Religion

The Theology of Westboro: The “World’s Meanest Church”


Westboro Baptist Church is an American church known for its use of inflammatory hate speech, especially against LGBT+ people, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, Romani people, and U.S. soldiers.

The Westboro Baptist Church, a Topeka, Kansas-based independent fundamentalist ministry that Phelps founded in 1955, has been called “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.” Its signature slogan, “God Hates Fags”, remains the name of the group’s principal website. The group is basically a family-based cult of personality built around its patriarch, Fred Phelps. Typified by its slogan, “God Hates Fags,” WBC is known for its harsh anti-gay beliefs and the crude signs its members carry at their frequent protests.

“WBC engages in daily peaceful sidewalk demonstrations opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth. We display large, colorful signs containing Bible words and sentiments, including GOD HATES FAGS, FAGS HATE GOD, AIDS CURES FAGS, THANK GOD FOR AIDS, FAGS BURN IN HELL, GOD IS NOT MOCKED, FAGS ARE NATURE FREAKS, GOD GAVE FAGS UP, NO SPECIAL LAWS FOR FAGS, FAGS DOOM NATIONS, THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS, FAG TROOPS, GOD BLEW UP THE TROOPS, GOD HATES AMERICA, AMERICA IS DOOMED, THE WORLD IS DOOMED.

The term “GOD HATES FAGS — though elliptical — is a profound theological statement, which the world needs to hear more than it needs oxygen, water and bread.” The three words, fully expounded, show:

  • the absolute sovereignty of “GOD” in all matters whatsoever [1]
  • he doctrine of reprobation or God’s “HATE” involving eternal retribution or the everlasting punishment of most of mankind in Hell forever [2] and
  • The certainty that all impenitent sodomites (under the elegant metaphor of “FAGS” as the contraction of faggots, fueling the fires of God’s wrath) will inevitably go to Hell [3]

Civil rights cases

Phelps earned a law degree from Washburn University in 1964, and founded the Phelps Chartered law firm. The first notable cases were related to civil rights. “I systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town”, he claimed. Phelps’ daughter was quoted as saying, “We took on the Jim Crow establishment, and Kansas did not take that sitting down. They used to shoot our car windows out, screaming we were nigger lovers”, and that the Phelps law firm made up one-third of the state’s federal docket of civil rights cases.

Phelps took cases on behalf of African-American clients alleging racial discrimination by school systems, and a predominantly black American Legion post which had been raided by police, alleging racially based police abuse. Phelps’ law firm obtained settlements for some clients.

Phelps sued President Ronald Reagan over Reagan’s appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, alleging this violated separation of church and state. The case was dismissed by the U.S. district court

Background

The Westboro Baptist Church was formed in 1955 by Fred Phelps, and its members languished in relative obscurity for decades, waving their signs at gay pride parades and the like. There are only a few dozen members at any given time,—mostly extended family of the leaders.

Phelps opposed common Baptist practices like Sunday school meetings, Bible colleges and seminaries, and multi-denominational crusades,although he attended Bob Jones University and worked with Billy Graham in his Los Angeles Crusade before Graham changed his views on a literal Hell and salvation. Phelps considered Graham the greatest false prophet since Balaam, and also condemned large church leaders such as Robert Schuller and Jerry Falwell, in addition to all Catholics.

It was headed by Phelps until his later years when he took a reduced role in the activities of the church and his family. In March 2014 church representatives said that the church had not had a defined leader in “a very long time,” and church members consist primarily of his large family; in 2011, the church stated that it had about 40 members.The church is headquartered in a residential neighborhood on the west side of Topeka about three miles (5 km) west of the Kansas State Capitol. Its first public service was held on the afternoon of November 27, 1955

The church has been involved in actions against gay people since at least 1991, when it sought a crackdown on homosexual activity at Gage Park six blocks northwest of the church. In 2001, Phelps estimated that the WBC had held 40 pickets a week for the previous 10 years.

They first received international exposure when they appeared at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one-year-old University of Wyoming student who was beaten and tortured to death for being gay. During Shepard’s funeral, they distributed leaflets that said: “It is too late to rescue Matthew Shepard from the life of sin and shame into which he was lured by the perverted, depraved, and decadent American society into which he was born. All who say, ‘It’s OK to be gay,’ have the blood of Matthew Shepard on their hands.”

When The Westboro Baptist Church protests Matthew Shepard’s death because he was gay (who was killed by two individuals who were homophobic), as the Church members shouted slurs like “God Hates Fags”, the response from the LGBTQ community was to dress as Angels, with large wings, and as they stood side by side, were able to block the protesters from view as the family of Matthew Shepard entered the courthouse for the trial of their son’s murder.

A lawsuit against Westboro Baptist Church

On March 10, 2006, WBC picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, who died in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006.The Snyder family sued Fred Phelps for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress

On October 31, 2007, WBC, Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis, were found liable for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A federal jury awarded Snyder’s father $2.9 million in compensatory damages, then later added a decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and an additional $2 million for causing emotional distress (a total of $10.9 million). The organization said it would not change its message because of the verdict.

WBC Beliefs and Values

Here are a few examples of Old Testament laws that Christians generally do not observe:

What Does the Bible Say About the Old Testament Law?

The Law of Moses regulated almost every aspect of life in Old Testament times. But with the coming of Christ, God established a new covenant of faith and love with mankind. Christians are not required to follow the Old Testament rules about crimes and punishments, warfare, slavery, diet, circumcision, sacrifices, feast days, Sabbath observance, tithing, ritual cleanness, etc. However, the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus and His apostles call for even greater self-discipline than those of the Old Testament.

The Book of Leviticus

Leviticus and Old Testament Law, are specifically addressed to Jews, not to New Testament Christians. God, Moses and the Bible are crystal clear about that.
The Book of Leviticus is the third book of the Torah and of the Old Testament. Most of its chapters (1–7, 11–27) consist of God’s speeches to Moses, in which he is commanded to repeat to the Israelites. This takes place within the story of the Israelites’ Exodus after they escaped Egypt and reached Mt. Sinai.
Some other statement Leviticus mades were;

  • “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material. – Leviticus 19:19
  • Leviticus 20:13
    If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.
  • Leviticus 19:28
    You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.

The Law of Moses

In Biblical times, the Law of Moses (also called Old Testament LawMosaic Law, or just The Law) regulated almost every aspect of Jewish life. The Ten Commandments and many other laws defined matters of morals, religious practice and government. It regulated the army, criminal justice, commerce, property rights, slavery, sexual relations, marriage and social interactions. It required circumcision for males, animal sacrifices, and strict Sabbath observance. It provided for the welfare of widows, orphans, the poor, foreigners and domestic animals. Ceremonial rules divided animals into “clean” and “unclean” categories. Clean animals could be eaten; unclean animals could not.

The Law of Moses was given to the Israelites when they were still a band of ex-slaves struggling to survive. Many of the laws were specific for the worship system  and agricultural life of ancient Israel (Exodus 12:14-16Leviticus 1:10-1311:1-2315:19-2019:1919:27-2827:30-32Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Like life in those times, many were harsh and cruel compared to the teachings of Jesus (Exodus 35:2Deuteronomy 20:10-1421:18-2122:23-24). But there are also many moral teachings that form the basis of Christian morality (Exodus 20:1-1723:6-9Leviticus 19:9-1019:18Deuteronomy 6:5).

The Teachings of Jesus

By the time of Jesus, the great moral principles God had given to Moses in the Ten Commandments had been turned into hundreds of ceremonial rules. People thought they were living holy lives if they just obeyed all those rules. But Jesus disagreed. He said people found enough “loopholes” to obey all the rules and still live wicked and greedy lives (Matthew 23:23-28).

 

Jesus made one statement about the Law that often causes confusion:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (NIV, Matthew 5:17–18)

Christians have struggled to understand exactly what Jesus meant. At first reading, this seems to say that all the Old Testament rules and rituals must still be observed. But Jesus and His disciples did not observe many of those rules and rituals, so it could not mean that.

It is frequently pointed out that the term “the Law” could have many different meanings at the time of Jesus:1,2

  • The ceremonial laws including “clean” and “unclean” lists, sacrifices, dietary restrictions, ritual washings, etc.
  • The civil law regulating social behavior and specifying crimes, punishments and other rules
  • The moral and ethical laws, such as the Ten Commandments
  • The Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible)
  • The scribal law – the 613 rules (mitzvot) formulated by the scribes that everyone was expected to obey
  • The Scripture as a whole

Jesus did not abolish the moral and ethical laws that had been in effect from the time of Moses. He affirmed and expanded upon those principles, but He said obedience must be from the heart (attitudes and intentions) rather than just technical observance of the letter of the law (Matthew 5:21-2227-2831-3233-3438-4243-44, etc.).

However, Jesus and His disciples did not observe the strict scribal rules against doing any work on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14Mark 2:23-283:1-6Luke 6:1-1113:10-1714:1-6John 5:1-18). Neither did they perform the ritual hand washings before eating (Matthew 15:1-2). In contrast to the dietary rules of the Law, Jesus said no food can defile a person; it is bad attitudes and actions that can make a person unholy (Matthew 15:1-20Mark 7:1-23). Jesus frequently criticized the scribal laws (Matthew 23:23Mark 7:11-13) and some aspects of the civil law (John 8:3-510-11).

Therefore, Jesus may have been specifically teaching that the moral and ethical laws in the Scripture would endure until the end of time. That would be consistent with His actions and other teachings. Through His teachings and actions, Jesus revealed the true meaning and intent of the Law.

It is also pointed out that Jesus, Himself, is the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 26:28Mark 10:45Luke 16:16John 1:16Acts 10:2813:39Romans 10:4)  The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross ended forever the need for animal sacrifices and other aspects of the ceremonial law.

The Council of Jerusalem

The first Christians came from among the Jews, and they continued to observe the Law of Moses as well as their new Christian faith. But as more and more Gentiles (non-Jews) converted to Christianity, there were disputes about whether or not these Gentile Christians must observe the Law. Issues of circumcision and diet were especially troublesome and threatened to split Christianity apart.

In about the year 49 A.D., Peter, Paul, Barnabas, James and other Christian leaders met in Jerusalem to settle the issue (Acts 15:1-29). It was agreed, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that nothing was required of the Gentile converts except faith in Christ; they were not bound by the Law of Moses. However, the council directed the Gentile Christians to abstain from certain things that were particularly offensive to their Jewish brethren – food sacrificed to idols, blood, meat of strangled animals and sexual immorality (Acts 15:29).

The New Covenant

With the coming of Christ, God has established a new covenant with mankind (Jeremiah 31:31-34Luke 22:201 Corinthians 11:25Hebrews 8:8-139:11-15). Jesus and His apostles gave us a radically new understanding of the true intent of the Old Testament Law; they brought a new era of the rule of love for all people and spiritual truth instead of rule by law (Luke 10:25-28John 13:34-35Ephesians 2:14-18).

However, God has not revoked His original covenant with Israel and the Jewish people (Luke 1:72Acts 3:25Romans 9:4-511:26-29Galatians 3:17). The New Covenant does not condemn the Jews, nor does it in any way justify persecution of Jews.


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[1]  Jeremiah 32:17, Isaiah 45:7, Amos 3:6, Proverbs 16:4, Matthew 19:26, Romans 9:11-24, Romans 11:33-36, etc.

[2] Leviticus 20:13,23, Psalm 5:5, Psalm 11:5, Malachi 1:1-3, Romans 9:11-13, Matthew 7:13,23, John 12:39-40, 1 Peter 2:8, Jude 4, Revelation 13:8, 20:15, 21:27, etc.

[3] Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:8-11, Jude 7, etc.


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