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The Impotent Hate of the Westboro Baptist Church

God Hates British Documentarians

BBC documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux’s view inside of the Westboro Baptist Church, The Most Hated Family in America, provides an interesting perspective on the inner workings of religiously-motivated hate. The fanatical followers of Kansas-based fire-and-brimstone preacher Fred Phelps are infamous for picketing street corners, funerals, and any other locations where they might receive the slightest bit of public attention for their very simple message: America is utterly doomed to damnation because of its rampant sinfulness, in particular its tolerance of homosexuality. Their bluntly hateful placards (“God Hates Fags” is the most well-recognized, and is also the domain of one of their websites) are a familiar pop cultural image, and disdain for the group’s toxic views is one of the few things that binds disparate Americans of all creeds and political affiliations together (what other group has been condemned by both the Anti-Defamation League and the Ku Klux Klan?).

But Theroux’s sort-of exposé, in which his outward meekness allows him to challenge the beliefs of the various members he speaks with and draw them out more so than a confrontational approach would allow, does teach us a few things about the cult (although, as we’re shown, there are important ways in which that term does not quite apply).

First, and perhaps most unsurprising, Phelps’ followers (and the patriarch himself) are rigid in their dogmatic views to the point of incoherence, a rigidness that is underscored, it must be said, by profound and willful ignorance. Any Christian splinter group that gazes into the Bible and sees only a vengeful, condemning God is ignoring great swaths of more generous scripture, to say nothing of scooping out the two passing strictures that can be interpreted as prohibiting homosexual acts from the morass of restrictive Hebrew law that is Leviticus (hence the parodic slogans of the WBC’s critics mentioning the similar biblical bans on innocuous foodstuffs such as shrimp and figs). But the defenses against Theroux’s doubting question favoured by not only the WBCers but by Phelps himself privilege a blustering claim to expertise and authority that it is painfully clear none of them possess. With the absolute certainty of faith comes the attendant arrogance of righteousness, and the Westboros’ righteousness, in addition to being virulently hateful, is thin and unsubstantiated.

Secondly, Phelps’ apocalyptic vision of the irredeemable fate of America, a land afflicted with such deep-seated moral decay that the only acceptable response for the righteous of his flock is to excoriated it concerning its certain damnation, is fundamentally undermined by the WBC’s uncritical participation in the country’s all-encompassing consumer culture. Theroux takes us inside the multi-house Westboro compound in suburban Topeka, and the houses are full of the same sort of consumer products that you would find in any other abode in any other subdivision in America. It is also revealed that, far from “dropping out” of the system that they find so utterly evil, many of the Westboro members actually hold down mainstream jobs in order to fund Phelps’ endless campaign of hate speech. Many are lawyers, understanding and interpreting the laws of the very country that they consider to be hopelessly infected by Satan (and often using it to sue substantial damages out of those who challenge them).

The WBC can perhaps be somewhat forgiven for refusing to relinquish the comforts afforded them by first-world democratic capitalism, although a true absolutist dedicated to their ideology would surely choose a Mennonite-like anachronistic existence in a separated community. But the blind spot displayed by Phelps and his creed towards capitalist culture is not only their own, but a key feature (and failing) of the wider conservative culture war of which they are the most fringe set of berserkers. American cultural conservatives see a society of runaway depravity, but twist themselves in knots to place the blame at the feet of anyone but the beknighted corporations that dictate the discourse of cultural exchange. The sort of clueless hypocrisy that underlies this tendency was beautifully illustrated by the virulent statement released by Margie Phelps (daughter of Fred) after the death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, lambasting his turning from God’s teachings. The statement, of course, was sent from Margie’s iPhone.  That the unimaginative WBC cannot reach much beyond this episteme is perhaps not shocking, but neither is it to their credit.


The third, and perhaps most interesting, element to note in The Most Hated Family in America is the way that it shows how Phelps’ bizarre ministry is driven by his own bizarre charisma. An odd, angry, cranky old patriarch who refused to answer even the most basic of Theroux’s questions, Phelps’ sermons and statements are deplorable, but undeniable magnetic in their implausible ugliness. They are also often unintentionally very funny, in particular the Sunday sermon Theroux’s crew films wherein Phelps cries out at the unbelievers, “You’re gonna eat your babies!” and repeats his trademarked phrase “split Hell wide open” like a professional wrestler spouting a favoured catchphrase for the pleasure of the rubes. The man’s views are hideous beyond measure, of course (though I do agree with his assessment that Joseph Smith “wangled” Mormonism as a get-rich-quick scheme), and he runs a veritable cult that is lacking the fundamental millenarian dedication to even remove itself from the society it finds so very wanting. It’s also not wholly unfair to speculate aloud that his fulminating homophobia and wild accusations of pedophilia are simply a very loud and public act of projection; he wouldn’t be the first cult leader to use his position of absolute power within a limited community to commit such depravity, that’s for sure.

But for all of Phelps’ copious hate, the reach of his arm is short, and he and his church are more clowns than crusaders. This is the strongest impression that comes through in Theroux’s documentary, of a group that is vicious and dogmatic, but also rendered impotent by the comical overindulgence of their prejudices. Westboro Baptist Church wins popular attention that is out of proportion to the size of their congregation or the persuasiveness of their message because they are entertaining in their nastiness. They are the raging id of conservative American evangelism, the delirious exception that disproves the rule. And for that reason, they will continue to picket our hearts and minds until they peter out entirely.

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