Calhoun’s Can(n)ons for October 15, 2010
Malice drinks one-half of its own poison.
There is something so uniquely American about the little “Church of The Phelpses,” the splinter Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas whose very ugly public messages about God hating fags, and Jews and Catholics and dead soldiers has landed it before the Supreme Court. Like so many American religious sects, this one was self-created, and while it claims to be “Baptist,” the Southern Baptists Convention has denounced and disavowed any connection to the Phelps. Also like so many other self-created sects, it holds what some consider to be decidedly different beliefs, and is run by a powerful preacher-man and his small band of family-followers. (Eleven of his thirteen children are lawyers; a handy profession, considering.)
But Fred Phelps is nothing new. While his theology might be a bit twisted, Fred and all the other little Phelpses are still the descendents of the fierce, sin-obsessed American preachers thundering eternal damnation for the wicked, a line that runs through Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to Bible thumping fundamentalist tent revivers promising damnation and hell to card players and hooch-sippers, right down to the fictional but quintessential Jesus-hustling huckster of all time—Elmer Gantry.
“You cannot preach the Bible if you don’t preach God’s hate!” Phelps says in a recent Time magazine article on the family. Indeed. No namby-pamby God of Love nonsense espoused by latte-sipping limousine liberals for these rock-hard American theologians.
And that, to me, is what makes this case so interesting. Just what is it about the beliefs that Fred and his daughter Margie are expressing that has people so upset? That “God Hates Fags?” That can’t possibly be a problem in a country publicly obsessed with homosexuals, including the delightful spectacle of certain politicians who first denounce gays then get caught later footed-tapping in airport bathrooms or flying off on vacations with their boy-toy “assistants.”
Or a Congress dragging its feet on repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Or with hysterical citizens hastily passing state laws denying equal marriage rights to gay people, like the California Prop 8 initiative that was funded by huge infusions of money from Catholic and Mormon churches. Or with gay hate-crimes that regularly show up on the police blotter. Fear and loathing of gay people is a dark thread that runs deep in our homophobic culture and is powerfully driven and justified by “Christian” religious belief. So, while many might consider Mr. Phelps’ protest signs to be impolite or crude – the word “hate” makes nice people, respectable people, uncomfortable -- the basic belief about God’s hatred on those signs, while extreme, cannot be said to be utterly alien to what a great many Americans already secretly believe.
And a good many people believe that war is an abomination and that soldiers are murderous “baby-killers” engaged in a sinful enterprise that violates one of God’s own Ten Commandments. And there is nothing alien about the beliefs that Jews killed Jesus and Catholics are in a league with the Pope-Devil himself, and Mormons are un-Christian heathens and President Obama is the anti-Christ and our white country is being taken away by scary colored people, and the End Times are Near, and O God! O God the gay people are coming, and can’t you hear the black helicopters yet? All of these are fear-driven beliefs that are brought out from under our dark rocks during fearful, tough times and used to manipulate the frightened into furthering the ends of the unprincipled.
And when Mr. Phelps or any of the other little Phelpses show up with signs declaring that Americans are going to hell, I dare say they’re only saying out loud what many of their fellow citizens may be secretly feeling. Says Mr. Phelps, in that same Time article, “When asked if hearing about a soldier’s death really makes his heart swell with joy, Phelps nods as if he’s just been offered a sandwich. ‘Because we’ve been telling people that God is going to do this to them. Because that’s the way God rolls.’”
So what is it about what the Phelps are doing – standing on public property telling people how God rolls – that has people so riled up? Is it their discourtesy? Lack of manners? I mean, most people have the common decency not to show up at funerals to yell at a parent that God hates their dead kid. That’s tacky. But then, most people also don’t show up at Planned Parenthood clinics to yell at young women entering for medical care that they’re baby-murderers and are going to hell.
But the Constitution, thank God, protects the tacky, the rude, the indecent, the deluded, the cruel and the mean. It also protects the Phelps and their hate-filled messages of human-loathing, divine wrath and sin, weird sexual obsessions, cruel family dysfunctions and gleeful rage.
What remains unclear is whether or not the radical, judicial activist Supreme Court will rule narrowly on this case, or use the case as it has in the past to open up the broader questions the Phelps case raises in order to legislate from the bench.
In the meantime, the case certainly has generated a lot of discussion and I can only hope that it gives rise to just as many questions. Here’s two: If what the Phelpses believe is factually correct, that God actually does hate fags and Jews and Catholics and soldiers, and anyone else not in the Phelpes-approved pantheon, why would anyone get upset at them for stating the obvious? And if their declarations are false, why would anyone waste a moment of their time getting upset over what a bunch of delusional liars have to say about anything?
And here are two questions that will likely never be answered: Just what is it about the American character that creates the kind of toxic culture that nurtures poisonous people like the Phelps? And supports and rewards with high ratings and abundant advertising dollars, a 24/7 media that excitedly serves up their outrageous malice du jour to a celebrity and scandal addicted public?
If historian Richard Hofstadter is correct, that the “paranoid style” is the way Americans roll, then Fred Phelps is simply the ugly part of our American DNA, not only our legacy, but our future as well.
It is not a comforting thought. But knowing that our Constitution will continue to protect the double-edged right to speak out, is.