Last year I attended one of Westboro Baptist Church’s notorious demonstrations. The focus of this particular demonstration was not the funeral of a fallen soldier but a Jewish news organization located just north of Atlanta. Wanting to observe the dynamics of a Westboro demonstration, I attended this event with the intention of interviewing representatives of Westboro, as well as other attendees, in the hopes of gleaning information about Westboro’s movement that would expand on the seemingly mindless ranting that one finds on their website.
Although Fred Phelps, founder and leader of Westboro, was not in attendance, the Phelps family was represented by Fred’s grandson, Ben Phelps who arrived at the appointed time with two other adults and a child about 7 years of age. The demonstrators quickly exited their vehicles and made their way to an area the Sandy Springs police had earlier sectioned off for their use during the demonstration. The Westboro clan, including the young boy, mechanically held up their many signs in a curiously dispassionate and detached manner. As each demonstrator had more than one sign, they would automatically rotate signs seemingly trying to locate the sign that would elicit the most reaction from the passing vehicles. The young boy, holding an anti-Semitic sign, woodenly stood with an American flag under his right foot and a gay flag under his left.
In addition to the Westboro demonstrators, there were three other groups who contributed to the awkward dynamics of the event. Across from the Westboro clan, stood a solitary counter-protestor named Michael. Wearing a Marine t-shirt and holding a “Jesus was Jewish” sign, Michael, a local 17 year old high school junior, attended the demonstration to protest against Westboro’s hate filled anti-Semitic rant and to represent “mainstream Christians who support and embrace the Jewish community.” Michael related that he first became aware of Westboro through their “heartless demonstrations at the funerals of fallen soldiers who died protecting their country and the 1st Amendment which provides Westboro’s right to put on these disgraceful demonstrations.” Standing at a “safe” distance from the fray a small group of onlookers, comprised of workers from surrounding buildings, representatives of the property owners, and a few who claimed they were there to “represent real Christians,” took up their post to observe anonymously. The final group in this seemingly benign drama consisted of the numerous, nameless, and boisterously verbal rush hour commuters who, caught off guard, reacted most vocally to the demonstrator’s signs. Throughout the 30 odd minute event, the otherwise quiet affair was peppered with honking horns and profanity bombs shouted from passing cars. Passing commuters, not prepared for a confrontation with Westboro’s notoriously offensive signs, reacted with a passionate indignation and a creative mixture of crude expressions appreciated by some onlookers.
After spending some time with several small groups of onlookers, I joined the Westboro demonstrators; speaking with Ben Phelps about Westboro’s presence in Atlanta. Unfortunately, I was quickly “treated” to a summary of Westboro’s anti-Semitic, anti-homosexual, and anti-American propaganda. Phelps’ robotic regurgitation of carefully chosen and horrifically distorted scriptural verses left me more than a little troubled. His mindless rant, devoid of any semblance of rational thinking, left me to ponder how this experience could possibly be an informing one.
After wrestling with my personal response to this troublesome spectacle, I determined that if I wrote a Religion Nerd article about the event, I would not give an account of Phelps’ hateful tirade (which can be found verbatim on the Westboro website) but would use this opportunity to introduce a new topic to Religion Nerd readers; the often problematic practice of proof-texting.
Proof –texting is a method by which a person or group utilizes specific text (in this instance biblical text), taken out of context, to justify or authenticate a specific religious claim or view. Although understood primarily as Protestant practice, some would argue that proof-texting was used by early Christian leaders to read into the Hebrew bible the foretelling of the advent of Jesus; locating verses that would support and authenticate the evolving Christ narrative.
Although a media savvy organization, Westboro’s “message” rests exclusively on specific cherry picked biblical verses that can, radically taken out of context, be construed to support their religious and political worldview. In the hands of the Westboro clan, proof-texting is a manipulative process in which fragmented verses, void of the meaning of the whole, are used to construct “biblical” grounds for attacking any group that comes under Fred Phelps’ angry gaze. For the Westboro propaganda machine, the holy bible becomes a holy weapon used to harass, humiliate, and dehumanize.
This brings me to the questions of the day: How has proof-texting (religiously based or not) entered mainstream American politics, culture, or how is it used by corporations? What impact does it have on our daily lives?
For more on Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church check out Heather’s article “Westboro Baptist Church: Religion Gone Wrong.” (See link below)
Special Thanks to the Sandy Springs Police Department who so graciously provided me with total access to the event