Welcome to RelPol, a student peer reviewed online magazine. This magazine is part of the assessment for the module "In God We Trust" @ the University of Hull.
The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is quickly becoming one of the most controversial extremist religious groups in the United States. Their intolerant views on same sex marriage are the primary source of the contention between the WBC and other religious organizations across America. Founded by, Fred Phelps, a lawyer who fought for anti-discrimination in the Civil Rights case of the 1960’s, the Westboro Baptist Church uses religious rhetoric to gain momentum, thus creating an environment for debate about the Bible. As a nation that preaches it’s unity and indivisibility, it seems obvious that such a case as same sex marriage vs the Bible can, fairly easily, divide American’s neoconservatives from its liberal democrats.
Young Fred Phelps
The huge weight religious rhetoric has in American culture cannot be ignored in the same sex marriage argument or any other political issue. In his book, God Hates Fags: Rhetorics of Religious Violence, Michael Cobb explores how religious rhetoric patrols American citizens, suggesting that “just citing the location of sacred words from the Bible will guarantee the strong, religious truth of any assertion one might have”. In the TV series West Wing, the President questions Dr Jenna Jacobs’ argument that Leviticus 18:22 calls homosexuality an abomination, based on this way of thinking the President sarcastically states he’s “interested in selling [his] daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7…[his] chief of staff insists on working on the sabbath Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death” along with all the other examples given on West Wing, the TV show is able to demonstrate how outdated it really is to follow the rules of the Bible entirely.Therefore, it stands to reason that the Westboro Baptist Church’s website is somewhat outdated with its eighteen examples of Biblical denouncements of homosexuality. I hasten to add that the Bible is in fact extremely nebulous and interpretation varies depending on what the reader is looking to find. A single example, such as “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him”, is enough to disrupt the stance that the WBC has taken with their “God hates fags” tag line. Nonetheless, how can a nation progress through the constant battle of Jeremiad speeches?
The vicious murder of Matthew Shepard shocked America in 1998. Shepard was tortured before being hung, resembling the crucifix, and left for dead as a result of being a member of the LGBT community. This hate crime has since haunted America’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community and the national community as a whole. The Westboro Baptist Church, however, used Shepard’s funeral as an opportunity to picket and promote their religious fanaticism. Leader Fred Phelps attended sporting a deeply personal sign that read “MATT IN HELL.” At what point can we overpower religious freedom for the greater good of being respectful? Is it ever possible to conquer a ‘God given right’?
Though Matthew Shepard’s funeral was an extremely personal event, it does not take away from the outrageous, vulgar presence of the Westboro Baptist Church. Matthew Shepard’s parents Dennis and Judy Shepard gained comfort knowing Matthew did not spend the night alone slowly dying out in that field in Laramie because “he had God”. Dennis Shepard’s speech demonstrates two issues with American religious rhetoric, firstly that it brings a momentous amount of respect and second that in order to fight religious hate crimes, you must hold a seemingly higher level of religious understanding. Dennis Shepard went further to assert to his sons’ murders “you made the world realize that a person’s lifestyle is not a reason for discrimination, intolerance, persecution, and violence. This is not the 1920’s, 30s, and 40s of Nazi Germany. My son died because of your ignorance and intolerance.” Has America realized that a person’s lifestyle isn’t reason enough for discrimination? Events such as Shepard’s funeral force us to determine, if there is a God, what matters more to it: Shepard’s ability to radiate love? His sexual identity? Or the Westboro Baptist Church’s disrespect for its neighbor? After all, 1 John 4:8 states anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
In 2004, six years after Shepard’s funeral a reported 9035 hate crime offenses took place in the United States. 18% of these were caused by religious bias and 15.7% were the result of bias against sexual orientation. This means a staggering 3044 hate crimes happened in the USA in 2004 as a result of religious bias or prejudice against sexual orientation.
Keeping in mind the 2004 hate crime statistics, we can now look at the Westboro Baptist Church picket of Ground Zero, September 2014. Picketing the 9/11 memorial was a conscious decision by the church to denounce same sex marriage in America by claiming soldiers were dying for “fag marriage”. The picket gained a huge amount of opposition and attention. On one independent news blog site, journalist Michael Luciano mockingly reported that “their pet crusade is against homosexuality, and they view the September 11 attacks as God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of it. They seem to hate everything except Jesus.”
The WBC gained very little news coverage from well established organizations at Ground Zero, for example the New York Times hasn’t given, then Westboro Baptist Church explicit coverage since Fred Phelps died, and before that nothing since 2011. What does it mean to ignore such a vicious religious group? Is America’s tolerance for preaching hate, decreasing? Or is the Jeremiad speech still as dominant as ever in its absolute authority?
John D. Altevogt a former county GOP chairman in Kansas, the home of the Westboro Baptist Church, commented, in reference to a discussion of same sex marriage in Anglican Churches, “all of the rhetoric of the sixties comes alive describing our totalitarian liberal establishment. Fascist pig, baby killers, sick society, it’s all applicable.”Michael Cobb asserts that queers, and their advocates, have often used racial sentimentality to frame their demand for justice and equality. Thus it is easily noticeable that the new civil rights movement of the 90’s and 2000’s is the fight against religious fanaticism for the equality of all men and women in America despite their sexual identification. After all the LGBT population in the United States have been led to believe that all men were created equal, with unalienable rights… Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Nonetheless, these truths are far from self evident in the religious, political climate of modern America.