Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
God Hates, Part Two | Righting America

by Rebecca Barrett-Fox with William Trollinger

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-Fox’s God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas, 2016). Today we continue Rebecca’s interview with Righting America (read Part One here) which should induce readers to read the book for themselves!

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is a sociology professor 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.

In his Journal of American History review Bill concludes by observing that “God Hates is a disturbing book, more for what it says about the Religious Right than for what it says about Westboro Baptist.” In the book you make the case that, for all of the Religious Right’s efforts to distance itself from Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), the similarities are quite striking. How would you respond to those who would argue that the conservative evangelical “hate the sin, love the sinner” response to LGBTQ individuals is not at all like the hate dispensed by WBC?

I don’t want to ignore important historical, theological, and political distinctions between WBC and the Religious Right. But in terms of attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people, I don’t think those distinctions matter. If anything, I think the Religious Right is crueler, in part because they are more influential politically and because so many queer people have been injured within those churches. Those churches have a duty to care for their flock, but such churches hurt people all the time.  

Theologically, I also find the Religious Right to be incredibly hateful. If you are gay, is it worse to be condemned for an eternity of separation from God’s love because God hates you or because God loves you?  In WBC’s view, God sends you to eternal torture because he hates you for reasons that you can never know and, out of his rejection of you, you become gay.  Is it more compassionate to be taught that God loves you so much that Jesus died for your sins, but that’s not enough to make up for the fact that you love a person of the same sex? I think I rather prefer a God who is a bit more honest, if inscrutable, than one who says his love is endless but somehow can bring himself to condemn you to eternal torture anyway.

That may hurt the feelings of readers who see themselves as gentle Christians who love their LGBTQ+ friends but condemn their sin. But that is not how their theology is experienced by gay people.  

In the final paragraph of God Hates you argue that “the goal of opponents, then, should not be to silence church members – for not only does that goal seem unlikely to be met, but it endangers the First Amendment – but to give no aid or comfort to the message, to reject its underlying theology” (181). Would you elaborate on this point, and would you argue that all forms of hate speech should be allowed?

I don’t see a tension between free speech, which is our right to speak in the public sphere in accordance with the laws that govern that space and to build our own private spaces for speech, and hate speech, which denigrates people based on immutable characteristics, either individually or collectively. I do see the tension as between free speech and subsidized speech, which is how, unfortunately, we’ve come to treat much hate speech.

We have the right to say hateful things if they don’t present an imminent threat or rise to the level of harassment, but the public doesn’t have to subsidize such speech by providing white nationalists with on-campus space to meet or access to university bulletin boards when they are not contributing to the purpose of those places. White supremacists have every right to build their own spaces to meet, as WBC has done, and to picket in public spaces, such as sidewalks, when they abide by the requirements of the law regarding time, place, and manner, as Westboro Baptists have done. Snyder v. Phelps, which centered on the pain of a father of a fallen Marine, was painful, but it provided some clarity in this area.

Now we see officials in universities and places like Charlottesville accommodating white supremacists and punishing protestors, even victims of white supremacist violence! The difference in our political response, I think, is clear: We see soldiers as worthy of protection from hate (even when their picketers adhere to the law), but we don’t see people of color, immigrants, and Jews as worthy, even when their picketers are violating the law. Wisconsin is now putting into place a law that makes protesting such speech on campus punishable—and the state calls it a “free speech protection” law!

We are deciding that the costs of allowing hate speakers to speak is the infringement upon the rights of those who protest them. The alt-right and other white supremacists are getting their speech subsidized by the rest of us, and the greatest costs are being borne by those who stand up to hate most directly. I absolutely believe this to be linked to the content of both hate speech and counterpickets today. We have a president who has signaled all the way down the line that hate speech against people of color, Muslims, immigrants, and Jews is acceptable. And not only has that unleashed more of such speech, it has cowed the local leaders who should use all the legal weapons they have in combatting it.

I think our best defense against hate is policy change. When we create more just policies, attitudes eventually change, too. In an era of fake news, we also need accurate stories about our own history and a more clear-eyed accounting of our present moment. And we need to, every single time, tell hate speakers “no.” We need to show up and constantly keep the pressure on. Make it too costly for them to do business in your town. Make them pick up and move on, over and over again. Use your free speech to counter every single word they say. Lives depend on it.

Finally, we need something better to believe in. There are better stories than ones of fear and hate. We need to find them and tell them, loudly and repeatedly.

There is a movie coming out on Westboro Baptist Church, based on a memoir by Fred Phelps’ granddaughter (who defected from Westboro). Have the producers contacted you – if they haven’t, they should! – and what do you know about the movie?

I am hopeful that the film will give us a model of how people can change. Megan Phelps-Roper was a key member of the church, a leader among the young people and WBC’s social media pioneer. Megan was also incredibly close to her mother, and leaving meant losing that relationship. She has since done the work of listening to those she victimized, reflecting on her upbringing, and building a good life. Hers will be the third memoir of an ex-WBC member, and at least two more are in some stage of writing or production. Megan’s story is particularly compelling because she moved so far—from a leader to an empathetic critic.

I’m encouraged that there are so many such stories that could be told. Many young people have left WBC, though family sizes are so large that the church can go on for a very long time, even if no new members enter. Organizations such as Life After Hate work with people trying to extricate themselves from hateful—and often violent—organizations. We have some good ideas, based on research, as to what works to get folks out of such groups, but we can always learn more from stories such as Megan’s.

No calls yet from Reese Witherspoon or others involved in the film yet. I hope they do read God Hates, though—and if they are reading, give me a call!

Could you say a little about what you are working on now?

I’m working on a book project on hate in contemporary American Christianity. I focus on how policies, such as the Trump’s proposed travel ban and the expiration of our federal health insurance program for children, both reflect and enflame racism, xenophobia, sexism, and hatred of the poor.  The manuscript considers the spectrum from the most explicitly hateful groups to the alt-right, the alt-light, and mainstream Republicans to see how these groups work together and where we might have hope to split them apart. It will include ethnographic work, though I can’t speak too much about that at this point.

I’m also co-editing the Encyclopedia of Hate with Dr. John Shuford and wrapping up some smaller projects on counterprotests of WBC, models for transformative counterprotest, supporting conservative students’ learning in the college classroom, and religion in the Army of God, an extremist anti-abortion group. Unfortunately, there is a lot of work to be done in the field of religion and hate. I’m thankful, though, to get to do it.