellfire for those who disobeyed. While most Christians now tend to gloss over or dismiss the evidence for a vengeful God, the Westboro Baptist Church focuses on it. The God who coordinated an earth-wide flood, had a hand in wars, and ruined the life of Job, demonstrates how God is actively engaged in earthly matters, according to them.
I find the Westboro Baptist Church’s interpretation of the Bible to be profoundly inaccurate, selective, and skewed, but I suppose mine is too. I prefer to focus on social justice, unconditional love, and tolerance. Maybe we’re all guilty of confirmation bias with regard to our faith—we find whatever texts and doctrines support our existing worldview and choose those as the foundation for our belief system. In the case of Westboro Baptist Church, it seems the heavy hand, charisma, and dominance that Fred Phelps Sr. has demonstrated towards his family and church drives most of their biblical interpretations. I know many of you will write comments below quoting Scripture about “casting the first stone,” “God is love,” and the fruits of the spirit, and I spoke to Rachel about those things, but that is not how they choose to see their God.
In the end, perhaps if we were all as devoted to our beliefs and as enthusiastic about unbridled love towards our fellow man as the Westboro Baptist Church is about their dogma, maybe love would win. They are not violent (physically) and are well-versed in their rights to picket even when their message is offensive. I celebrate that we live in a country where even the most disgusting message can be spoken and the most repulsive religious expressions are legal as long as they don’t infringe upon mine. In the end, I know love wins. I just wish the Westboro Baptist Chruch knew what love is. I can only hope I live a life that compels them to picket my funeral.