Have you guys heard about that one family from Kansas that travels around the country in a bus spreading their message of faith and promoting Christian values? They’re like a modern day Partridge Family, but instead of happy songs sung by a teen heartthrob and his attractive siblings under the guidance of Shirley Jones, it’s picket signs and chants of hate by a hundred or so middle aged “Calvinists” under the guidance of a creepy old man suspiciously obsessed with homosexuality. I speak of course of those hate monkeys, the Phelps family, and their Westboro Baptist “Church.”
Founded in 1955 by Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has been active in anti-gay picketing and protesting since the early 1990s. Other than the fact that they call themselves “Baptists” and say that they follow “Calvinist” principles, they aren’t actually affiliated with any formal religious organization, association or convention.
Current membership is estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 members, all from the same two families and all related to Fred Phelps either by blood or marriage. The money used to fund their protests comes primarily from the Phelps family law practice in Topeka, Kansas (That’s right. They run a law practice too.)
It is tempting to spend the next 500-600 words enumerating each and every way Westboro gets the whole Christian thing wrong, but let’s face it, we all know this already. Railing on this same topic at this point is like a preacher addressing his sermon to the choir while firing off a shotgun at fish in a barrel (insane fish, packed tightly into a barrel of pure crazy.) It’s not going to change the Phelps’ minds and it’s not going to make them stop. Frankly, if we really want this family to go away, we need to change our tactics in dealing with them by ignoring them when at all possible.
I realize it’s very hard to ignore a group of 30 plus screaming individuals waiving brightly colored signs proclaiming “Thank God For 9/11” or “God Hate Fags” or “God Hates Fag Enablers.” (I’m still not really clear on what a “Fag Enabler” is exactly, but if it means tolerating weekly viewings of “Glee” at a local gay bar because it’s what my boys want to do, then I think Westboro just might be talking about me. I digress.)
Every time this family shows up to protest something, be it a military funeral or AIDS related issue, gay marriage or the funeral of the head of the Mormon church (yup, the Mormans aren’t anti-gay enough for Westboro,) a counter protest happens in response. I wish I could say that an open exchange of idea begins and the two sides leave that day with a better sense of where their neighbor is coming from. Alas, the hate monkey family doesn’t have a high capacity for abstract thought and they do not understand simple leaps of logic such as “But if the bible says, ‘Judge not that ye be judged,’ shouldn’t you stop judging everyone? Y’know, because Jesus was kinda big on loving thy neighbor and stuff, and you folks seem to hate everyone.”
Usually, a yelling match ensues between both picket lines, and the local media outlets, already on hand, salivating at the possibility of a riot, end up giving the Phelps family idiots way more exposure than they deserve (which is none.) Remember, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Now, I don’t believe that the vast majority of folks watching the news that night will suddenly find themselves swayed to the Phelps’ homophobic and hateful cause but I have serious problems with enabling media whores. CNN gave the Westboro Baptist Church national exposure when they covered the Phelps family picketing Matthew Sheppard’s funeral in 1998. (So what? Nowadays, every crackpot who yells loudly enough gets on the major news networks, right? Sure, but this was 1998 and CNN was still a credible and respected source of news. It was the today equivalent of Lady Gaga tweeting about you.)
Any media whore will tell you occasional attention isn’t enough, you need larger and larger audiences to really get off. Why do you think Westboro expanded their protests in 2005 to include military funerals? Apparently, anti-gay demonstrations were too vanilla for them; for the Phelps family, a military funeral picket was like spicing things up with hot wax and a goat. They want you to watch them get freaky with a goat while they pour hot wax on their balls, and they want it filmed and ready for broadcast at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Turn off your TV, ignore their protests, and just don’t look at them, and I promise they will eventually go away.
Of course, I don’t really expect all of us to be able to do that. For every dozen rational individuals, we have that one “rational” guy who thinks it’s totally okay to smack the sign out a Westboro Baptist’s Bible-thumping fist while screaming “Go the fuck home!” To those people I’d like to say, “Stop it, please. You’re making things worse.”
Let’s look for a minute at the Phelps family’s primary mode of operation: They stand on street corners advertising their brand of crazy with homemade signs. You know who else does that? High school clubs holding fundraising carwashes, homeless men on freeway on-ramps and me, when the Jelly Belly factory discontinued the sour raspberry flavor. How do we deal with people holding signs on a day-to-day basis? Most of the time, we drive right past them. I understand the rage these protests inspire, but yelling back at them isn’t going to make them go away. May I suggest an alternative to angry screaming? Try laughing.
It’s become something of a trend to arrive at a Westboro announced picket line with clever protest signs of your own. Mostly, the “witticisms” on the signs are innocuously phrased (my favorites include “This Man Needs A Hug,” “God Hates Figs Mark 11:13-14” and, my personal favorite, “I’m Holding A Sign.”) And, though they tend to be hit or miss in the humor department, these counter protesters are most effective when they’re simply standing next to a hate-spewing church member, holding their benignly worded sign, iPod earbuds in and smiling.
Sure, you could be the guy screaming just as vehemently as the hate mongers or you could be the guy who takes in the stupidity and grins at its absurdity. I know which one I am.
A different version of this article appeared in the iPinion Syndicate on May 29, 2011. I apologize for polishing up an older piece, but I’m in the middle of moving across the country [AGAIN] and don’t have a whole lot of time to write this week.