Infamous for their slogan: "God hates fags," and for staunchly protesting against all their hobby horses from homosexuality and soldiers' funerals to Lady Gaga and Billy Graham.
Fred Phelps, the former leader of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and former patriarch of America's most hated family from Topeka, Kansas, died on 19 March 2014.
Fred had 13 kids, 54 grandkids and 7 great-grandkids, and although around 20 members of the family have fled the regime, many still religiously hit the streets with their picket signs spreading their hateful messages. According to Westboro, the church has picketed more than 53,000 events!
The views held by the church are extreme, with a hyper-Calvinist view on the bible, with a turn or burn message they loudly proclaim wherever they go.
WBC making headlines in New Zealand
The WBC came to media attention in our land for picketing indy-pop singer Lorde's concert while she was in Kansas City. They made a parody song of her hit 'Royals' with some of their delightful lyrics summing up their views:
"Coz every song you sing's bare-teeth, raging, sinning in the bedroom, bloodlust, scoffing, trashing your Creator. You don't care; you're really bad-asses in your dreams. But in reality Christ will payback, coming in the clouds he'll set his throne, then mockers will be screeching, it ain't fair! We'll be caught up with him in the air"
Why are we captivated?
It's like a fascinating yet frightening freak show you can't help but sneak a peek at. Their renowned intolerance and in your face style is combined with a repulsive arrogance that condemns us all, leaving you with your mouth open in disbelief.
You don't have to look far on YouTube to see countless documentaries about this cult, and the way they've enthralled the general public as we stand on the outside looking in to this mind-boggling circus act.
Their extremism is almost laughable; you're left thinking, "Do they mean what they say? How does an entire church back themselves into such a dark and narrow corner?"
The gay thing
The WBC is notorious for their absolute conviction that homosexuality is what's ruining America. They divide everything in two: life is black and white and split down the middle, you're in or out, you're either for gay marriage or you're utterly against it. This is how they justify their "God hates fags" signs.
Two WBC members were invited onto a Russell Brand talk show in England, where Brand played a game with them called 'heaven or hell'; he read out the names of famous people, and the Westboro members would say whether these people were going to heaven or hell. Madonna and Tom Hanks would both go to hell, and Ghandi, well he's already there.
I didn't realise the WBC have their very own up-to-date book of life?
Whether its racism, homophobia, sexism, religious domination or any prejudice, this thinking can only lead to separation from the wider society. This pattern of judgement excludes practically everyone, they even excommunicated Fred Phelps in 2013, for unknown reasons.
An angry God?
Is the big guy really angry? Does he hate fags? The WBC wants us to know what God hates, and they paint God as an angry, abusive father who we should all fear. He's watching with his unpredictable rage at the ready, throwing down lightning bolts, allowing tornados to upturn towns and directing planes into buildings or to into the sea.
According to WBC, God punishes us for allowing evil to exist, and we should all be walking on eggshells, careful not to awaken the sleeping beast, for fear he may smite us for our wretched ways.
The God of the Gospels
Can you imagine Jesus reducing those with leprosy to their disease? Or the bleeding woman to her "impurity"? Can you imagine God reducing us to our sin?
God doesn't hate this world. God loves this world. That's the biggest thing I take from the gospel: that Jesus became flesh, that he experienced what it means to be human, and he came to relate, to weep with us, to forgive and live alongside us and to feel what we feel, and I believe that he continues to do so.
The God I've come to know is slow to anger, he's full of compassion and love which requires no placards and scaremongering.
Jesus at no point in the bible warns us of the fags of the future whom he hates so much. No one moral issue is hammered to death, the people he regularly warns us about however are the religious leaders, the proud and the arrogant.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus continually asks us to self-examine, and make sure we're not becoming self-righteous. Jesus wants his followers' hearts to remain humble, he doesn't participate in the shame game, he wants us to know we're objectively (despite our failings and constant doubting) a child of God, just as we are.
The fundamentalist in me
So how should I act in light of the fundamental extremities of a cult like this? Should I ignore them? Should I fight back somehow? Shall I try to explain to everyone I meet that we're not all crazies like them? I think in some way we're all prone to a little 'I'm in and you're out' thinking. The WBC scares me, because I fear without some truth and introspection with the help of those around me, I'm liable to wind up in my own (can be subtle) form of fundamentalism.
If I label the WBC as 'them,' am I being hypocritical? We all like to feel like we're on the winning team. Whether a belief is super conservative, progressively liberal or even atheistic, there is always a danger of subscribing to the same attitude of arrogance dressed up as zealous passion.
I'm skimming the surface of WBC which has upset and caused division in the church with its extreme views. I'm also steering clear of the theology that underlies some of the fundamentalism out there today. Topics like total depravity and election really do deserve an in-depth look, something an article this size doesn't allow for.
I do feel, however, that when it comes to my faith, focusing in on these areas can feel a little pointless. The bigger questions, the more important and more tangible ideas like saying yes to God's love and becoming more the person Jesus wants me to be is something worth focusing on. I'd prefer to know what it means to live out of my true identity, rather than creating contests whereby a few can attain a ticket to heaven if they are good enough.
Jesus' counter-cultural message of "do not judge" was the polar opposite of the religious elite in his time, and his messages of 'do not fear', and 'come to me, those who are weary and burdened,' is needed today more than ever.
As a Christian culture, in order to not be tarred by the same hateful brush of exclusionary cults we must make doubly sure we take a humble look at our inner selves and motives, accepting and forgiving others, just as God does us.
First published April 4, 2014
Brad Mills enjoys the outdoors and almost any sport... For a day job he's a journalist who works at the Rhema Media in Auckland New Zealand.
Brad Mill's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/brad-mills.html