New Birth Baptist Church members are noticeably excited when they get their first look at the sign resting on Marge Phelps´ right shoulder: ¨YOUR PASTOR IS A WHORE.¨
Their reactions tend toward the unsubtle. Cars pull to a stop, and Opa-lockans dressed in their Sunday best roll down their windows, puffing up their chests and preparing for a little high-volume spiritual warfare. But just as they let loose their first full-throated broadsides (¨This is an outrage!¨ yells a woman with what appears to be a Chiquita banana hat on her head), the beefy bouncers are there, grinning, soothing: ¨Now, just get inside, just get inside. Move it along, baby. I´m serious.¨
It´s Sunday, June 10, and Phelps and her coreligionists from the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church have swooped down on the Opa-locka megachurch to give another taste of God´s tough love. The faces in the cars of the New Birth congregants are stricken, a level of piss-offedness that surely can be maintained for only so long before somebody starts some shit. I´m standing next to Phelps on 135th Street, behind a handful of police officers and a bunch of grinning, big-muscled New Birth congregants, drafted for this occasion to shepherd church members into the parking lot before they get distracted by the strange Christians from Topeka. A lot of them want to get distracted.
Phelps surveys the scene. She scuffs the ground with her sneakered feet and beams her signs east and west. Besides ¨YOUR PASTOR IS A WHORE,¨ she´s got a big one reading ¨FAGS DOOM NATIONS¨ and another reading ¨GOD HATES AMERICA.¨ She holds them tightly and sings softly. The song is about improvised explosive devices. She really likes improvised explosive devices. She thinks they´re righteous.
Phelps´ face is steely during these pickets, a look of calculating hyperawareness. She knows better than anybody how seemingly peaceful afternoons can erupt into dangerous craziness. This is a woman whose church has been bombed, who´s witnessed a septuagenarian member of her congregation savagely beaten by a tolerance-loving gay counterprotester. Angry motorists have tried running down her siblings in the street.
A year ago last May, in Delaware, an angry mob broke the windows of Phelps´ family´s police-supplied van when they tried to escape an especially angry conflagration of moderate Christians, homos, vets, housewives, and other assorted normal people. Footage of the event is available on YouTube under the title ¨Westboro gets their ass kicked.¨ In the comments section, the curious can find the response of the nation´s sane, secular, tolerant majority. As of this writing, there are 920 comments -- more than ten times the number of people in Phelps´ church -- and a quick scan of the first page can tell you everything you´ll ever need to know about the lie of civility that we tell ourselves every day. The posters suggest that Phelps and her fellow congregants be run over by trucks, shot with guns, and beaten by mobs. They are called ¨cunts¨ (debatable) and ¨niggers¨ (demonstrably false).
Being thusly regarded by one´s countrymen is no fun, but the men and women of Westboro Baptist Church have no choice. They know -- they know -- if they don´t do what they do, they´ll go to hell.
The patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church, the Rev. Fred Phelps, led dual careers as a preacher and lawyer before getting disbarred in 1979. Before that, he achieved a small amount of notoriety for taking on difficult civil rights cases back when civil rights cases weren´t especially hip, winning numerous lawsuits for penniless black families in Kansas. Years later, asked to explain the discrepancy between his friendly treatment of blacks and his vicious treatment of gays, he said, simply, ¨God never said it was an abomination to be black.¨
Westboro´s ¨street ministry¨ began in 1989, when Fred Phelps realized that a corner of Topeka´s Gage Park was a place where gay men trolled for anonymous sex in the bramble. The sprawling Phelps clan -- which, at the time, included 13 children and dozens of grandchildren -- contained many avid cyclists, all of whom regularly used the park´s bike trails. Phelps appealed to the city to do something about the goings-on in Gage Park, and the city stalled. Phelps then appealed to Topeka´s churches, at the same time posting mild warning signs in the park´s bathrooms. The gay community of Topeka was aghast. They protested, and Westboro protested back. There was escalation, and the city´s mainstream churches came down firmly in favor of the gays.
Westboro was horrified by the antidoctrinal practices of its neighboring churches, and by the early ´90s, its members were picketing all over the country. They picketed churches (¨YOUR PASTOR IS A WHORE¨), conventions of mainline denominations (¨GOD HATES FAG ENABLERS¨), gay pride rallies (GOD HATES FAGS), and the funerals of AIDS victims (¨AIDS CURES FAGS¨), often holding as many as 30 protests in a week. And yet, despite their work ethic and lack of subtlety, Fred Phelps and Westboro didn´t become near-household names until the fall of 1998, when the church picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard.
The death of Matthew Shepard was, of course, a turning point for the gay rights movement in the United States. The country´s perception of homosexuals went from a barely articulated ¨ew!¨ to a vast and resounding ¨Oh! Those poor fruitcakes!¨ And Westboro Baptist Church found itself even more at loggerheads with public sentiment than before.
Church members did not care. To their way of thinking, ´tis a far better thing to set oneself against 300 million angry Americans than a single, pissed-off, omniscient and omnipotent God -- especially one who occasionally pulls stunts like incinerating entire cities, unleashing cataclysmic floods upon a fornication-mad planet, and turning all a country´s rivers into blood. No matter what they tell you on CBN, the God of Abraham can be a very moody guy. He´s presumably got his reasons, but even if he doesn´t -- well, he´s God. Tough titty.
This kind of thinking doesn´t sit well with a lot of folks who like their God friendly and subservient. We are modern people, they say. Fuck off, Phelps. Stop bugging us with the fine print. We just wanna get jiggy with that ¨God is love¨ dealio. And definitely, certainly, without a doubt, never, ever, ever darken our door with Romans 26-32. Why, if we were to start thinking about that sort of big-league nastiness, we might have to protest a bathhouse or print a pamphlet, and then, and then -- the kids might miss soccer practice! The kids really love soccer practice, and if they missed it, all the other moms might start talking... so Mr. Phelps, please, just back the fuck off.
This was the situation in 1998. When Westboro began picketing soldiers´ funerals five years later, it got much, much uglier.
I first met the Westboroans at a picket in Sarasota near the beginning of 2006. I´d been corresponding for a little while with Shirley Phelps-Roper, who´s become the church´s de facto spokeswoman now that Fred´s getting on in years, and I thought these pickets might be interesting to write about. The scene was brutal: Big bikers with murderous intentions, a wretched man with a fake Southern accent and prosthetic teeth accosting the Westboroans´ kids (¨Y´all gonna grow up to be gaaaaay!¨), much violence in the air, many threats. The Westboroans were there because, as they have patiently explained to endless reporters since the beginning of the War in Iraq, America has ¨turned her back on God,¨ and dying for her at this weird moment in history is a surefire way to land your ass in hell. Assembled Vietnam vets and assorted mourners took great umbrage at one of the Westboroans´ signs, which read ¨FAG SOLDIER IN HELL,¨ and I was reasonably sure we were all about to be killed.
The atmosphere worsened the next day at a public school in Lithia and at the school district building in St. Petersburg. My friends and I, unrepentant sodomites, received severe tongue-lashings from the Westboroan contingent, but we were frightened only by the counterprotesters, who did not have almost 20 years of experience from which to draw their picket-line etiquette and who did not have any unified philosophies to keep them from explosively bad behavior. The Westboroans know exactly what they stand for; when I nearly got decked by a counterprotester for politely rebuking his repeated verbal attacks against a 5-year-old Westboroan, I realized he stood for nothing.
This is where I first met Marge Phelps. On that occasion, she called me ¨dark-hearted,¨ said my soul was a ¨charred husk,¨ and called me a ¨sick, vile, perverse, and delusional pseudo-intellectual¨ who ¨keeps company with demons.¨ She informed me that, when I die, God will listen to me stammer out my defense because he´s got all the time in the universe, and then he will cast me down to hell, where the ¨worm that eats on you never dies¨ and where, for all eternity, ¨flames will shoot out your eyes, your friends´ eyes, and the eyes of every American hero that ever lived. And you know it, and there´s nothing you can do about it.¨ She told me all of this with perfect articulation over the course of about two and a half minutes, during which I said nothing. Having finished, she turned back to the street and joined her sisters in a rousing rendition of ¨God Hates America/Land of the Fags.¨
I was scandalized. Pseudo-intellectual?
Yet this morning, in Opa-locka, Marge is the very picture of friendliness. We´d had what I thought was a very productive telephone interview two days before, touching on everything from mainline apostasy to the Anabaptists. Greeting me this morning, she said: ¨Hi, Brandon. How are you?¨
I watched as she removed her signs from a big black satchel. Besides ¨YOUR PREACHER IS A WHORE,¨ she wished to inform Florida Christians that ¨FAGS DOOM NATIONS,¨ that they should ¨PRAY FOR MORE DEAD SOLDIERS,¨ that they were ¨NOT BLEST, JUST CURSED,¨ that ¨GOD HATES THE WORLD,¨ ¨GOD HATES YOU,¨ and, gosh, I hate to break it to you, but ¨YOU EAT YOUR KIDS.¨ She distributed these signs among three of her nieces, one aged 20, the other two aged 14; pretty, friendly, smiley, talkative, and fundamentally girly all. Marge stood on the street outside Opa-locka´s Northwest Baptist Church to deliver some Very Bad News to the faithful, and...
So here we are, two hours later, standing at New Birth Baptist, a few miles away, and still not much is happening. There are some angry folks inside, and one congregant even wanders out to engage in some low-key theological parlay. His name´s Ted, and he wants Marge to know that, hell yes, God sure does hate fags, but this ain´t the way to go about preaching it.
Marge: ¨Your words are neither timely nor topical.¨
A few minutes later, an older gentleman in a gaudy blue hat comes tearing toward the church entrance in a pissed-off powerwalk, and the bouncers get in front of him. He´s yelling; they´re trying to calm him down: ¨Langford! Calm down! You just calm down!¨
Langford: Roar, roar, roar.
¨Langford! I am not playing with you! You just get on inside!¨
Marge, facing the road, mumbles to herself: ¨Might Langford be a fornicator?¨
She pauses, considering. She says it again, a little louder. Then, to me: ¨I wonder what filthy little sin Langford is sucking on.¨
She seems to make up her mind about something. Tilting her signs at angles to her head to project her voice over the assembled cops and congregants, she turns and yells: ¨Oh Laaaangford! Might you be an adulterer? That is the only very pertinent question right now, Langford.¨
This or something sparks laughter from behind the gate.
¨Guess that hit home,¨ she tells me. Then, cocking her head: ¨Or not. That laughter may have been totally unrelated.¨
I crack up at the seriousness with which she says this, but Marge is not laughing.
In a few moments, we will leave this place to stand across the street from St. Mary´s Catholic Cathedral, where Marge will reprimand several sets of parents for bringing their children to this place, where, she says, they may be raped. She will say: ¨Look at your hands! What you see is the rectal blood of all those raped altar boys! What you see is the blood of every soldier killed in Iraq!¨
The families will look on blandly, and eventually Marge will tell me: ¨It occurs to me right now that I may be facing an audience that does not understand English.¨ She will shrug. ¨Oh, well,¨ she´ll say, hoisting her signs a little higher, ¨they´ll still get the message, one way or the other.¨ Then Marge and her nieces will sing: ¨The pope! The pope! The pope is on fire! He don´t need no water! Let the pedophile burn!¨
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It won´t have been an especially eventful morning. I will wonder if it´s even worth writing about. And I will decide that it is, in fact, worth writing about. Because in all of their activities -- in their protests, on their website, in Fred Phelps´ Sunday sermons -- what Westboro Baptist Church is really doing is posing a question: Who is a Christian?
Westboro´s dogma comes unsweetened from a very old book of Middle Eastern origin. It is the most widely owned book in the world and one of the least frequently read. The Westboro Baptists have read it, and they found a book filled with rage and smiting and violence; a book outlining an extraordinarily strict code of behavior, demanding swift and savage punishment for those who don´t comply. They found the book Jonathan Edwards wrote about in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, the book of Cotton Mather and John Calvin. Which means the Westboro Baptist Church is not an aberration. It is a reminder of what real religion and real belief look like, divorced from the influence of secular culture.
The atavistic believers of Westboro are frustrated: Either take the mean old God of Abraham seriously or don´t, they say. You´re either for the kingdom of man or you´re for heaven, and if you´re for heaven, you´ve got some very heavy summer reading and a lot of tricky thinking ahead.
They want us to pick a side: The Book or the world. And it´s heartening to realize that, whether we know it or not, we already have.