As I was driving along to get my long overdue haircut this morning, I heard a compelling and intriguing story on the KC radio station “96.5 The Buzz” about Megan Phelps-Roper and her twenty year old sister Grace leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. Her and her sister’s story is one I feel needs to be written about, and her public apology for the anger and pain inflicted by the church is worthy of quite a few respect points.
First off, allow me to put this radio interview into context. “96.5 The Buzz” is KC’s alternative music station, and basically serves as the go to radio station for the younger, more liberally inclined. The show that did the interview was “Afentra’s Big Fat Morning Buzz”, at around 8:00am – 9:00am on March 18. The station and all of its shows are known for their interviews that cover a rather broad spectrum of opinions, ranging from Satan Worshipers to Snooki. (This might be hard to differentiate, for many, I know. Just remember that one of these two still has some kind of “rhyme to their reason”, even if it’s a very melancholy rhyme…)
Quick side note: Don’t worry if you’re Italian and from New Jersey, I shall not judge thee for thou’s fallen, mind-numbing kin. Anywho, back to the topic.
Basically, “The Buzz” is known for being the rebellious counterpart/counterbalance to overly stuffy conservatives in Kansas. Before the live radio interview, Afentra and Megan had done a preliminary one-on-one, and were basically rehashing what they had already said to one another.
She didn’t sound that out of touch. She sounded modest, sure, but not insane or like a redeemed lost soul or something. She sounded like someone who had an opinion.
She made a most illuminating revelation that I don’t think gets enough attention in the public sphere: these picketers, these “cultists”, are just doing what they think is right like anybody else would and are just trying to warn people the dangers of what could happen should they pursue “sin”. They aren’t innately malevolent, spiteful creatures who only seek to bring hateful condemnation upon others (at least, not initially…). They’re people. Starting a counter-demonstration, yelling at them, picking a fight, etc etc, is only going to provoke the kind of response we would give if they spat in our face. So, conflict serves to validate the Westboro picketers, make them more devoted to their cause, and make them less likely to consider or accept other opinions. Nothing is accomplished, except for the status quo becoming worse.
Screaming at the Phelps picketers won’t get them to change their beliefs. Coercive force and physical confrontation might bring about submissive silence, sure, but they’re beliefs will not have changed and thus the root of controversy remains alive and well. Screaming at them will only engender them into becoming defensively obstinate. After all, they were just trying to make sure you “knew the dangers of your sinful deeds”, right? With such a motive for following a religion, you have the internalized justification of being “in the right” since you were trying to help. Therefore, a conflicting opinion is seen as being diametrically opposed to genuine altruism and by default “ignorant and self-absorbed”. All you need to start a bloodbath is two people who both are acting “in the best interest of others” that have different methods of pursuing those interests.
By no means should this dissuade you from participating in a support rally for gay rights. Such a motive for a demonstration is commendable. But I do recommend caution. You see, as perhaps bigoted or narrow minded as Phelps may be, he’s not an idiot.
The strange and rather curious thing is, the Phelps family is almost perfectly adept at pushing the limits of their privilege to free speech. Just barely enough caution is exercised so that Phelps picketers don’t initiate any illegal protesting/violent undertakings. With the Westboro religious philosophy rendering its followers unaware of how much they push everyone’s limits, this devoted group of protestors shows no hesitation in inspiring acts of violent retaliation from others. By no means can it be said that acts of retribution against Westboro are Westboro’s fault, but usually people express hesitation when they’re aware they might piss others off to an extreme degree.
Bearing all this in mind, what I feel was the final few pieces of the puzzle was what I found out after digging into the profile of Mr. Phelps. The man has a record of being a rather skilled and adept lawyer who has won numerous civil cases. This explains how the Phelps picketers are so good at staying right on the razor edge, between expressing their freedom of speech, and imposing of the safety and welfare of others. Oddly enough, Mr. Phelps also has a past of defending African Americans in civil cases, winning his clients considerable sums and appearing as a champion of civil liberties. This doesn’t have to translate into a “de facto” tolerance of homosexuality, but it certainly does point to Mr. Phelps being a rather eccentric individual. It’s also perplexing to fathom how a man knowledgeable in the law would order his followers to protest at a military funeral. Sure, it’s done because the deceased “defended a country that accepts homosexuality”, but Mr. Phelps of all people knows they’re also the same people responsible for his sect’s right to protest at all. Furthermore, the Phelps sect has even protested other conservative and religious institutions, even those that don’t support gay marriage! What would he gain by doing this?
I think the answer is actually rather innocent and obvious. Phelps knows how to push values onto people without stepping over the limit, and he also knows that he gets to squeeze anyone that retaliates against the picketers of every penny they have. He’s a civil suit lawyer. He’s doing what he knows how to do: win court cases. So, he not only leads the church, but gets to provide the legal means necessary for the church to be so confrontational and indiscriminate in who it condemns and alienates. As I know all too well, the more conservative religions love nothing more than to have the means of spreading their values as far as possible. Westboro just had a leader and legal counselor eccentric enough to exploit the legal limits to their extremes. The cultish characteristics of the church simply derive from the persuading and convincing of Westboro’s followers by Mr. Phelps to “not be afraid to push” said limits under the guise of “not being afraid to assert personal confidence” or something of the sort.
As a gay guy, I feel like I have all the more right to suggest the following mindset when considering the Phelps family: Don’t pity them or delegate them as mindless cultists or ignorant sub-humans. Don’t hate them for their beliefs, it’ll just encourage more appalling acts later. Like any other citizen, respect their right to free speech. Know the law so you don’t fall into Phelps’ little legal trap. Lastly, if I may daresay, spread the word. The more people that understand Fred Phelps’ motives and means of leverage, the less Phelps gets to take advantage of people suckered in by this blatant campaign of egging people on. Most importantly, don’t give these people reason to become enthralled in some crusade to fight in the name of God’s will; show them your emotions aren’t up for manipulation and that their life-defining campaign just doesn’t mean two shits to you. They’re just going to have to accept the fact that you’re ok with “burning in hell for all eternity” and that they can’t “save” everyone.