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IAmAn Ex-Member of the Westboro Baptist Church
June 23, 2012 4:55 PM   Subscribe

"I think my father is a hateful person first. The religious beliefs gave him a forum and permission to be cruel to the world." Nate Phelps, son of Fred Phelps, answers questions about growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church, and his life after leaving it. (Warning: descriptions of domestic violence.)

This interview originated as a IAmA/AMA on Reddit, but is presented here in an easy-to-read format by Top IAmA.
posted by roger ackroyd (70 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why Fred Phelps hasn't been arrested and put in jail is beyond me.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:01 PM on June 23, 2012 [10 favorites]


Something I remember from Louis Theroux's second WBC documentary was when Phelp's daughter (the one who's in charge) admitted that WBC was 'a living' or something along those lines. I so want to make it clear to the world that for these people, it's a business pissing people off. It's like a story out of a science fiction novel that a fundamentalist religious services business can make enough money to travel around the country making people angry and no one can touch them.
posted by parmanparman at 5:06 PM on June 23, 2012 [13 favorites]


Wow, that was an excellent read. Thanks for posting.

Waiting for the day when Phelps dies and his cult falls apart. Thank god the bigots are eventually going to die out.
posted by hippybear at 5:07 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Eventually we'll find him in bed with a male prostitute, three pygmy goats and a bowl of warm pudding. Then all will be well.
posted by jonmc at 5:08 PM on June 23, 2012 [27 favorites]


I hope his book successfully makes it into print with no legal challenges. I read Addicted to Hate while I was living in Topeka, on Gage, a few blocks from their compound. For someone who uses freedom of speech laws to his own ends like Fred to block others' stories is particularly infuriating.
posted by rewil at 5:10 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm also wondering just who exactly is listening to this asshole at this point. He seems to have gone out of his way to alienate just about everyone in the universe.
posted by jonmc at 5:18 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nobody is actually listening to him. He stages his protests in order to gain media attention and to try to draw someone into a lawsuit, which is how he funds his organization. It's the opposite of a honeytrap, and it seems to continue to be a successful tactic, so on it goes.
posted by hippybear at 5:20 PM on June 23, 2012 [14 favorites]


Eventually we'll find him in bed with a male prostitute, three pygmy goats and a bowl of warm pudding. Then all will be well.

Well, that's a pretty harsh scenario for the goats and the prostitute....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:21 PM on June 23, 2012 [28 favorites]


not to mention the poor pudding.
posted by jonmc at 5:21 PM on June 23, 2012 [25 favorites]


Won't someone think of the pudding?!?!?
posted by hippybear at 5:22 PM on June 23, 2012 [17 favorites]


dammit, jonmc
posted by hippybear at 5:22 PM on June 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


At least the pudding's warm.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:22 PM on June 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


"They recognize certain sounds and respond to those sounds with the sounds they learned. They don't critically analyze the incoming sounds at all."

A perfect summation of how an indoctrinated mind behaves. (from the IAmA)
posted by williampratt at 5:25 PM on June 23, 2012 [17 favorites]


This is too perfect to be true. You /know/ these guys are child abusers.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:26 PM on June 23, 2012


What do you mean too perfect to be true?
posted by Danila at 5:30 PM on June 23, 2012


This is too perfect to be true. You /know/ these guys are child abusers.

I have no idea what you mean by this.
posted by hippybear at 5:33 PM on June 23, 2012


"What do you mean too perfect to be true?"

Maybe it fits the narrative of who we think these people to be so perfectly that it's suspicious? I'm inclined to think Fred Phelps is all that and more.
posted by MikeMc at 5:40 PM on June 23, 2012


If ya don't spew your hate, you canna' have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if ya don't spew your hate?!
posted by shiu mai baby at 5:40 PM on June 23, 2012 [42 favorites]


I have "mind blowing" epiphanies all the time when I peel away another layer and realize that I've lived with certain bizarre, false assumptions based on ideas I was raised with.

Holy shit I can only imagine.
posted by LordSludge at 5:42 PM on June 23, 2012 [10 favorites]


Why Fred Phelps hasn't been arrested and put in jail strung up is beyond me.

I too am mystified by this. I really don't like this guy, but in this country you shouldn't be silenced because you are spouting idiotic beliefs, even in public and even if they are hateful, harmful and with malice. This is the kind of speech that needs the most protection (well at least the unpopular kind, the hateful/harmful/malicious is not necessary good for us to hear but who gets to judge?).

However I am amazed someone without much left to lose, say burying his son recently dead from Afghanistan, has but a bullet(s) through Fred and/or his followers. I personally think he isn't worth the price of the bullet much less the jail time, but I bet someone does. The restraint shown thus far toward this...well...piece of garbage is remarkable and speaks well of the tolerance of the USA and our respect for the rule of law (at least for the common man). There are a LOT of guns in the country and whole lots of people who know how to use them. NOTE: I am not saying it is a good idea or advocating it, just amazed someone hasn't done something about this guy.

The above amazement goes double for why no one has offed the head of a bank or members of the board of directors or at least some officer foreclosing on a house.
posted by bartonlong at 5:48 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


MikeMc: ""What do you mean too perfect to be true?"

Maybe it fits the narrative of who we think these people to be so perfectly that it's suspicious? I'm inclined to think Fred Phelps is all that and more.
"

I don't think there's any scenario where Phelps isn't a horrible, cruel person. Either his beliefs are sincerely held, and he thinks harassing and tormenting anyone who does something counter to his religion is right and just, or his beliefs are not sincerely held, the whole thing is a sham and he doesn't give a crap who suffers as long as he gets the attention and money he's out for.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 5:53 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why Fred Phelps hasn't been arrested and put in jail is beyond me.
There are a variety of reasons. Remember that the standard for criminal conviction is "beyond a reasonable doubt," and remember also that he makes his living by baiting for lawsuits. A prosecutor going after Phelps is going to need an absolutely air tight case, and especially back in the 70s/80s, things like training for the investigation of child abuse were almost non-existent. He says in one case his dad was arrested and pictures of the injuries were taken, but you have to go from there to convincing a Kansas jury that a) the dad made those injuries and b) doing so was criminal and not within his rights as a parent. There's a pretty strong cultural undercurrent - even today! - that children are the property of their parents and while you may disapprove of someone's parenting you wouldn't want the state to get involved etc.

So getting that conviction could be pretty tough, especially if the beat cops/county attorney's office aren't trained or knowledgeable about child abuse.
posted by kavasa at 5:59 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


There's some weird codependent relationship between Phelps and progressives. I'm here a couple hours away from Topeka in Kansas City, where my sister and her family are heavily involved in an enormous evangelical community (which played prominent role in that revival Perry appeared at in Houston last year) that is activist in the same culturally conservative causes as as WBC is — opposition to gay marriage, anti-abortion, theocratic civil governance, and all part of End Time preperation — and she had never heard of Fred Phelps when I mentioned him a few years ago. Because WBC is a non-entity in this larger world that is much more active, much more powerful and influential than WBC ever will be.

And yet those of us opposed to this worldview spend so much time on Phelps and so little time on the millions like my sister's ministry. The reason for that is that her ministry absolutely doesn't want the sort of press that Phelps gets. They are more influential without the press than they would be with it. But Phelps wants this kind of press, though, because it's not about being influential in achieving his worldview, it's about the fact that he's an evil fuck with a cult who loves the limelight.

The views that we despise in Phelps are views we rightly despise elsewhere. And I'm not saying that we shouldn't oppose him, really. He's noxious. But he's not really the face of the enemy. In a way, he's the face the enemy wants us to have of them. We're not helping our cause when we place some much importance and attention on Phelps.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:00 PM on June 23, 2012 [101 favorites]


Just posted a link to this discussion on Nate Phelps' FB page...
posted by dfriedman at 6:07 PM on June 23, 2012


In that case I'd like to add: Congratualtions on your courage, Nate, and Good Luck to you.
posted by jonmc at 6:08 PM on June 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Ivan has a point; Phelps is a distraction, in many ways. He also sets a safe boundary behind which anti-gay ideas can stay--as long as they aren't as out-there as Phelps, then the same ideas can get dressed up in more acceptable clothing.
posted by emjaybee at 6:08 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


those of us opposed to this worldview spend so much time on Phelps and so little time on the millions like my sister's ministry. The reason for that is that her ministry absolutely doesn't want the sort of press that Phelps gets. They are more influential without the press than they would be with it.

True. We did have a post or two about the New Apostolic Reformation and Peter Wagner here on the blue about 9-10 months ago, but it's probably a subject worthy of continued observation for those who oppose dominionist political movements within the US.
posted by hippybear at 6:11 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, and even that was sort of weird and annoyed me. I'm of two minds about this stuff, I guess.

On the one hand, I don't think we (progressives in general) need to know much more about these people and movements than who they are and what their general aims are (basically, their culturally conservative goals).

On the other hand, everything I've seen reported about these folk in mainstream or progressive media is like some view of humans by an alien civilization half the galaxy away, confidently claiming a unity of thought and purpose and association that simply doesn't exist in reality. It's rather unfortunately like how conservative Americans view Islam.

I'm not saying that they don't share a basket of culturally conservative beliefs and goals which they relate to a particular and somewhat idiosyncratic understanding of Christianity. They do. But there's far more diversity than outsiders believe and, just for example, what motivates my sister and the prism through which she views her beliefs is as different from, say, Pat Robertson as it could possibly be. The truth about religious belief is that people arrive to it, or are born into it, from very many different paths and while it's comfortable for we progressives to characterize all culturally conservative evangelicals as closeted misogynists, it's just not true. Collectively, their beliefs are homophobic and misogynist, sure. But when we reduce this subculture and its politics to a caricatured pathological personality type, we fool ourselves into thinking we understand something that we clearly don't understand at all. Again, think about how true this is with conservatives and Islam.

And this can matter, depending upon context. It matters on the most basic level of thinking we know something about them and we're actually wrong in what we think we know. Personally, I think that always matters. But it has practical effects, too. How we effectively oppose this group, collectively, can often be dependent upon whether we actually do understand anything about the various people who make up that group and the various things they believe.

The attention on Phelps bothers me because he's a cartoon. I understand that such an unambiguous and larger-than-life villain has a sort of attraction for our attention. But I think that our attention paid to him corresponds to attention we're not paying elsewhere and, even more importantly, it falsely informs us about all the places and people we're not paying any attention to.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:34 PM on June 23, 2012 [22 favorites]


Having grown up in a conservative, fundamentalist home, the child of patents who were not physically abusive but were a bit odd, boy howdy can I relate to one's adulthood being a series of epiphanies about what's normal thinking and behavior. Even that other kids went sledding or on vacations was mind-blowing.
posted by Occula at 6:38 PM on June 23, 2012 [12 favorites]


In a sick twist, I'm pretty sure the WBC gets its funds, at least in part, from settlements and awards in civil cases against people who infringe on their First Amendment rights.
posted by PJLandis at 6:43 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I imagine that's an aspect of this that is entirely incomprehensible — as in "the US is topsy-turvy land" — to our European brethren.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:46 PM on June 23, 2012


It's like Canada through a dark mirror.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:47 PM on June 23, 2012


I imagine that's an aspect of this that is entirely incomprehensible — as in "the US is topsy-turvy land" — to our European brethren.

I'm fairly sure that there are religious fanatics in Europe.
posted by jonmc at 6:52 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ian Paisley for starters.
posted by jonmc at 6:54 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


In a sick twist, I'm pretty sure the WBC gets its funds, at least in part, from settlements and awards in civil cases against people who infringe on their First Amendment rights.

That's pretty much how they fund their entire operation. One of the daughters is an attorney and does all the legal work for the family.
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:55 PM on June 23, 2012


what motivates my sister and the prism through which she views her beliefs is as different from, say, Pat Robertson as it could possibly be

Right. Well, Pat Robertson isn't NAR, even though he does allow members of that movement onto his crappy television show.

Anyway, it isn't what the rank-and-file members of a given sect or why believe that matters. It's the greater effect that the sect is attempting to have on the world around them, which is guided and shaped by the leadership. And whatever is motivating that leadership, it is the vision which they provide that is fed into the membership of these often closed (yet often quite expansive, in the case of mega-churches) communities that allows a feedback cycle to take place which is self-reinforcing to the exclusion of reality. It allows or even encourages those within these organizations to act in bigoted and bullying ways and work toward the end of dehumanizing anyone who does not agree with them, and does it in a light and airy supportive atmosphere that doesn't allow in any dissent or even the possibility that there might be something wrong about the kind of idea-imposition they seek to achieve on those around them.

I'm not saying anything personally about your sister here -- I'm sure she's a lovely woman with many great attributes whom you love dearly. But I am saying something very strongly against religious philosophies which seek to impose their beliefs on others, and who are looking to do so, in the manner of the NAR, through complete stealth political and social takeover of society.

Frankly, I wonder sometimes whether the whole thing about conservatives and Islam, especially religiously-motivated conservatives, isn't because they regularly hear preached the same kind of thing in their churches which they are then ascribing to be tactics of Islam. And why wouldn't they think that? It's the way they are approaching the world at large -- oh, let's get all OUR people into all the important positions in the "seven mountains of culture" and then once they are all in place, we can enact our revolution and claim this country and world for Jesus.

If that's what your belief system (in this case, specifically the NAR and associated groups) has as its agenda, then no wonder they freak out every time a new mosque is built, or any time someone with a possibly Muslim name is elected or appointed to a position of power. They have plans; they think others have the same plans too.
posted by hippybear at 6:55 PM on June 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


This is utterly tangential, but I find it kind of surprising/amazing that Ivan Fyodorovich, progressive dude who went to St. John's, of all places, has a sister active in a conservative megachurch.
posted by kenko at 6:56 PM on June 23, 2012


Previously someone used a WBC protest to canvas for donations to the thing WBC were protesting.

That seemed like such an obviously ideal solution that I'm constantly dumbfounded that it isn't done at every one of their events.

The people who would fund WBC by attacking them in anger instead get to laugh at them by giving money to the cause being protested. It turns an event intended to desecrate for profit into an event designed to profit for consecration.

It's an alchemy, converting hate into gold and love.
posted by tychotesla at 7:06 PM on June 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm fairly sure that there are religious fanatics in Europe.

Not in the same league.
posted by unSane at 7:07 PM on June 23, 2012


unSane, I don't want to get into a pissing contest with someone I generally like and respect, so let me put it this way: religious fanaticism (to the point of causing serious societal harm) is a worldwide phenomenon.
posted by jonmc at 7:10 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ian Paisley for starters

Although Paisley's "redemption" (not a word I care to use about a man who did so much harm, but historically I think it will be seen as such) is an interesting case of how one can negotiate with fundamentalists and bigots (those on opposing sides in this case). But Northern Ireland at least has a relatively simple political context, in comparison to the US cultural civil war.

The sight of McGuinness and Paisley sharing a joke a few years back still turned my stomach. The blood of others they wasted in partisan hatred, and there they were chuckling away. A thousand times better to see that than the alternative, of course.
posted by howfar at 7:18 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


If there is a large enough counter-protest, the Phelps family will back off. They cancelled one of their events in 2010 at Temple University in Philadelphia when word got out that a substantial counter-protest was being formed. They are lawsuit trolls, but cowardly ones and will not face a bigger force against them. There's no real ambiguity as to how you fight these people.
posted by graymouser at 7:42 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Domestic violence type? I would think Fred Phelps sounds like someone the FBI might want to hire.
posted by millardsarpy at 7:53 PM on June 23, 2012


"I'm fairly sure that there are religious fanatics in Europe."

Definitely. My comment was with regard to free-speech fundamentalism to the degree to which WBC espouses what is clearly hate-speech and prohibited in many European countries but which, in the US, results in the government protecting the speech to the degree to which legal judgments supporting their right to make hateful speech actually support them financially.

"This is utterly tangential, but I find it kind of surprising/amazing that Ivan Fyodorovich, progressive dude who went to St. John's, of all places, has a sister active in a conservative megachurch."

There's a lot packed into that statement.

I'm also an atheist.

With regard to SJC, johnnies are generally liberal but increasingly there's cultural conservatives that go there and survive the education. It's sort of a paradox because on the one hand, you can see it as being all about a western patriarchal chauvinism. We read Maimonides and much of the Bible. Translate parts, even. And most of the important Catholic theologians. So, from that perspective, it's a conservative education. And, indeed, most of the other schools around the country which emulate SJC are religious colleges. (They probably don't read Nietzsche, though.) (SJC is thoroughly secular, despite the name, just in case anyone's confused.)

On the other hand, most of these so-called Great Books are pretty radical in context. And, in my opinion, cumulatively radical in effect, though conservative johnnies will naturally disagree. (I guess because such folk always think that all progress up until now was right and sensible and Now We're Done. I dunno. Such people confound me.) So, anyway, YMMV.

But you're both correct and incorrect to think that it's odd that my sister and I would come from the same environment. The first thing I should say is that we're very much alike. We both take our beliefs very seriously and we live our beliefs — and come from a familial environment where this was very much not the case. The second thing I should mention is that I was sort of an alternate father to my sister, I'm ten years her senior, and I had a profound influence on her young intellectual life. And I was young and zealous then. When she was seventeen we had our first major argument about anything like this stuff. And she yelled something at me that has rung in my ears for the twenty years since: "You've made it so that I can't believe in anything!"

The third and most important thing, perhaps, is that when I graduated from high school she was only seven and within the year my family moved away to Amarillo, Texas. I stayed in our small New Mexican college town for a year and then moved to Dallas and then many other places. My sister grew up in Amarillo. Which is a shit-hole of racism and middle-class Christian homogeneity. Even so, she didn't get religion until a couple years after high school. After searching, searching, searching. And doing lots of drugs. And she met a guy that she fell in love with who was Pentacostal. She later left that church after they broke up, but kept her underlying faith because, frankly, she needed it and finding it made her life better. And she migrated to an evangelical megachurch, where she eventually worked full-time. And along the way, she became the manager for a nationally successful Christian singer. Eventually, somehow, she learned of the big ministry here, which was then and still is very popular with young people. She moved here (interestingly, our mother had years before moved here for other reasons and the one has nothing to do with the other). She worked at the ministry, became a prominent person, and met her future husband, who also worked there full-time. They are very prominent.

I don't know how to explain her, but I do think it matters. For example, she's always fought against sexism and has been pretty fearless in doing so. She believes women should be ordained and frequently said so in the Amarillo church where the majority disagreed. She went through a phase about six years ago reading a lot of books about social justice (don't tell Glenn Beck). She thinks that gay sex is a sin, but she thinks the emphasis on it reveals a common hypocrisy because she believes that fornication and adultery are equal sins and none of her fellow believers are up-in-arms about those things. I had an ex-girlfriend who once said about my sister that if she had been born in an different time and place, she'd have been a liberal Catholic nun working against the CIA supported fascists in Central America. And I think that's true. Where my sister found her faith, there was truly very close to no alternatives to this particular brand of faith. There really and truly are progressive evangelicals (really, I dated one just out of high school). But they are such a tiny minority and pretty much entirely invisible in places like Amarillo.

My sister and I have been estranged, but not (as far as I can tell) because of our beliefs. We had a bad disagreement after our father died four years ago and almost haven't spoken at all since. We'd not actually seen each other again until last week. In some ways, her faith is something that we been able to talk about, a point of connection, rather than a chasm. Because we're motivated by the same things, see the world in many of the same ways. We just have different underlying assumptions about the nature of reality. But we both passionately care about the welfare of others and view our lives in that larger context.

In other ways, it is a chasm. I don't even know how to approach a lot of the things I know she believes. Or I have to assume she believes. I've done some minimal research and I'm not happy with what I've learned. My mom willfully doesn't want to know about the nuttier things that this ministry believes about the Apocalypse and that's frustrating because this isn't just the eschatology of evangelicals, this is a particular variety that these groups are organizing around in a practical sense. And I especially have trouble with my nephews — having moved here to KC, and being childless, I desperately want to be close to them. But I have a problem knowing that everything I believe and stand for is what my sister and her husband think is literally evil in the world today. They literally must necessarily think I'm under the influence of Satan. Somehow, she can still relate to me and love me. But I don't know how this will affect how I am allowed to relate to my nephews and, anyway, just the idea that I might not be trusted with my nephews deeply upsets me.

Anyway, nothing I've seen of my sister and my brother-in-law and what I've heard and the people from the ministry I've met conforms to the facile view that is presented in these profiles. There's far more nuance and outright contradiction in individual people and even individual ministries than outsiders see, are possibly willing to see.

All that said, I was ambivalent in my previous comment and I still am. In many respects, we just don't need to know much beyond that this is a group of people who are oppressively culturally conservative and they have X, Y, and Z goals, which we oppose. In some other respects, it does matter, if we are going to think we know something about them, to actually know something about them. Thinking we know things, when what we falsely know are caricatures and such, can often be worse than having never learned anything at all.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:53 PM on June 23, 2012 [71 favorites]


I'm just waiting for Fred Phelps to die so I can protest at his funeral.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:53 PM on June 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Ivan that was a great comment, thank you. The complexity you paint is where the hope lies; so long as your sister chooses loving you over hating you, she has not given into the hatred that her religion can foster. Maybe it's worth pointing out that the political fight is only part of it; the personal level is where lots of change takes place.
posted by emjaybee at 8:23 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


If there is a large enough counter-protest, the Phelps family will back off. They cancelled one of their events in 2010 at Temple University in Philadelphia when word got out that a substantial counter-protest was being formed.

The WBC has a long history of scheduling events that they have no intention of actually attending. They still get the press, and often get local officials to "violate their rights" ahead of time so they can sue them, but all it costs them is a couple of emails.
posted by Etrigan at 8:37 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


he's not really the face of the enemy. In a way, he's the face the enemy wants us to have of them. We're not helping our cause when we place some much importance and attention on Phelps.

I think this is a very insightful and important set of comments about the WBC. I was thinking along these lines recently when I saw yet another friend posting on Facebook about how they were headed to the protest against some demonstration WBC was advertising. Of course, they didn't show. And last year, something similar happened in my own hometown; 70 people turned out to protest them, and they didn't show. Seeing this happen twice to people I know gave me pause. They don't even actually have to show up; just threatening to show out makes the liberals dance. And this takes up probably 200-something collective person-hours each time - the person-hours of people of goodwill who want to stand up for tolerance, but who end up having a little milling-about club meeting wearing signs for, ultimately, no useful purpose.

This energy and these hours could be better spent. Even among evangelical circles, no one takes this bunch seriously. They're insular and not influential. They're a distracting sideshow; repugnant, but perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if they start throwing hate-ins to which nobody cares to come. They're far too much of an easy target for anger, when the real work that needs to be done towards peace and tolerance sits there getting dusty.
posted by Miko at 8:51 PM on June 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


To my mind, free speech is the most important right we have as Americans. Unfortunately, nothing in life is free. Fred Phelps' sewer hole of hate and gaming of the system is part of the price that we pay for that right. Fortunately, every time he spouts his filth is another opportunity for us to reject it for the pathetic trash that it is.

I'm glad that we don't have the sort of hate speech exceptions to our right of free speech that some other countries have. That would only serve to drive his ideas underground where they would fester without the benefit of disinfecting sunlight.

As an atheist, I don't believe that there is a Heaven or Hell for Fred Phelps to go to when he dies. Fred Phelps should probably hope that I'm right.
posted by double block and bleed at 9:32 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


And yet those of us opposed to this worldview spend so much time on Phelps and so little time on the millions like my sister's ministry.

IME, the progressive atheist/humanist community doesn't spend that much time on Phelps (the only time I see WBC coverage is when there is an amusing counter protest, and that has been relatively rare recently for the reasons mentioned above), while more mainstream conservative organizations get a lot of coverage. I think there's some natural reticence on the part of the larger liberal community to openly criticize 'legitimate' religious organizations, maybe because they can be very effective at burying people who try to do so.
posted by muddgirl at 9:40 PM on June 23, 2012


ME, the progressive atheist/humanist community doesn't spend that much time on Phelps

I don't know; even just here, this represents a lot of time.
posted by Miko at 9:51 PM on June 23, 2012


I'm glad that we don't have the sort of hate speech exceptions to our right of free speech that some other countries have.
if you mean the countries I think you mean, it doesn't even really help to curb hate

plus if you think that willingness to make exemptions in the states wouldn't be gamed to hell you are a phantasist
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:24 PM on June 23, 2012


This video linked from his niece Jael's AMA kind of broke my brain. Apologies if it's already posted in a previous FPP.
posted by lauranesson at 11:05 PM on June 23, 2012


Nate Phelps is a gutsy guy and it's good to see him getting attention.

Ivan's story about his sister struck a chord with me. I'm about as militant an atheist (in the Douglas Adams sense of 'militant') as they come. Almost thirty years ago my sister joined a religious community on a remote Scottish island (where she still lives) and since then we've seen each other maybe half a dozen times. If my mother is visiting her I will sometimes call, and sometimes my sister and I will exchange a few words. Civil. Even amiable, occasionally. But that's it. There is this huge, insurmountable wall, and we know how painful it is to bang our heads against it. So we don't. Whenever I think about this situation it usually ends up with me also thinking about the old nature/nurture question. And also that it is something of a pity.
posted by Decani at 11:54 PM on June 23, 2012


I spent a lot of this evening reading Addicted to Hate, which Rewil linked above. This bit, from Chapter 9, really clarified the dynamics of the family and of the protests for me:
Fred has a captive family congregation: their fear of hell and fear of him still control them, like the elephant's rope. His loyal children have fulfilled his ambitions rather than their own. They live at his side and do his work. And since his rage has become their outrage, a wrath they dare not turn back on him, Fred's kids have eagerly joined in whenever he has sallied forth from Westboro to smite the Adamic race. Margie Phelps admits many in her family have become emotionally dependent on the death-to- gays crusade: "A lot of us have been able to work through emotional problems because of the picketing," she says. She explains the bonding and the sense of goals have brought them closer and taken each person's focus off their own personal difficulties. "It would be very hard for them to give up the picketing now," she observes, and quotes with some apparent relief the circumstances outlined by her father for an end to his grim campaign: the return of Jesus; the capitulation of all homosexuals; "or they kill us. Otherwise it will go on."
Also, it appears that the extreme antigay rhetoric didn't show up until relatively late in the life of Phelps's family ministry. He latched onto it after his ability (1) to beat his wife children with farm equipment, and (2) to litigate recreationally, were seriously curtailed; the first after one of his adult children threatened him with a knife, and the second after he lost his license to practice law. The old shitbird had to find a new way to spread his hatred and anger about, and rabid antigay activism seems to have met that need perfectly.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:11 AM on June 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


"If my mother is visiting her I will sometimes call, and sometimes my sister and I will exchange a few words. Civil. Even amiable, occasionally. But that's it."

The possibility of rebuilding a relationship with my sister played a large role in my decision to move here to Kansas City (which I did two weeks ago and which, frankly, I'm not that keen on in general even though my mother is here, too — I'm a New Mexican, I love the mountains and there's about fifteen other cities I'd have moved to before KC, all other things being equal). I've thought more explicitly about my nephews and my mom. But my sister is important, too.

The thing is, we were extremely close. I've missed her over the last seventeen years as we've drifted apart. It began before she found religion, but that certainly sped the process along. Our differences almost certainly have more to do with the really weird situation of how our father was abusive to me and negligent of her, and so I cultivated her as my ally and I filled a role with her that her father wouldn't — this created a dynamic that just fractured in her adulthood. Partly because she had at least as much reason to rebel against me as she did our parents, but also partly because I was there when her dad wasn't and at some point she realized that she didn't want that (she wanted him) and she resented both of us for it. But I'm not her father. I think, though I don't know, that it was easier for her to sort of blame me for taking his place than it was to blame him for not being there. And so it's also no surprise that some weird shit happened between us when he died (unexpectedly). Not to mention that some weird shit had happened between me and him before he died.

So I think that's the larger part of it. But the religion thing certainly doesn't help. It's not as if this is like a Sunday-only thing. Until she stopped working, she worked at the ministry full-time and her husband has an executive position. All of their friends. They live in a bubble.

Also, her quality of life is enormously improved by this community. We both have a genetic disease, we're both disabled. But there's this huge community that's there to help her and her family on an almost daily basis. My mom does a lot, too, but because she's over there so much she's also very aware of what the ministry's community does for my sister and her family. That's explicitly why my mom stopped me when I started to talk about the ministry with her after there was a front-page online NYT story about it last year — there's things she knows she doesn't want to know.

And most of these people are, as far as I can tell, good people. Most people are good people. That's part of why focusing on people like Phelps is a mistake, because what we do, over and over, is focus on the obvious individually villainous people as being representative of social movements and ideologies with which we disagree. And it's a sorry truth of life that social movements and ideologies can be hateful and wrong and, well, evil, without all the people associated with it being anything like that. MeFi is a majority American community but, you know, history is going to judge us harshly for our prisons and our death penalty and numerous other things and some of those future people are going to think that somehow we're all of us now are to some degree Bad People because of this. And of course, to some degree we are...but so will they be.

And back before my father died and my sister and I talked more often (but not often), we talked again and again about Christians who orient their beliefs around hate and othering. My sister deeply opposes this, she speaks out within her community against it. I know it's difficult for people here to believe this, but I think she partly manages to walk that line where she thinks that X is wrong without vilifying everyone who does X, or believes that X is okay. I mean, I know that I'm occasionally able to do this with views and communities I oppose, so I don't find it impossible that they could manage it with me and mine. But, the point is that we had numerous conversations about how she sees part of her role in her community to work against that way of being a culturally conservative evangelical Christian. I think she's perhaps a bit naive sometimes. But then, well, I think that all of us necessarily must be a little bit naive sometimes in order to keep fighting the good fight. My point is that while I suppose I'd rather she be out of that community than in, I also believe in her, as a good person, who is an independent thinker and who necessarily is a positive influence within that context. And I don't think she's alone.

Because there's a lot of good people in the world and they're not all exclusively in the communities with which we're ideologically aligned.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:54 AM on June 24, 2012 [22 favorites]


This interview with Nate Phelps on Q-TV is really good. Also this talk here at the Imagine No Religion Conference.
posted by ts;dr at 2:38 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was surprised to see anyone shocked that IF or any one of us might have people in our families who don't share our outlooks and views, even people who have followed a pretty extreme path of religious isolationism or hatred. It made me a little sad, as if there is an idea that people who do those things are somehow a different breed who have absolutely nothing in common with us, couldn't be closely related to us.

People like that aren't a different breed of benighted, hopeless human - they're our relatives and sometimes have been, or still are in some way, our friends. There are a lot of ways to end up with that mindset, and people react differently to the many stresses of life. It's too easy to assume that anyone following a restrictive, angry, oppressive religious path must not be intelligent, or must not be educated, to have ended up that way; in reality, many people in ultraconservative religious groups are intelligent and educated, often kind and empathetic in many ways, but have simply willed their lives and abilities in a different direction.

And things change. Members of my family span the entire religio-cultural spectrum, from New Agey goddess worship to liberal Christianity to rational atheism to conservative born-again Christianity, and some have stepped forward or back along those lines with different life events. They are all smart. They are all functional and capable of good things. In some cases, their religious choices are reactions and attempts to heal or make sense of a world that hasn't added up right for them. In some cases it provides a profound, needed security that was always missing. Whatever their reasons for getting involved, there are aspects of some of these religious paths that I deplore, but it is a reality that people on that end of the spectrum are and have been in my family, too, and I suspect those of us with that experience are far from alone.
posted by Miko at 5:21 AM on June 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


bartonlong: "Why Fred Phelps hasn't been arrested and put in jail strung up is beyond me.The restraint shown thus far toward this...well...piece of garbage is remarkable and speaks well of the tolerance of the USA and our respect for the rule of law (at least for the common man). There are a LOT of guns in the country and whole lots of people who know how to use them. "

Nah - it just says that the ones who have the guns who are angry enough and politically minded enough to shoot tend to target "liberal" parents and their children while they are enjoying a play in Sunday School.
posted by symbioid at 7:28 AM on June 24, 2012


People like that aren't a different breed of benighted, hopeless human - they're our relatives and sometimes have been, or still are in some way, our friends. There are a lot of ways to end up with that mindset, and people react differently to the many stresses of life. It's too easy to assume that anyone following a restrictive, angry, oppressive religious path must not be intelligent, or must not be educated, to have ended up that way; in reality, many people in ultraconservative religious groups are intelligent and educated, often kind and empathetic in many ways, but have simply willed their lives and abilities in a different direction.

They are people who have chosen to give in to the practices of discrimination as a release. Why is this morally better than the KKK, Aryan Brotherhood or other hate group?
posted by jaduncan at 7:57 AM on June 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I didn't for a second say it was always morally better. I'm saying that it can happen in any family.
posted by Miko at 8:01 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


T.D. Strange wrote: One of the daughters is an attorney and does all the legal work for the family.

IIRC, this is because Fred lost his law license some years back. Let's also keep in mind that Church is a misnomer in this case. It was a church before Fred got involved, but he expelled most of the non-Phelps-clan members a long time ago.

Now that everyone I know is aware that Westboro is not a church and Fred is a child abuser, I pretty much ignore anything related to WBC, except when the schadenfreude bug bites me and I read a news story about friends of a soldier whose funeral they protest slashed the tires of the WBC vehicles. I would never advocate such activities, but there are times I can't help but smile inside when something bad happens to them.
posted by wierdo at 8:22 AM on June 24, 2012


"They are people who have chosen to give in to the practices of discrimination as a release."

I won't even accept that as something that is true of everyone who joins a religion or sect or political party or whatever that "we" believe is discriminatory.

It's possible and even likely that the aspects of these beliefs and associations that concern us the most are not the aspects of it that are the most important to many of its believers. It's certainly most important to some of them, or else those things wouldn't play such a prominent role in their belief system. But people generally don't believe and agree with everything that an organization/religion/sect to which they belong institutionally believes and advocates, and when they do, they don't all agree on the relative importance of all these things.

My ex-wife was, when I married her twenty-two years ago, a progressive Canadian who was very naturally critical and skeptical about the US. It's my understanding that since our divorce, she's become a US citizen. (Which is ironic to me, considering that during the last ten years I would have gladly become a citizen of Somewhere Else and I'm regretting the vissitudes of fate that meant that she came here all that time ago and I didn't go there.) Anyway, I sincerely doubt that her decision to become an American means that she endorses everything which deeply characterizes this country. Such as the death penalty. Or invading other countries every few years or so. Or our penal system. Or our ostentatious religiosity.

Even when people have beliefs which are extremely important to them and which they live, it's not the case that they are ideological robots and are homogeneous with everyone with whom they're ideologically associated. We all know this about ourselves, we all grant ourselves individuality and nuance and some independence and good-intent. It's only our perceived enemies which we reduce to two-dimensional villains. And so much bad shit comes from that tendency.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:39 AM on June 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't know; even just here, this represents a lot of time.

I don't think Metafilter is representative of the progressive atheist community - my point was that they get more attention in the liberal blog-o-sphere (perhaps including Metafilter) than they do in the bits that specifically focus on issues of religion in politics and public life.
posted by muddgirl at 9:23 AM on June 24, 2012


I don't think Metafilter is representative of the progressive atheist community

I think it does a fairly good job representing this viewpoint, in the agreggate. I'm not sure I get the distinction between the "liberal blogosphere" and "the bits that specifically focus on issues of religion...in public life." If anything, this WBC bunch is way more interesting to the liberal blogosphere, and not that much on the radar of people focusing on the influence of religion in public life. Which may be exactly what you're saying. But they're interesting to MetaFilter -- and I've only heard of them anywhere outside of MetaFilter because of their local protests -- largely because of the crossover with athiest liberals, not because they raise issues of influence of religion in public life. I guess I'm not sure what the distinction being drawn here is. They irritate liberals, flat out, but particularly liberals antagonistic to religion in all forms.
posted by Miko at 7:09 PM on June 24, 2012


What I'm saying is that the blogs I read and the groups I am associated with who are 'antagonist to religion in all forms' seem to recognize that the WBC is a dog and pony show. I don't think that liberal blogs in general are 'antagonistic to religion in any form', and while there are anti-theists on Metafilter I don't think they are the majority opinion (although they may be one of the loudest? *shrug*). Maybe that's where we're having a disconnect? My impression is that mainstream liberal opinion is religion-neutral at worst, and perhaps this is one reason why it's more common for them to focus on more extreme groups like the WBC and ignore more mainstream religious groups which are less extreme but more politically and socially powerful.
posted by muddgirl at 7:42 PM on June 24, 2012


Not that I am associated with groups that are antagonistic to religion in all forms... I don't really know how to word that.
posted by muddgirl at 7:43 PM on June 24, 2012


OK - I don't really read a lot of other blogs on topics like this, so I can really only go on what I see here and what happens in my "location-based" life. I think the WBC is all too easy a target for each of these constituencies, for whom opposing the WBC feels good, so we're probably in agreement. MetaFilter does seem to have been among the last to let them go. If they're inconsequential, they're inconsequential; yet here is yet another post about them, drawing discussion.
posted by Miko at 7:53 PM on June 24, 2012


They are people who have chosen to give in to the practices of discrimination as a release. Why is this morally better than the KKK, Aryan Brotherhood or other hate group?

Going to church, and taking it seriously, is equivalent to KKK membership? Really? Talk about living in a bubble... Or did I just fall for a good ol' fashioned trolling?
posted by slab_lizard at 8:49 AM on June 25, 2012


kenko: “This is utterly tangential, but I find it kind of surprising/amazing that Ivan Fyodorovich, progressive dude who went to St. John's, of all places, has a sister active in a conservative megachurch.”

For what it's worth, he's not even the only one in this conversation who fits that description. I like to think of myself as progressive, I went to St John's, and my sister is a long-time member of a certain megachurch in Colorado Springs that became infamous some years ago as a result of some scandalous revelations about its founder and head pastor. Society is not really as segmented as some of us sometimes feel it is, I don't think.
posted by koeselitz at 3:59 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


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