OP-ED: Fred Phelps Took Christian Beliefs To The Extreme.
By Eugene Sherman
Live Wire Staff Writer
When Fred Phelps died earlier this year, he went out with surprisingly little media fanfare. Phelps, the founder and figurehead of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, a group who first made headlines by picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard, who was beaten savagely and left to die for no other offense than being gay, with signs reading “God Hates Fags.”
After the Shepard affair, Westboro upped their game by picketing the funerals of soldiers who perished in Iraq; this time employing signs that read “Thank God for IEDs.” In a country fairly desensitized to mindless hate crime, the Shepard story sadly didn’t catch much traction outside of LGBT activists, but once Westboro started showing up at the funerals of soldiers recently killed in action, all of America started to ask the same question: Who the hell are these crazy people?
The interesting thing about the whole Westboro Baptist Church freakshow is that it raised a valid point, albeit one that Mainstream Christianity wishes would go away. If you set aside the name-calling and general virulence in the way Phelps and his congregation conducted themselves, they actually kinda had a point (assuming you believe in the Bible). It went something like this:
If you believe in Revelation, you have to earn your place in heaven by following the Bible strictly. Therefore, if you’re tolerant of lifestyle choices that are prohibited in the good book and don’t repent before the pending armageddon (lol), God’s going to leave you out of his victorious army and you’ll be left behind.
Even though it sounds like a plot to a bad Sci-Fi movie, this is actually a hugely integral tenet to Christianity and one that “mainstream” followers have no trouble accepting. For instance, the local community church right down the street from me, Living Proof Baptist Church – the type of place that draws senior citizens after their coffee at McDonalds and couldn’t be considered extreme by any means – says right in their website’s “What We Believe” section that, “the sixty six books of The Bible are the ultimate authority in all matters.” This is supported with a verse from Timothy:
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right (2 Timothy 3:16).”
What Fred Phelps was saying was that you can’t just say you’re a Christian if you don’t take every passage of the Bible as a literal rulebook. If you, you know, believe in Jesus but let the whole premarital sex thing slide, you’re not a Christian. If you have gay friends and you’re not trying to fix them, you’re not a Christian. God hates you. God hates everything. Blah, blah, blah.
So here’s the question that I want answered by some sort of high profile religious authority: since Fred Phelps, by all measurable religious metrics, lived his life according to the Bible, is he in heaven? Is that asshole with the signs supposed to be in heaven right now? The concept of a man who vulgarly crashed funerals enjoying eternal paradise seems almost as silly as the concept of a post-death eternal paradise itself.
It’s too early to tell what Phelps’ enduring legacy will be. While most mainstream Christian denominations surely hope -somewhat rightfully- that he will be no more than a historical footnote, his death should at least present this question: Do we embrace Christianity as philosophy or do we embrace it as religion?
I’d argue that most *sane* people who describe themselves as Christians don’t look at it as anything more than philosophy but they just don’t realize it. Although having a religious mindset is probably having an unhealthy one, how can I judge it when it brings people comfort when they, say, lose a loved one. As a Communications Major, I couldn’t possibly discount the importance of something like the Sermon on the Mount. Or what if you use Christ as a substitute for drugs? Isn’t that altogether a good thing?
Probably. But only if you know how to differentiate philosophy from religion. It’s funny how legions of priests and ministers are employed to essentially tell us what a book we’re too lazy to read ourselves says. But the Bible doesn’t require a map or a translator, and is amazingly clear-cut about its message. The Christian God is a god that will happily murder innocents over insults to his vanity. He’s certainly misogynistic and at least somewhat tolerant of slavery (going so far as to lay out a code for acceptable slavery in Exodus 21:2). He thinks homosexuality is an “abomination” and doesn’t approve of those goddamn tattoos all the kids are getting. Fred Phelps was right: God’s a dick and he probably does hate you.
When people actually believe this, it’s no surprise that places like Westboro Baptist Church pop up. If you think the Bible is actually the word of God, it’s no surprise that you would think invoking Leviticus is the appropriate response to the savage murder of a gay 21-year-old college student. According to Christianity, you’re either on God’s team or you aren’t. Say what you will about him but Fred Phelps and his congregation were good little soldiers. Might have been cruel. Might have been stupid. But they knew they were right; they read the manual. Never mind the signs and the vulgarity, the most twisted part of the whole thing is that the surviving members of the Westboro Baptist Church are going to go to bed tonight and they’re not going to have any trouble falling asleep because Papa Phelps is watching over them and soon enough, they’ll be right there with him. Scary, isn’t it?