Monday, March 31, 2014

Fred Phelps isn't Dead

Well, I suppose in a technical sense he’s dead.

And depending on what you believe, you might suppose his immortal soul lives on in some other realm. I like to imagine he’s been astonished into silent weeping by the radically inclusive love of God, and that the self-loathing he tried to slather onto others here on earth has been flaking off under the force of that love.

I like to imagine that his old mantra, “God hates fags,” has been replaced by a new one: “Even me? You love even me?”

But when I say that Fred Phelps isn’t dead, I mean that his spirit of dogmatic pugnacity lives on. That signature Phelpsian hatred—wrapped up in a message of divine mandate, bow-tied with Bible-verses, and then shoved in our faces as if it were the gift of Christ to humanity—is alive and well.

And it comes at us in more and less blatant forms.

Shortly after my essay, “Gay Suicide and the Ethic of Love,” appeared in a 2011 issue of The Humanist, I received a handwritten letter from a guy named William who called himself a “Pastor.” The entire letter is written in a thick black scrawl, as if his rage forced him to push the pen into the paper with as much force as he could muster. He frequently capitalized for emphasis, and even more frequently underlined words and phrases (sometimes even resorting to double underlining).

On two occasions he drew "frowny faces" in the margins. They’re almost amusing if you can avoid reading the words that accompany them.

William’s letter is a testament to conviction. At one point he announces that “2+2 forever equals 4, not the 3, 7, 11 or 18 that you come up with.” His aim, of course, is to express his unswerving certainty that his take on the issue of homosexuality is as beyond dispute as “2+2=4.” Those who think otherwise are voicing absurdities. Phrases like “phoney-baloney CRAP” (the underlining and capitalization are his) characterize his treatment of views that diverge from his own.

The heart of his message is captured in the following paragraphs, which I reproduce here in their entirety (with underlining and capitalization preserved):

Despite the bully sinning against Zach Harrington, his deathstyle killed him. To blame us for revealing the evil of homosexuality and trying to protect society (especially children) is retarded insanity or simply willful sinning. Am I full of “self-righteous intolerance” for simply believing God and trying to obey him? NO, the blood is on your hands, Mr. Progressive Christian.

Your cotton candy “law of love” is simply 1960’s Situation Ethics warmed up. Who defines love, you and other progressives? To support and encourage people to engage in homosexuality (and other LGBT depravity) is to actually HATE people like Zach. I wonder if you are actually defending your own lifestyle. Well?

Their love should be condemned, just like the “love” of incest, rape, bestiality and Muslims having up to 4 wives. And, of course, they CAN “change their intimate feelings” since NO ONE is born homosexual. One either chooses the lifestyle or is seduced into it. Ever hear the mantra “sex before eight or it is too late.” How come only 2% of our population is homosexual, yet commit 33% of child sexual abuse??

(Side note: William gets this pedophilia “statistic” straight from a pamphlet put out by the conservative Family Research Council, founded by James Dobson and devoted to attacking any kind of family that doesn’t fit its patriarchal, heterosexist norm. The pamphlet’s author, Peter Sprigg, does not draw this supposed statistic from a study that supports it. Rather, he cites several studies, none of which support this statistic, and through a confused and confusing inferential process heavily reliant on dubious assumptions and equivocation, he reaches his slanderous conclusion—which Pastor William then reports as a fact.)

Something of William’s rage—not to mention the hatred and self-righteous intolerance that William explicitly disavows—is lost when these paragraphs are typed, when the thick black ink, the palpable pressure against the paper, is severed from the words. But I suspect most readers will still feel the vitriol, and perhaps even shudder as I did the first time I opened the envelope and began to read.

I must confess that curiosity inspired me to Google his full name, which quickly produced a number of letters-to-the-editor, mostly on the subject of HIV/AIDS. The following excerpt from one of these letters is representative:

How do people get HIV/AIDS? Does it appear like measles or mumps? Of course, most people have AIDS because of freely chosen immoral sexual behavior: adultery, fornication and homosexuality. Others develop AIDS by sticking needles in their bodies as they attempt to escape reality. By their sinning they condemn millions of innocent spouses, children, blood transfusion recipients and rape victims to living hell on earth. We should only honor the innocent victims of HIV/AIDS, not the immoral ones who bring this venereal disease on themselves.

Put another way, we should truncate the scope of our compassion. Before we reach out to those ravaged by a disease, we should investigate how they got it. And if sin is involved we should turn away from them in disgust, but not before blaming them for the misery and death of the innocent—as if the line between villain and victim could be drawn in thick black ink.

Most Christians, when confronted with such venomous “God is hate” Christianity, will quickly distance themselves from it. But what they are distancing themselves from is a distillation, a purified form of thinking that permeates much (not all) of the Christian community.

Usually it wears a nicer face, hides behind gentler language. Most of the time it keeps company with kinder sentiments, wiser ideas, and more loving practices. And so it can be hard to see it for what it is.

In a way, William’s letter and Westboro’s hateful signs do us all a kind of favor. They expose something that is most insidious when hidden.

What they expose is the psychology of ideological hate, the kind characterized by Jean-Paul Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew. Sartre points out that taking responsibility for creating meaningful lives can be frightening. It is hard work fraught with the risk of failure.

And so we try to hide, and one common hiding place is in mythologies of division: anti-Semitism and racism and other ideologies that divide the world into in-groups and out-groups, mythologies that tell us we have value simply by belonging to this group rather than that one. The value is all about comparison, about being “better than.” Our goodness depends on their being bad.

And if we’re uniquely valuable just because we belong to the chosen group, then we should be uniquely happy as well. Unless some evil systematically operates to thwart our happiness. That’s what the Children of Darkness are: the evil that menaces the happiness of the Children of Light.

This sort of thinking is seductive. It’s so much easier to destroy than create. If our happiness depends on our own creative effort, we only have ourselves to blame for our misery. How much easier to imagine that it’s the fault of some enemy—and that joy and peace will bloom all around us once the enemy is beaten down.

Christianity is, by its nature, ill-suited to this sort of bifurcating ideology. It teaches that we are, all of us, “in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” And it teaches that all of us carry the stamp of our perfect creator: the image of God. We’re all stuck in this common human predicament, characterized by an essence that’s profoundly good and a lived reality that falls so far short of our potential.

Christianity also teaches that when it comes to the creative effort to build meaningful lives, we aren’t alone after all. The fear of failure is mitigated by the promise of cosmic companionship. When we turn to the task of constructing the good, we make ourselves instruments of a good far greater than we can dream.

But how many Christians really believe this? The answer, I think, is found in the number of Christians who retreat into ideologies of division, seeking self-worth by fabricating villains.

Is it just the Fred Phelpses of the world who are guilty of this? Hardly. Consider James Dobson, founder of the large and influential Focus on the Family. The organization’s stated mission is to provide resources for building healthy and loving families shaped by the Christian faith. But over the years, Dobson’s rhetoric has functioned as a more sanitized variant of Westboro’s “God Hates Fag” signs. While Pastor William digs his pen into paper, unable to contain the pressure of his hate, Dobson delivers his message in a pleasant, pastoral baritone.

Consider this nugget from one of Dobson’s Focus on the Family newsletters: “For more than 40 years, the homosexual activist movement has sought to implement a master plan that has had as its centerpiece the utter destruction of the family.” Or these words, spoken in a 2004 televised simulcast to hundreds of churches: “Traditional marriage between one man and one woman cannot co-exist with homosexual marriage. It will destroy the family.”

Whatever he means by “the family,” it clearly does not include same-sex couples rearing children with tenderness and care. Such an arrangement, for Dobson, is not a family but a threat to it. The mere existence of what’s different will destroy us. The survival of the heterosexual family depends upon breaking apart homosexual ones or, failing that, denying them social and legal legitimacy.

In slightly different clothes, this is the same anti-Semitic ideology that Sartre describes, where we achieve success not by building ourselves up, but by identifying the enemy and then tearing them down.

In his book, Bringing Up Boys, Dobson’s rhetoric is even more disturbing. He insists that a key to raising healthy boys is protecting them from the pernicious influence of “homosexuals,” who “desire to gain access to boys” because “man-boy contact increases homosexual outcome.”

This is fear-mongering: fear of the other, fear of those who are different. “Moms and dads, are you listening?” Dobson says. “This movement is the greatest threat to your children. It is a particular danger to your wide-eyed boys, who have no idea what demoralization is planned for them.”

According to Dobson, the greatest threat to our children isn’t school violence or poor educational systems or a rapidly degrading natural environment. It isn’t easy access to harmful drugs or the alienation that drives kids to try drugs as an escape. It isn’t neglect or abuse.

It’s “homosexuals.”

As a father, I know that parenting is hard and frustrating. And so I see why this sort of message can be seductive. It frees parenting of the mystery and anguish of not knowing what to do. We no longer need to struggle over when we’re overindulging our kids and when we are being too strict. We no longer need to maneuver the delicate balance between nurturing independence and imposing healthy boundaries.

Parenting isn’t about all of that. It’s about keeping the perverts out of our schools. And if we fail as parents, at least we don’t have to blame ourselves.

No, Fred Phelps isn’t dead. And if we deplore the hateful spirit that defined his version of the Christian message, we can’t pretend that what he stood for has been wiped out by his passing.

Because the evil here isn’t a man who died. Nor is it Pastor William and his heavy-handed penmanship. Nor is it James Dobson or Focus on the Family.

The evil is our susceptibility to ideologies of hate. The evil is the fear of inadequacy that leads us down the path to hate, a symptom of our failure to believe in a grace that really can work miracles.

And just in case progressives think themselves immune to these evils, consider how easy it is to treat Fred Phelps, Pastor William, James Dobson and the rest as Children of Darkness. Consider how easy it is to fall prey to the idea that if only we can cast the fundamentalists down from their places of influence, human happiness will blossom on its own.

Fred Phelps and his Westboro congregation have, for years now, taken very public delight in the thought of gays and lesbians roasting in eternal torment. And so long as any of us takes delight in the thought of Fred Phelps burning in hell, we are doing our part to keep his spirit alive.


  1. Amen. One of your best posts ever. Thank you.

  2. Usually it wears a nicer face, hides behind gentler language. Most of the time it keeps company with kinder sentiments, wiser ideas, and more loving practices. And so it can be hard to see it for what it is.
    I didn't understand this statement.
    Are you implying here that if it is a Christian no matter how they act or feel personally that is is a mask because of their Christianity? I read the whole blog twice to find the meaning, am I missing the meaning of text that clarifies this?

    1. Not making any claim about Christians in general here, but about ideologies of hate. Usually, they don't show up in a form as pure and blatant as what you find in Fred Phelps. Not every racist is a skull-smashing neo-Nazi skinhead. Some are sweet old ladies who give to charity and have many good qualities, but who also harbor harmful racist attitudes (which they're too polite to mention aloud most of the time).

  3. Well said, I'm sharing it in a couple of places :)

  4. The mere existence of what’s different will destroy us

    Well, it's a matter of evidence that in nations that legalise same-sex marriage (Sweden, Denmark, etc) the general marriage rate drops significantly soon afterwards (in some cases, such as Sweden, it had been dropping slowly for a while beforehand; in others, such as Denmark, it had been steady; but in all cases the legalisation of same-sex marriage precipitates a sudden decline).

    The reason why is of course speculation, but I do not think it is unreasonable to think that perhaps the legalisation of same-sex marriage makes opposite-sex couples looks at same-sex couples, some of whom do get married and some of whom don't, and think, 'Oh look, some of them get married, some of them don't; why do we think we should get married? Why not see marriage as just one of the available lifestyle options, rather than as something we ought to do before having sex and bearing children?'

    If this really is the reason, then same-sex marriage does have the potential to destroy the institution of marriage as something that opposite-sex couples think they ought morally to do before having sex, simply by providing them an alternative model that is equally blessed by society and the state as a legitimate lifestyle.

    1. I find the thinking here quite dubious. First off, I'd like to examine the peer-reviewed scholarly research which underwrites your claim that legalizing same-sex marriage is consistently correlated with a decline in marriage rates. Then, of course--assuming such a correlation exists--there's the task of exploring the variables in play. Since correlation does not imply causation, it is quite possible that the decline in marriage rates and the acceptance of same-sex marriage are contingently linked by their connection to a third factor which is contributing to both.

      As a Norwegian-American, I've spent considerable time in Scandinavia through the years. I have numerous relatives in both Norway and Denmark. Back in the 80's and early 90's, I was in Scandinavia quite regularly, spending nearly every summer in Oslo--and while there was no talk of legalizing same-sex marriage, there was a culture in place that could readily explain the decline in marriage rates. Living together had little or no stigma attached to it: People would introduce the person they were living with as their "samboer"--which means"together-live-er," in something like the way that I would introduce a person as my "girlfriend" or "fiancee" or "wife"--specificying the kind of intimate relationship in place, with no stigma or negative connotation attached. Many whom I knew thought marriage was a fairly meaningless ritual.

      This was, of course, a generational thing. But a generation that sees marriage as pretty meaningless won't see much point in denying it to anyone who wants it. And as the older generation dies out, we will see a sharp drop-off in marriage rates...and, coincidentally, the implementation of other values that dominate in the generation coming into power.

      But one could have very different reasons for supporting same-sex marriage, reasons that have nothing to do with a trivialization of marriage. Where marriage is culturally trivialized, the explanation for drop-offs in marriage rates is...the cultural trivialization of marriage. Where marriage is not trivialized, there is no good reason to suppose that extending marriage rights to same-sex couples will promote such trivialization. In fact, where it is not trivialized, the urgency with which same-sex couples seek access to marriage will reflect its cultural importance. It is true that a subculture which has been denied marriage for a long time will, as a result, find alternative models for intimacy that fall outside the context of marriage. But those alternatives are there now. And although legalizing marriage for same-sex couples won't make those established alternatives go away overnight, legalizing same-sex marriage is a necessary first step towards making marriage as normative in the gay community as it is for straights. If you want to reduce the prevalence of alternative models, then, the approach would involve, as a first step, legalizing same-sex marriage.

  5. You got me at the headline. I was hoping he had gone away by now.