In Righting America we note that “in the twenty-first century, the study of American fundamentalism has really come into its own, with a surfeit of outstanding works, many of which pay close attention to economics and politics” (315). One of the best and most provocative of these books of these books is Rebecca Barrett’s God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism,and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas, 2016). In this post and the next we feature Rebecca’s interview with Righting America, which should induce readers to read the book for themselves! (See also Bill’s very positive review of God Hates in the Journal of American History.)
Today’s post is written by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, professor of sociology at Arkansas State University. The author of God Hates, she researches and writes about religion, hate, and sexuality and gender. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Hate Studies, Thought & Action, Radical Teacher, and elsewhere. You can follow her research at her blog, Any Good Thing, or read her commentary on politics, culture, and family from a (mostly) Mennonite perspective at Sixoh6, and elsewhere.
Of all the topics about which you could have written, you selected Fred Phelps and the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. How did you make the decision to spend years working on this topic?
My initial motivation for visiting Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was simple curiosity. I’d spent my college years in central Pennsylvania during a time of high anxiety among conservative Christians around the turn of the millennium. A student of religion even then, I saw pastors preaching messages about stockpiling food, water, and weapons, and I saw people—including people I knew and had always thought to be rational—building bunkers in the Appalachian Mountains in preparation for Y2K. So I’d had a lot of first-hand experience with the more extreme versions of Protestant Christianity, and I was pretty comfortable in such spaces and felt at ease having conversations with believers who take the word of God very seriously, even if they understand it in ways that might be quite different from mainstream Christianity.
So it was an easy decision to visit WBC, which is located about half an hour from the University of Kansas, where I earned my PhD. I’d seen them on TV and in person at pickets, and I wanted to see them in their own space to understand them from their own perspective, even just a little bit. I was very naïve about that project, I see now. I knew the church was virulently homophobic from their pickets, but I had expected some additional message to church members that made them come back week after week. Instead, the church service focused on people outside the church and how they were hell bound. Over time, I came to understand that such messages reinforce one of the church’s key beliefs: there is hope (not assurance) for those within the church, but there is no hope for sinners who reject the church’s teachings, and that includes anyone who leaves it.
I quickly became interested in why congregants would sacrifice so much—reputations, respect, careers, safety, a wider dating pool—to be part of a group that was so reviled and provided what seemed, on the surface, so few rewards, though I have come to see WBC as offering all kinds of benefits for its members. I was knee-deep in research when the church began picketing at military funerals, changing the course of my research to consider the relationship of the church to the broader American culture, specifically to the Christian Right and its defense of the invasion of Iraq and war in Afghanistan. At the same time there was a sea change in public opinion and law regarding the rights of LGBTQ+ people that was making many conservative Christians aware of how marginal their attitudes toward sexuality are—and we’re living in the backlash of that moment now.
You could just answer this question with “Read my book!” That said, in a few sentences could you explain what compels WBC members to picket military funerals with signs such as “Fags Doom Nations” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and how it has nothing to do with “converting people to their church or changing people’s sexual orientation”?
You get right to the most challenging paradox of WBC! As hyper-Calvinists (a term I use with no pejorative connotation), Westboro Baptists believe that God chose each person’s salvation or damnation at the start of time. Why, then, do they preach at all? And Westboro Baptists have been told to shut up by other hyper-Calvinists who agree with their theology – including their belief that if God loved you in the first place, you wouldn’t be gay – but find their tactics both unnecessary and embarrassing.
Westboro Baptists would say that they picket for a few reasons. First, God tells them to, and they must obey God, just as Noah built the ark out of obedience. Second, while they don’t believe that you can convert to Christianity on your own, they do believe that God can convert you. It could be that you are one of God’s elect but just don’t know it, but through encountering Westboro Baptist Church, you will hear God’s voice calling you—and when God calls you, it is always an “effectual calling,” so you will respond by obeying. This also means that if you hear WBC and don’t hear the voice of God in their words, you know that you are one of the damned. WBC doesn’t preach just to find the elect—they also preach to make sure the damned know that they’re damned. Finally, they preach because everyone, elect and damned, must obey. In WBC’s perspective, all humans are totally depraved. We’re like prisoners on death row—and we’re guilty of our crimes. The governor may pardon some of us, but the rest of us can’t complain that he’s unjust if he doesn’t pardon all of us, since we all deserve death. But even if we aren’t pardoned, we still must obey the law. Your obedience won’t save you from hell, but it is still what we owe to God. WBC wants you to know that.
I would also add that the picketing tests who is committed, and makes them commit further. When you picket, you are guaranteeing that your face will be in the news and on social media, thus risking your employability and incurring lots of other opportunity costs. Those sacrifices keep you in the church. Finally, counterprotests are often, in the church’s eyes, lewd and violent, and thus they illustrate how terrible the world outside the church is. Taking children to counterprotests teaches them that they don’t want to join the world of hopeless sinners.
One of the most striking aspects of your research is that you conduct interviews with Westboro Baptist church members, and you do so with compassion and without condescension, even as they are articulating remarkably repugnant theological ideas. How were you able to do this?
I know a lot of Christians who hold what I think are “remarkably repugnant theological ideas.” They use them to justify war, racism, violence against children, the sexual abuse of women, allowing refugees to drown rather than welcoming them. Most Christians don’t say that God hates these people, and they may even claim that these kinds of violence are acts of love.
But that sounds cynical, which I am not, despite my long foray into hyper-Calvinism. I can listen to Westboro Baptists because I see in them—or at least, most of them–a desire to love and obey God. It’s easy to see how a certain kind of fundamentalism, especially when it’s practiced outside of relationship with any other churches, trains the direction of those desires. I can be sympathetic to that because I can imagine how many of us, living within those confines, could end up on a picket line and truly believing that the hurt we are causing someone else is an act of love. I wish that weren’t the case for Westboro Baptists, and I’ve had to wrestle with very personal forms of anger and hurt when they targeted people I love, but I think it’s important for us to understand how particular theological views push people toward particular actions.
It may also help that I don’t believe in hell, of course.