Whether I’m speaking with organizers, progressive faith leaders, or journalists, I’m often asked what, exactly, I do. When I explain that my work involves tracking right-wing evangelical Christians in the U.S. and the harm they cause to LGBTQ people around the world, the vast majority have a fairly limited frame of reference for what that actually means. Seeking clarification, most will don a puzzled look of amusement and ask, “Oh, like that Westboro Baptist Church guy?”
Even in the most secular of spaces, Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America”) are notorious. They have been a source of endless vitriol against a wide variety of people and groups, from soldiers killed in combat to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings to even Fred “Mister” Rogers. LGBTQ people, though, have consistently been at the top of Phelps’ target list, and Westboro has certainly done significant damage in its tireless effort to assert that “God Hates Fags.”
Consequently, the recent death of Fred Phelps has mostly been met by an overwhelming sense of relief (evidenced by how quickly the Twitter hashtag, #GoodRiddanceFredPhelps, caught on).
A few, however, have offered more thoughtful and compassionate responses. Rev. Mel White, founder of Soulforce, an advocacy organization committed to nonviolently resisting the religious and political oppression of LGBTQ people, reflected, “[W]e take this time to mourn a lost opportunity for reconciliation, and to recognize our own complicity in continuing oppressions of homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, religious bigotry, and class-based injustice. … Phelps’ death is a time to remember all who have been hurt by hate; to redouble our efforts to resist hate nonviolently; and to hold out hope for reconciliation.”
Right-wing Christians have also weighed in on Phelps’s death, taking a far different approach. Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a right-wing Christian group, once again took the opportunity to distance himself from any degree of culpability in the persecution of LGBTQ people. In an article published in The American Spectator, Tooley wrote, “He was however unconsciously a best friend to homosexual and liberal sexual advocacy. Angry, southern (from Mississippi), white-skinned and white-haired, irrational, proudly hateful, hectoring, supposedly Christian and Baptist, Phelps was the living embodiment of what enlightened social liberals imagined hardcore social conservatives were really like.”
Further resisting any amount of responsibility for the damage done in the name of Christianity, Tooley he went on to affirm the same anti-LGBTQ ideology that continues to perpetuate so much harm: “Christian teachings and Christian social witness must now even more deeply, thoughtfully and boldly proclaim a Christian and natural law based anthropology that explains God’s gifts of marriage, family, the two genders, and each person as God’s image bearer. There are many political, cultural and spiritual battles ahead. Fighting them may be a little easier in the absence of Fred Phelps.”
This pattern of evading liability whilst quietly advancing the same harmful agenda is a familiar one.
Confronted with public outrage after his role in the development of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill was revealed, Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, released a video in 2009. Addressing Ugandan pastors, Warren states, “While we can never deny or water down what God’s Word clearly teaches about sexuality, at the same time the church must stand to protect the dignity of all individuals – as Jesus did and commanded all of us to do.”
“Jesus reaffirmed what Moses wrote that marriage is intended to be between one man and one woman committed to each other for life,” says Warren, and then adds, “Jesus also taught us that the greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
The “love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin” line of reasoning is a popular one among conservative Christians attempting to find a more politically (and publicly) palatable way of condemning LGBTQ people, but this rhetorical sleight of hand fails to hide the true agenda of these culture warriors. Indeed, no matter how much distance Warren, Tooley, and others have tried to put between themselves and more overt demonstrations of anti-LGBTQ activism (e.g. the malicious protests of Westboro, violent attacks, and criminalization), and until they proactively take steps to reverse the destructive course they themselves have helped initiate, they, too, remain culpable for its deadly effects.
In his statement, Warren goes on to explain, “The freedom to make moral choices is endowed by God. Since God gives us that freedom, we must protect it for all, even when we disagree with their choices.”
Here, the distancing he endorses is not between himself and the version of anti-LGBTQ attacks that he has deemed distasteful, but rather between himself and LGBTQ people. Through the dichotomy of “us vs. them, Warren effortlessly denounces the “immoral choices” of a community he’d prefer to eliminate, righteously washing his hands of the violence and hatred that LGBTQ communities continue to experience.
Responding to the question, “Is Christian fundamentalism dead in America?” Matthew Paul Turner, a progressive evangelical writer, observes, “Among this country’s wide and varied Christianities, fundamentalism is very much alive; it’s just harder to recognize. Rather than being fanatical, loud, and obnoxious, today’s fundamentalism masquerades under wide smiles, hipster garb, flowery poetic language, and synth-pop beats. Unlike the former champions of fundamentalism—people like Falwell, Phelps, Oral Roberts, and Pat Robertson, all of whom seemed to love being fundamentalists—today’s self-appointed gatekeepers of heaven are far less inclined to own the moniker.”
But the moniker rings true. Even if Fred Phelps is dead, his fundamentalist beliefs live on.