Westboro Baptist Church: Religion Gone Wrong

By: Heather Abaham 

I am sure most Religion Nerd readers have, by now, heard of the infamous Fred Phelps, founder and leader of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas.  If not, you will be briefed and up to speed on Phelps’ shenanigans by the end of this blog.  

Phelps and his followers boast of conducting over 43,000 demonstrations “for God” since 1991. These “demonstrations” are in reality acts of emotional and religious terrorism cloaked in the guise of a distorted Christian worldview and protected by the first amendment.  As of yesterday, it appears that Phelps may have, again, managed to manipulate the justice system and paint himself as a victim whose first amendments rights have been infringed upon.  

Westboro Demonstrators

In 2006, Phelps and followers demonstrated at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder who lost his life defending his country—which has too often let Phelps off the hook for his sadistic and uncompassionate acts.  During Snyder’s funeral, Phelps and crew held up signs claiming God hates the United States and thank God for dead soldiers.  In response to Phelps’ egregious act, Al Snyder, grieving father of the slain soldier, filed a lawsuit against Phelps and won a judgment of more than 10 million dollars.  On appeal, the ruling was overturned on first amendment grounds and in a shocking turn of events, Al Snyder was ordered to pay $16,000.00 in court costs to Phelps.  Snyder has since appealed to the Supreme Court which has agreed to hear the case in the near future.   

Phelps’ actions have caused immeasurable pain and suffering to the thousands of families who have been victims of similar demonstrations; yet Phelps contends that he is only guilty of doing God’s work.  This brings me to my question for the day—what can we learn from Phelps and company and what does Phelps’ brand of religion tell us about religion in America? 

One only needs a few minutes exposure to Phelps’ website to determine that he and his church are promoting a very rigid, narrow, exclusive, and destructive religious worldview.  According to Charles Kimball, Author of When Religion Becomes Evil, Phelps’ brand of rigid religious exclusivism “feeds attitudes and actions that are diametrically opposed to the heart of the religion being espoused.”   In Phelps’ case, his actions and speech directly contradict the teachings of Jesus and the foundational beliefs and values of Christianity.  Phelps is so invested (to the extreme) in being God’s chosen mouthpiece, that he has lost any measure of Christian civility and charity he may once have possessed. His outrageous behavior has been escalating over the years as his need for power over the “other” grows.  

What lesson can we gleam from this insight? Well, for one, we can take a look at how we conduct ourselves religiously.  We can’t change Phelps, but we can take a lesson from his behavior.  Religion is a powerful force which has inspired and uplifted humanity throughout the ages, but when religion goes wrong, it can be the most destructive of forces.  Regardless of which religious tradition we belong, how we perform our religiosity impacts the world around us.  We have seen too many instances of irresponsible religiosity in the last decades to doubt the dangers that may await us. 

Society tells us to be fiscally responsible, sexually responsible, and to drink responsibly but remains silent in regards to responsible religiosity.  Do Americans practice their religions responsibly?  Think about it–I would love to hear your opinions.   

Special Acknowledgement:  In reading about Al Snyder’s battle against Westboro Baptist and Phelps, I found a blurb about a group called the Patriot Guards which intrigued me.  These good Samaritans, outraged by Phelps’ funeral demonstrations, reacted constructively and organized themselves into a Guard that, at the invitation of family, attends funerals of the fallen.  They respectfully place themselves, as shields, directly between the grieving families and demonstrators.  They do this in a peaceful manner and leave any

Patriot Guards

squabbles to the police.  Well done Patriot Guards!  You can read about their mission at:  http://www.patriotguard.org/  

To learn more about Matthew and Al Snyder, you can visit the Snyder’s site at:  http://www.matthewsnyder.org/

Note:  Religion Nerd is adding a new category called Hall of Shame which is reserved for those who use/manipulate religion for their own benefit regardless of the cost to others.  Fred Phelps is the first inductee.

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Filed Under: Heather AbrahamNewsViews, News, & Issues

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