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The easy self-satisfaction of opposing Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church

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I spent Monday morning on the Penn campus, where a few members of the anti-gay, anti-Semitic Westboro Baptist Church were greeted with hundreds and hundreds of counter-demonstrators — the culmination of a weekend during which church members were given rude welcomes all across Philadelphia and New Jersey.

Don’t kid yourselves. The Phelps folks loved the attention. Loved it. It’s the reason they exist — more than the message of hate they persistently and obnoxiously try to spread. Because, really, the more they try to spread it, the more they fail to do so.

I grew up in Kansas. Spent eight years in Lawrence, just a few miles down the road from where the Phelpses make their home base. I’ve even talked to Fred Phelps. Typically, though, we in the news business tried to ignore Fred as much as possible — and generally failed to do so because he’d come up with new, innovative ways to shock the conscience.

After all that time, what I’ve come to realize is this: Fred Phelps and his church have probably done more to advance the cause of gay acceptance than any other force in American history. And they’ve also done more to retard to progress of gay civil rights than is generally understood — but not for the reasons you might think.

Ever since Phelps and his clan burst onto the national scene in the 1990s by picketing the funerals of Matthew Shepard and Bill Clinton’s mother, it’s generally been considered gauche to engage in displays of outright homophobia and gay antagonism. With few exceptions, most mainstream folks engaged in battle against civil rights for gays try to adopt a “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach to the debate, forced to contrast themselves against the “hate the sin, hate the sinner” approach of Westboro. The lower temperature — believe it or not, it could be more heated — of the debate has been favorable to gays; so has the anti-Phelps backlash. People have realized they don’t want to be on the side of bigotry.

But here’s the thing: that also means the Phelpses represent only themselves. They are not a movement. They’re a sideshow, a few dozen people from the same family from a small Kansas town who happen to be unusually good at drawing negative attention to themselves. Wherever they go, they draw an unusual amount of energy from right-thinking folks — energy that I’m guessing doesn’t usually go into the nitty-gritty day-to-day efforts to achieve equality for gays.

It was really nice to see all those Penn kids out fighting the good fight today, really it was. But tomorrow the Phelpses will be back in Kansas and all the Penn kids will have is their good memories of taunting plainly evil people. Meanwhile, gay Pennsylvanians don’t have the right to marry — they don’t even actually have the legal right to be free from discrimination in their jobs and housing. And that’s a situation that’s not changing very quickly. It’s not Fred Phelps who stands in the way.

These Ivy League students are going to be tomorrow’s elite — I heard one student bragging about landing a job with CitiGroup this morning. If every one those hundreds of students were to take a few minutes to write or call a Pennsylvania legislator to urge them to act on behalf of gay civil rights — and did it again next week, and the week after that, and the week after that, and kept on going until the job was finished — they might eventually accomplish something. It’s easy to hate Fred Phelps; it’s easy to make an ostentatious display of “acceptance.” And it makes you feel good if you do it. But that’s all it does.

Doing the hard work of advocating for civil rights is harder, with less instant gratification, and is more likely to bring you in uncomfortable conflict with your friends, family and neighbors. It’s also more important. Time to stop wasting energy on the sideshows, kids.

  1. Wendy Rosenfield Says: Dec 7 5:15 PM

    You’re wrong… sort of. While I agree the work needs to continue after the carnival leaves town, and we need to advocate for legislation favoring equality for all, let’s remember that Westboro was protesting Jews as well as gays, and speaking as a Jew, it makes me feel a hell of a lot better that there were hundreds of counter-protesters out there. Jews may not need legislation supporting our right to marry (although we do appreciate those hate-crimes bills) or receive health benefits, but as a tiny minority of the U.S. population, in economic times that historically haven’t worked out so well for us, it’s pretty reassuring to see there’s support out there when we’re being targeted.

  2. Joel Mathis Says: Dec 7 5:20 PM

    Wendy: Fair point. You’ll note I took care to label Westboro as an “anti-gay, anti-Semitic” church, because I think their anti-Semitism is often overlooked, and that’s always confused me a bit.

    In any case, it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other! We should have the big symbolic displays of acceptance AND the day-to-day nitty gritty work of getting laws changed and enforced. My concern is that, where Phelps is concerned, you mostly get the former.

  3. Alex Says: Dec 7 5:32 PM

    I agree. This is not acceptable. A significant part of conservatives are not even accepting of this kind of protest. Thanks for the support guys, but it’s not close to enough. Take a second to write your congress person… or better yet, go to senate website and email someone that way. Lets get gay marriage legalized, and gays to be allowed to openly serve in the army. Believe me, Jim Gerlach knows my position already. Wendy, religious freedom is protected in the constitution for a very important reason. So is the freedom of speech. As much as I hate what they’re saying they’re allowed to say it. I live in Canada where hate speech is against the law. I don’t know how I feel about that, but we have a constitution that will always protect free speech (in my other country) and that will never change. Unfortunately we also have DOMA and the conservative right trying to amend the constitution for a very polarizing reason. This is about a call to action, not outrage over some numbskulls.

  4. Andrew E. Mathis Says: Dec 7 5:43 PM

    Well said, cousin Joel.

  5. Speedzzter Says: Dec 7 6:01 PM

    “Unfortunately we also have DOMA and the conservative right trying to amend the constitution for a very polarizing reason.”

    And the movement to force unpopular special rights and subsidies based upon ones’ public profession of homosexual conduct (requiring the wholesale rejection of centuries of social and legal traditions) isn’t “polarizing?”

    Phelps and Westboro are indeed a sideshow. Frankly, I wouldn’t be shocked if someday we find out that they’re bought and paid for by somebody in the homosexual rights lobby. Phelps and Westboro are “straw men” used by opinion leaders to discredit legitimate, reasoned objections to the liberal homosexual rights agenda.

  6. Wendy Rosenfield Says: Dec 7 6:15 PM

    Speedzzter: Just a reminder, the U.S. also enjoyed centuries of the charming social and legal tradition we used to call “slavery.” I think the movement to end that was pretty unpopular and polarizing too.

  7. Wry Mouth Says: Dec 7 11:12 PM

    “With few exceptions, most mainstream folks engaged in battle against civil rights for gays try to adopt a ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ approach to the debate, forced to contrast themselves against the “hate the sin, hate the sinner” approach of Westboro.”

    Cart before the horse, here, according to church history. The “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach has roots going back — oh, I would estimate — about 2 millenia. Phelps’ pathology is the more recent approach.

    It is sad that people with the freedom to publicize all sorts of events, happenings, etc., continue to give a sad ‘church’ like this any sort of time. I don’t suppose the USA will ever learn the obvious lesson: ignoring these outbursts is the best medicine for society.

    Wendy Rosenfield: for me, the “slavery” versus “definition of marriage” contrast is not and accurate, for reasons mentioned elsewhere. Briefly, I will again assert that centuries, is but a brief time, compared to the untold millenia of the heterosexual concept of “marriage” — going back, so the story goes, into the vanishing mists of the Dawn of Man and back before that. This also speaks to the same flaw in Speedzzter’s post.

    Josh and Joel have limned out the argument against this opinion of mine very nicely, also elsewhere.

    Pursuant to the post: after countering a Phelps protest, Joel, what’s next on your list? A counter-assault on the “Whales are Fish” rally? ;o/

    Captcha: soot Times

  8. Jenny Says: Dec 7 11:43 PM

    I’m one of those “Penn kids” who was out there today, and I’m feeling mildly resentful about your assumption that we don’t take tangible action against homophobia. How do you know that we’re not contacting our officials and advocating for equal rights every day? A lot of us do. Showing up today was a small thing, it’s true, but don’t assume we’re not engaged in the larger fight as well.

  9. Betty Says: Dec 8 5:31 AM

    Speedzzter Says,”And the movement to force unpopular special rights and subsidies based upon ones’ public profession of homosexual conduct”
    I was wondering if you could enlighten us on the “special rights” you think homosexuals are asking for when they ask to be treated the same way a heterosexual is treated.

  10. Anon E. Mouse Says: Dec 8 11:44 AM

    I agree that Phelps exists only because of the negative attention he receives. But if no one showed up to protest, you’d probably be writing an article about how apathetic and selfish Penn students are.

    I think Speedzzter is just bitter because he/she runs an incredibly boring and unpopular car blog. Oh, and because he/she is on the wrong side of history. Equal rights for same-sex couples are the future–it might take a while, but we’ll get there.

  11. Joel Mathis Says: Dec 8 12:43 PM

    To Anon and Jenny: The Phelpses happened to be protesting at Penn yesterday, which is why I used you folks as my example. But I didn’t mean to pick on you — lots of people in LOTS of communities have spent a lot of energy grappling with how best to respond to Westboro, and rather less energy on advancing gay civil rights generally.

    Jenny, I’m certain that some of yesterday’s crowd does that day to day work. But my experience tells me that for many of those folks, yesterday was a one-time adventure.

  12. Edmund van Kaaskop Says: Dec 8 1:18 PM

    Good article. The fact is, the Phelpses are just a bunch of performance artists (albeit one that makes a more than healthy living out of it), who thrive on audience attention, cod revivalism and contrived confrontation. G. G. Allin springs to mind… but without his talent to amuse.

  13. Benjamin J. "Joe" Browning Says: Dec 9 12:14 AM

    If you truly desire to bring to a end the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church. Then please read the following:

    I have been following the WBC going on twelve plus years. I have read about, seen, and heard Pickets, Protesters, Police, Papers, Preachers, Fire Departments, Relatives, Motorcycle Clubs, Talk Show Host, Talk Radio Hosts, Television News Commentators, Various Independent Countries and their Governments, Attorneys Filing Lawsuits, Legislatures Writing and Passing New Laws, Branches of Our Military and on, and on, and on, and on, and on. All of them attempting to stop the Westboro Baptist Church from continuing with their vile and cruel action.

    HOWEVER, FOR ALL PRACTICAL PURPOSES, ALL HAVE FAILED AND WILL CONTINUE TO FAIL!! NO ACTION YOU UNDERTAKE WILL STOP THEM, EXCEPT FOR ONE!!

    The one thing that will stop them is quite simple and requires very little effort to accomplish. You need to simply “IGNORE THEM”!!! I repeat “IGNORE THEM”!!! One more time, “IGNORE THEM”!!Again “IGNORE THEM”!!

    Expounding on this. #1Do not acknowledge them #2 Do not protest. #3 Do not have the Police or Fire Department around their protests. #4 You must consider and think of them as invisible.#5 Do not have your newspapers write articles about them.#6 Do not talk to them. #7 Do not have the Patriot Guard Riders attend. #8 Do not attempt in any way to stop them! #9 Do not give them one bit of publicity, before, during or after their protests. #10 As far as you are concerned the Westboro Baptist Church does not exist.#11 Do not drive by them! #12 Do not curse or throw things at them. #13 IT IS VERY IMPORTANT THAT YOU ABSOLUTELY DO NOTHING TO ACKNOWLEDGE THEM!!

    The one thing Westboro Baptist Church Members need and must have is to be acknowledged. One only needs to look at the way they have changed their message in order to get more publicity! The old message of God Hates people, areas, or states, or countries was getting boring. They were not reaching the population. In order to keep at the center of attention! They changed their message. So now beside the standard “God Hates ______!(Fill in the blank.), they added “God Hates Jews!”. Thus getting more comments and more acknowledgement and more publicity.

    IF EVERYONE IGNORES THEM, THEY WILL LEAVE QUICKLY AND WILL NEVER RETURN!! IF YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THEM, THEY WILL STAY FOR LONGER PERIODS AND THEY WILL ALWAYS COME BACK!!

    Respectfully,
    Benjamin J. “Joe” Browning

  14. Leon Greenbone Says: Dec 12 4:24 AM

    While I generally have reservations about jumping on the “pigpile” when it comes to attacking very small, crazy, colorful, aberrant groups or causes, regardless of how evil and malicious they may seem, Westboro Church and the Phelpses are SO disgusting and vile, that I like seeing people out there protesting- bit I also wonder qhat would happen if NO press showed up and NO protesters showed up ever. part of me would like to see them get hit by water baloons and pies every single time they appear. When interviewed, they do not seem high-as-the-sky, googlie-eyed, slobbering crazy. They seem creepily sober and controlled and almost act “sweet” and “down home” at times despite their absolute malicious, hate-filled, fascistic bile. Also, they did not make up their evil, Satanic hate slogans out of absolute thin air. Unfortunately, their slogans against gays, Jews, liberals, and literally humans and Americans of all stripes and persuasions are all distilliations of the worst of historical Christianity, historic right-wing extremism, historic fascistic thought, etc. They are a crazy circus sideshow, but on the other hand, they calmly call groups of millions of people ‘horrible, wicked, evil and hated by God.’ It really is incredibly amazing how groups and individuals basically wipe their ass with the parts of their own Bible that say “Judge not lest ye…” “Love your neighbor,” and ALL of Paul and Jesus references to love, peacefulness, charity, forgiveness, blessings, etc. being of PARAMOUNT importance, despite the other stern references in the Bible regarding identifying and chastising “wickedness,” “unrighteousness” or “unbelief.” In other words, what these disgusting hate-Christians don’t get is that they are NOT required, asked or even allowed to play the cop, judge, soldier, bailiff, enforcer, etc. of God’s wisdom, judgments and discretion.

  15. Mary Says: Dec 24 2:20 AM

    I like Fred Phelps actually. I think all the anti-protesters completely fail to understand his message because they are blind and on their way to Hell. The message is that God has standards and He expects you to keep them. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that everyone is going to Heaven. On the contrary, the Bible says that God will send MOST people to Hell because MOST people are rebels against God. Sending people to Hell is not an act of love … hence the “God hates”. Why does God hates some people? Because they hated Him first, and demonstrated their hate by rebelling against His standards.

    DISCLAIMER: No, my last name is not Phelps and I live nowhere near Kansas. Just clearing that up because I know how you reprobates think.

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