Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fred Phelps, antigay hatemonger (1929-2014)

Antigay Christian fundamentalist jihadist Fred Phelps has died.

This WJTV report, Mississippi Born Pastor Fred Phelps Dies at 84 03/30/2014, says straightforwardly what Phelps' professed reason was for protesting at soldiers' funerals: "Phelps believed any misfortune, most infamously the deaths of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, was God's punishment for society's tolerance of homosexuality."

Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian reports on Phelps' career in Fred Phelps Nears Death - Shocking Surprises In His Hate-Filled Life The Young Turks 03/17/2014:

It's been revealing but not especially surprising that conservatives have tiptoed around that motivation, since most of them agree with the sentiment if not the protesting. This piece at the conservative Christianity Today website on How Should We Respond to the Tragic Death of Fred Phelps? talks about him as a promoter of hate - without mentioning against whom that hatred was most notoriously directed.

The conservative Christian Post has a more intriguing set of article on Phelps' death. Michael Gryboski report in Fred Phelps' Estranged Son Comments on Death, 'I Will Mourn His Passing' 03/21/2014 that his son Nate Phelps is critical of his late father's antigay theology. But he also points out that Nate is an atheist, something not likely to endear him to the Christian Post's main readership:

Since leaving the Westboro Baptist cult several years ago, Nate Phelps has been a strong proponent of atheism and an LGBT advocate.

In the statement, posted on the website Recovering From Religion, Nate Phelps said that he "will mourn his (father's) passing." ...

Via the RFR post, Nate Phelps also equated the controversial rhetoric of his father with pastors who are opposed same-sex marriage and do not condone homosexuality.

"The lessons of my father were not unique to him, nor will this be the last we hear of his words, which are echoed from pulpits as close as other churches in Topeka, Kansas, where WBC headquarters remain, and as far away as Uganda," said Phelps.
It's an interesting reportorial move: stating who Fred Phelps brand of hate was directed against, including the fact that other churches besides Westboro express very similar sentiments - but putting it into the mouth of someone identified as "a strong proponent of atheism and an LGBT advocate," both sinister things to Christian fundamentalists, and someone who rebelled against his father, also a particularly suspect quality to Christian fundamentalist advocates of their version of "family values."

And check out this CP headline: Westboro Baptist Church Founder and Civil Rights Attorney Fred Phelps Dies 03/20/2014, an article by Morgan Lee.

The Christian Post is a conservative web publication that publishes articles by Christian Right honchos like Richard Land, Al Mohler and Eric Metaxas and is also Pentecostal-friendly, i.e., they publish writers who take demon-possession literally. They provide a convoluted we-don't-like-him-but-don't-think-we're-siding-with-them-thar-gays approach to Phelps' death.

For the Christian Right, "civil rights attorney" has a double-reverse meaning: "civil rights" are Good for guns and for American Christian fundamentalists being relentless persecuted (but they don't mean by Jews because they love Israel!) but Evil when being claimed by LGBT sorts or by, you know, "inner city" people (which has nothing to do with race, not at all!). So see, we're criticizing Phelps for being bad, too, so don't say we didn't criticize him!! I think of this as double-reverse thinking, because when I try to follow out rightwing logic like this, it feels like my brain is bending back on itself.

Maybe worst of all, Phelps was a Democrat who supported Al Gore: "Phelps was closely tied with Kansas' Democratic Party, helping Al Gore's 1988 presidential campaign." Being a nominal Democrat does not mean someone is taking a liberal position; hardline rightwingers even now sometimes run for office as Democrats or claim to be Democrats. Cenk and Ana discuss this briefly in the video report above.

And there's this from Cenk and Ana from 2012, Fox News: Westboro Baptist Church is Left-Wing Cult 12/30/2012:

I was struck by this line: "The [Westboro Baptist] church also sees the 9/11 terrorist attacks as proof of God's judgment on the United States for allowing homosexuality and abortion."

This kind of judgment is not at all unusual among conservative Christian fundamentalists. Remember the classic comments of the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson just after the 9/11 attacks (Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson say immorality and anti-Christian groups should share in the blame for the Terrorist Attacks on America, n/d, accessed 03/23/2014; Austin Carty, Jerry Falwell 9/11 Remarks: A Former Liberty University Student Reflects Huffington Post 09/13/2011):

Falwell said, "The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God...successfully with the help of the federal court system ... throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad ... I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America ... I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen."

Robertson said, "I totally concur, and the problem is we've adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system."

Falwell added, "Pat, did you notice yesterday that the ACLU and all the Christ-haters, the People for the American Way, NOW, etc., were totally disregarded by the Democrats and the Republicans in both houses of Congress, as they went out on the steps and and called out to God in prayer and sang 'God bless America' and said, let the ACLU be hanged. In other words, when the nation is on its knees, the only normal and natural and spiritual thing to do is what we ought to be doing all the time, calling on God."

Another CP article goes into some detail to recall Phelps' reported civil rights background: Napp Nazworth, Before Fred Phelps Preached Hate, He Was a Civil Rights Hero 03/20/2014. Nazworth's reporting seems to be more straightforward journalism; but then, I haven't noticed the Christian Post holding to terribly high classical journalism standards. Still, it would seem that if Phelps had a serious personal commitment to defending African-American civil rights, his conversion to a far uglier perspective calls for some explanation. But neither of the two Christian Post articles I've cited here offers any kind of explanation.

And Nazworth's piece seems to be particularly intent on demonstrating what a dedicated advocate Phelps was for Those People. He quotes Phelps' son Nathan - who we know is "a strong proponent of atheism and an LGBT advocate" - saying that Old Man Phelps was a racist. He links to this article by Alex Hannaford, My father, the hate preacher: Nate Phelps on escaping Westboro Baptist Church The Telegraph 03/13/2013. Hannaford's report says:

"... [Fred Phelps] graduated with a law degree from a university in Kansas and fought various civil rights suits in the Sixties. According to local reports, he gained a reputation as a sharp, competent attorney "whose eloquent and fiery orations mesmerised juries". Two decades later, he received awards from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government and a local branch of the human rights group the NAACP.

But Nate Phelps says the perception in some circles that his father was once this champion of civil rights, railing against discrimination, is laughable. "We would all call black people 'DNs' at home. It stood for Dumb N------ and was our private language," he says. “We thought it was clever to call them that in front of them. He was deeply prejudiced, and he believed the Bible said they were cursed.”

Nate says Fred Phelps saw an opportunity with the passing of the Civil Rights Act to cash in. "There was a lot of money, and a lot of opportunity," he says. "And suddenly my father was the man to go to." At the same time, Nate says, he and his siblings were being fed a distorted version of the Bible. "We were told we were the only people left on Earth; the only ones who were going to be saved." Nate says his father became an itinerant preacher, attempting to save Mormons in Utah and Native Americans in the south west, and believing that he was never going to die.
Nazworth cites the Telegraph report for Nathan's view. But he apparently got a statement directly from Shirley Phelps-Roper, who he identifies in the piece only as Fred Phelps daughter. By an earlier Christian Post article by Morgan Lee in The Christian Post, Live from Hell, Westboro Baptist Spokesperson Sings Church's Hate Messages in NYC Musical 10/08/2013, identifies Phelps-Roper more fully as "WBC [Westboro Baptist Church] spokesperson and daughter of WBC Pastor Fred Phelps."

His estranged son's word isn't necessarily definitive. But Nathan's version does explain the seeming conversion: there was money to be made in pursuing those lawsuits. And if you've got a white attorney that has, uh, old-fashioned attitudes about race but makes effective arguments in court, it wouldn't be surprising that his civil-rights clients were more concerned about his results than his private attitudes.

Nazworth also relies heavily on this article by Joe Taschler and Steve Fry, As a lawyer, Phelps was good in court The Capital-Journal 08/03/1994. And he approvingly cites the argument by Matthew Rozsa in The Creator Of Westboro Baptist Used to Be a Die-Hard Civil Rights Fighter — What Happened? 03/16/2014. Rozsa's argument, though, is a dubious pop-psychology speculation based on Eric Hoffer's general theory of fanaticism. None of the reporting I've seen on Fred Phelps' civil-rights work on behalf of African-American clients indicates that he was a fanatical believer in the cause of civil rights.

The antigay sentiment is a crucial organizing point and fundraising tool for the Christian Right. American Christian fundamentalists, with a few individual exceptions as always, agree both with Phelps' attitude that homosexuality is sinful as such and with his view that God collectively punishes the United States for legal sins like tolerating homosexuality.

It was his tactic of staging protests at soldiers' funerals that brought him the level of attention it did. I'm not sure how influential he was on the politics of antigay hatred; there's no shortage of Christian Right fundamentalists promoting that cause. But he attracted plenty of attention to his group (which probably functions as a cult) by the protests. And conservatives were able to instrumentalize those protests by ignoring the religious-ideological reason Phelps and Westboro gave (antigay hatred) and expressing outrage only at the seeming antiwar aspect (although it's not clear to me that Westboro was antiwar, as such). Rightwingers are wedded to notion that war critics are "hostile to soldiers" and Phelps gave them a way to promote that image. Although in the end it will only fool people who want to be fooled on that score.

The Patriot Guard Riders is the motorcycle group (club? gang?) that formed to block Westboro protesters. The front page of their website doesn't mention anything at all about Westboro, much less their Christian-fundamentalist antigay position they placed at the center of those protests. Their website says their purpose it to go to funerals of soldiers at the family's invitation to: "Shield the mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by any protestor [sic] or group of protestors [sic]."

God forbid that anyone might think the Patriot Guard Riders were on the same side as LGBT advocates or antiwar activists in objecting to protests at funerals of individual soldiers! Their "Our History" page does refer to "misguided religious zealots" doing the protesting. Quakers? Buddhists? Gosh, who could those "religious zealots" be and why might they be protesting?

Christian Right activists and writers find it awkward if not completely insupportable to straightforwardly take a stance against Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist's antigay position. Because, for one thing, many Christian fundamentalist share the basic Westboro theology that homosexuality is evil and that God collectively punishes the United States for not repressing it more actively.

For another, they don't want to divide the political cause supporting antigay legislation. And the claim that Christian Rightists make that they only oppose "special rights" being granted to LGBT people is silly. Their attitudes toward anti-bullying programs and toward gays in the military illustrated that they don't just oppose "special rights," they support active antigay discrimination, even including encouraging violence against gays and lesbians.

Here's the endorsement that evangelical prince Franklin Graham gave to that manly-man Vladimir Putin, whose manly manliness American conservatives have been drooling over (see You'll Never Guess Who Loves Putin The Young Turks 03/19/2014) from an article in the March 2014 Decision Magazine, a publication of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Putin's Olympic Controversy 02/28/2014:

I have never heard Putin quote the Bible, but during his 2012 election campaign, he met with church leaders in Moscow and vowed to protect persecuted Christians around the world. That is one justification for his support of the Assad regime in Syria.

Syria, for all its problems, at least has a constitution that guarantees equal protection of citizens. Around the world, we have seen that this is essential where Christians are a minority and are not protected. The radicals in Syria want an Islamic constitution based on sharia law.

Christians have lived in Syria since the time of Christ. The Apostle Paul was on the road to Damascus when he met Christ. Christians in Syria know that if the radicals overthrow Assad, there will be widespread persecution and wholesale slaughter of Christians.

To be clear, I am not endorsing President Putin. To survive in the KGB and rise to power in Russia, you have to be tough. His enemies say he is ruthless. To some, he is a modern version of a czar. His personal life has its own controversies.

Isn’t it sad, though, that America’s own morality has fallen so far that on this issue—protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda — Russia’s standard is higher than our own?

In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.

Our president and his attorney general have turned their backs on God and His standards, and many in the Congress are following the administration’s lead. This is shameful. [my emphasis]
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