The lonely homophobe

You may have been following the story about the Westboro’ Baptist church, and their wish to stage a protest outside a production of the play The Laramie Project in Basingstoke.  Or you may not have been.  You’re busy people, after all, and you may have decided to forego your intimate knowledge of the actions of crackpot christian fundamentalists in favour of having a life.

The Westboro’ Baptist church is a small independent religious organisation in Kansas, with approximately 70 members.  It was founded by Fred Phelps, a small-town hero of the black civil rights movement of the 1960s, who, although white, acted as attorney for a number of high-profile civil rights cases brought by African Americans in Kansas.  Wikipedia reports that the overwhelming majority of the members of Mr Phelps’ church – 60 out of 70 – are related to him.

The church has a distinctive theological position, which it summarises with the slogan ‘God Hates Fags’.  It believes that homosexuality is a pre-eminent sin which has been singled out for punishment by god.  Because of this, all who are not actively engaged in outright opposition to homosexuality are classed by the church as ‘fag enablers’, and are, they believe, due to suffer the same eternal torments as homosexuals.  The list of ‘fag enablers’ identified by the church is long, and includes amongst its number Princess Diana and President Reagan (a man not usually identified as pro-gay).  The list also includes the overwhelming majority of the population of the US and the rest of the ‘christian’ world, who are, the church believes, insufficiently outspoken in their opposition to homosexuality.  (Conversely, members of other faiths are, the church believes, damned for believing in the wrong god, even if they are overtly hostile to homosexuality.  Essentially, if you’re not a Westboro’ Baptist, you’re gonna fry…)

The church first began to achieve notoriety as a result of its policy of picketing the funerals of gay people, especially those who had died as a result of anti-gay violence, where they would noisily celebrate, in the presence of grieving family and friends, the deaths of those who had, they believed, deviated from the will of god.  The church came to limited national and international attention following the funeral of Matthew Shepard, since the especially gruesome manner of his death had attracted media interest.  The church also began to picket the funerals of heterosexual ‘fag enablers’.  In 1998, for example, they protested at the funeral of Vice President Al Gore’s father because of the Clinton-Gore administration’s ‘support’ for gay rights.

This campaign of targeting the funerals of heterosexuals reached a head with the church’s decision to begin picketing the funerals of servicemen who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan, about whose personal attitudes towards homosexuality they knew nothing.  While the US was, apparently, willing to tolerate the actions of the church when only gay people and liberal politicians were targeted, the decision to target servicemen led to national outrage.  This in turn led to the 2006 Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act,* which banned protests at national cemeteries, and a sequence of state laws which restricted the right to protest at any funeral site.  The church has been fined $10.9m for protesting at one serviceman’s funeral.

All of this has recently become relevant to the UK as a result of the decision of Queen Mary’s College, Basingstoke to host a production of Moisés Kaufman’s play, The Laramie Project.  The play, which is based on first-hand testimony, takes as its subject the thoughts and reactions of the residents of Laramie, Wyoming following the violent death there of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man referred to above.  The Westboro’ Baptists have repeatedly picketed productions of this play across the United States, and have also threatened to picket international productions.  It is not immediately apparent why the church has focussed such particular attention on this play – there are, after all, many plays that discuss homosexual themes, often far more explicitly – unless it is because they object to the fact that Fred Phelps is himself a character in the play, and is, apparently, not portrayed in a sympathetic light.

Whether their motivations for this hostility are moral outrage or personal pique, the Westboro’ church, having heard of the Basingstoke production, announced plans for a demonstration against the play.  The home office decided to ban Fred Phelps and his daughter (also a preacher in the church) from entering the UK, on the grounds that they had a record of inciting hatred of a number of communities, including, but not limited to, jews, muslims, christians of alternative denomination, and homosexuals.  Ms Phelps-Roper responded for the church by announcing, as Alex from Teenage Misanthropy noted, that god hates Britain, and that they would seek to send other, unknown, members of the church to carry out the protest in their absence.  It was feared by some that, even if the Westboro’ church were not in attendance, other UK based fundamentalists may have attended the protest.

In the end there was a protest against the play.  It was attended by a single, solitary protestor, who abandoned the picket early, unable to cope with being heckled by the very much larger demonstration in support of the play.  I’m thinking of writing my own play (or maybe even a musical – the Westboro’ church don’t like musicals because they’re havens for homosexuals, apparently) about the events.  I reckon I’ll call it The Lonely Homophobe…

Now, as it happens, I’m not sure I support the home office decision to ban members of the Westboro’ church from entering the UK.  I understand that Mr Phelps and his associates have threatened international protests before, and then failed to attend.  And, as with the decision to ban Geert Wilders from entering the UK, the actions of the home office have apparently had the opposite effect to that which they had intended, turning a microscopically small story into a more major event, and so increasing rather than decreasing ‘tension’.

Moreover, while many people would agree that there should be a mechanism in place for denying ‘undesirables’ access to the country in exceptional circumstances, it’s more than a little worrying that our government has invoked these powers twice in the space of a week, and against people who wanted to do no more than visit briefly to air controversial opinions.  Even setting aside the philosophical concerns about fundamental freedoms (which we shouldn’t), heavy-handed authoritarianism is likely to stimulate home-grown prejudice, not reduce it.

But, despite that, there’s still a broadly positive message to take from all of this.  Some atheist commentators worry that here in the UK we’re living in an era of resurgent religiosity, and that faith-based arguments against social justice are marching towards greater and greater strength.  Admittedly, the Westboro’ Baptists are the fringiest of fringe groups when it comes to opposition to gay rights, and their policy of protesting at the funerals of straight soldiers will have alienated many who may share some of their views.  Even so, the bulk of the religious establishment (not necessarily, I realise, individual believers) are opposed to equal rights for gay people, and as such the protest could have been expected to pick up some limited support from domestic fundamentalists.  Despite this, and even with the free publicity of a bungled home office decision they could claim as evidence of official anti-christianity, the religious anti-gay lobby could only manage to marshal one lonely protestor.

It’s true that religious extremists are becoming increasingly strident but, it seems to me, this doesn’t indicate they are speaking from a position of strength, but rather from a position of weakness.  They’re shouting louder precisely because they’re aware of their increasing irrelevance.  They’re aware that, even 20 years ago, they could have been confident of majority opposition to legal recognition of gay relationships on ‘moral’ grounds, whereas a survey in October 2006 found that there’s two-thirds (68%) support.  A census carried out by Christian Research found that, over the period 1989 – 2005, average attendance at Sunday worship across 8 major christian denominations fell by a third (34%).  And it’s not just the christians who are in trouble, there’s an ongoing shift away from belief in god in general.  A summary of surveys asking British people if they believe in god over the last 6 years shows only one that reported belief above 45%.  One survey, among teenagers, showed belief in god as low as 22%.  Religion is dying in the UK, and religiously-motivated homophobia is dying along with it.

Against this backdrop, it’s not really a surprise that the Westboro’ hate-mongers only managed to rustle up one UK supporter, but it is still hugely encouraging.  It’s more proof of what I’ve believed to be true for a long time – that the desperate rearguard action being fought by some against ‘the erosion of traditional values’ is doomed to fail.  Almost the only people left who are prepared to voice these kinds of views are the extremists – recent Stonewall research discovered that, even amongst those who say they are religious, many do not endorse the bigotry expressed on their behalf – and their language of extremism and violence alienates more and more people.  Far from homosexuality being an issue that is driving people away from secularism and back into the arms of religion, as the extremists and fundamentalists hoped, the naked hatred expressed towards homosexuals is encouraging more and more people to distance themselves from any and all religious beliefs.

Fred Phelps has preached that we are living in the last of the last days (Jon Stewart is proof of this, apparently).  He means that, of course, in the sense that the last judgement is now imminent, and, like everyone else from St. Paul onwards who has believed that to be true, he’s wrong.  But in another sense he’s getting close to being right.  In the UK we genuinely are witnessing the end of the days when religion was used as a means of social control, even for those who did not believe.  Private faith will, I’m sure, persist for a while, but the era when the supposed word of god handed down in a big book was used as the basis for law and social custom is – thankfully – over.


* – You’ve got to hand it to the Americans, they know how to name a law.  If it had been enacted in the UK it would have been called something like the Local Government (Cemeteries and Crematoria) Byelaws (Access and Attendance) Act…

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16 Responses to The lonely homophobe

  1. Mariah says:

    That “church” is always up to something. Shirley is halarious during interviews, though. And really, really, disturbing at the same time.

    In my opinion, even the people we don’t like (religious wackos, Holocaust deniers, Rosie O’Donell, etc) have a right to free speech.

    The rest of the world is also free to think that they are idiots.

  2. Mariah says:

    (accidentally hit enter key)
    HOWEVER, is it really too much to ask for a little human sensitivity?

    Yes, we aren’t at the same, perfect, pure level (in their opinions, of course) but we ARE people.

  3. Mandy says:

    No man or woman knows what God (should they exist) thinks…or even how they think.

    Is total arrogance..and that is one of the problems with religeious doctrine. It is based on prejudiced views and primarily driven (at least for many centuries) by men and men alone. Women were not even credited with second class citizenship. Except (within the Christian faith) the divine Madonna…and most people, including many religious leaders, see that as nothing more than a fantastical story.

    That aside….homophobia is not something specific to religeous zealouts. Prejudice is still rife within certain peer groups.

    Something that I think is relevant to this topic is the debate that followed on from some veciferous hammering at the BBC for allowing a disabled presenter to present on a children’s programme. The parents of children were saying that the presenter scared the children. Whose problem is that? The parents..not the children. It is the parents that have the prejudice and that is how it spreads…The children only get scared by what they don’t understand and parents aren’t always (or so it seems) able to explain things without upping the anti.

    All that can be done is that those of us who are accepting of other human beings (as they are) to keep standing up for the belief that all men and women are equal in regards to the level of basic human respect that should be given to them and I mean that in the context of people not being treated as second class citizens by others.

  4. cb says:

    This story had completely passed me by.. so first of all, thanks for highlighting it. In a sense, as you do, I find some comfort in it but am also mildly discomforted by blanket bans on people entering the UK. I think that people who are so virilant in their beliefs seem to have some kind of strange definition of moral right and wrong.

    I am quite interested to find out more about the play itself though.

    And as Mandy mentions, I was also horrified by the reaction to the Cbeebies presenter and drummed off many a horrified email to the BBC. I know it doesn’t do much good but it makes me feel better!

  5. Lucy McGough says:

    No-one has the right to not be offended.

    From talking to several priests and devout people at a grass-roots level, I think that ordinary Catholics are slowly inching away from a position of outright homophobia to a position that can be paraphrased as “well, God made us all and it would be a funny old world if we were all alike.”

    Whether the bishops and cardinals will eventually adopt that position is a different kettle of fish – but nevertheless I am feeling optimistic about the future.

    I think you are right about religion dying. I personally think that is unfortunate, but then I’m biased :-D

  6. Mandy says:

    Good for you, CB

    If you could share the email address for BBC, I will send my views through to them and I, in part, agree that doing that might not make any difference but it might make some difference and is, at least, worth trying.


  7. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    First of all i just have to share with all you one of the spam comments that got trapped before it had a chance to appear on the blog – a link to a christian singles website. Because that’s the danger with setting things up to automatically respond to a post with words like ‘god’ and ‘christian’ and ‘theological’ in it, isn’t it? You never know what kind of a blog you’ll end up on…

    Mariah – I have to say i tend more towards finding her scary than funny. That weird, deranged look she gets in her eyes is really fairly worrying.

    On the free speech point – well, i agree that free speech is a right, but i think that all rights come with a matching responsibility. With free speech, the responsibility is to not say things that will impact on the rights of others. What i know of the Westboro’ posse, i think they’ve come very close to doing just that – celebrating the deaths of people who have been killed violently is, as far as i’m concerned, getting very close to encouraging violence. But, that said, if i were home secretary, i would definitely have let them in the country. All they wanted to do was protest outside a play. If they’d been planning a protest at a funeral i might have taken a different view.

    Mandy – It is based on prejudiced views and primarily driven (at least for many centuries) by men and men alone.

    I agree. And, although the virgin Mary is of key importance to catholics, she’s really just one more saint amongst many for protestants. To be fair, the Westboro’ lot don’t appear to have any prejudice against women – certainly they allow female preachers – which i guess goes to show that some women can be just as intolerant and prejudicial as some men, unfortunately.

    I hadn’t heard about the BBC presenter. From what you say it sounds shocking. The kids will only have been scared because it was something they hadn’t seen before. The way the parents should have handled it was to explain that they were a person exactly the same, and that there was no need to be scared. I think it’s really important for there to be all kinds of presenters on kids tv, partly so that all children get to see themselves up on the screen, but more importantly so that all children get to see the different kinds of people there are in the world.

    All that can be done is that those of us who are accepting of other human beings (as they are) to keep standing up for the belief that all men and women are equal in regards to the level of basic human respect that should be given to them and I mean that in the context of people not being treated as second class citizens by others.

    Absolutely. :o)

    cb – I think that people who are so virilant in their beliefs seem to have some kind of strange definition of moral right and wrong.

    Well, it looks to me as though they define right as ‘whatever i say’ and wrong as ‘everything else in the universe’. To be fair, most religions say the same, but most also temper what they say with compassion, or, at least, forgiveness. I would hate to be inside the skulls of the people who don’t- it must be such a horrible experience to spend their whole lives consumed with hate.

    Lucy McGough – i have catholics in my family who use contraception, and were entirely open and welcoming with me and my (now ex-) partner, so i know there’s a disjuncture between the catholic church’s official position and what individual catholics believe. I guess, given that future senior clerics are selected by current senior clerics rather than by ordinary members of the church, there may be a delay in the more tolerant attitudes making it to the highest levels, but i suspect you’re right to be optimistic. Eventually, they’ll run out of hidebound ultra-conservatives to choose from… ;o)

    I think you are right about religion dying. I personally think that is unfortunate, but then I’m biased :-D

    And i’m no less biased, of course, albeit from a different perspective. :o)

  8. Robert says:

    They are right for crying out loud people “god hates fags” well we all know smoking kills.
    ha ha ha ha ha. Could not resist.

  9. cellar_door says:

    I’m not really here, but just wanted to say I find these Baptist people’s actions abhorrent…

  10. Alex says:

    One guy, protesting. That’s a rather lovely metaphor.
    What Lucy said about not having a right to not be offended has been an unofficial motto of mine for a while now. To quote Stephen Fry, people say all the time, ‘Oh, I’m offended by that’ or ‘I find that offensive’… well, so fucking what?
    I don’t know about religion dying, necessarily. Maybe in Britain, but the rest of the world seems just as willing to embrace it.

  11. Lucy McGough says:

    You might have a point, Alex – I don’t see Islam dying any time soon!

    If people had the right not to be offended then nobody would be able to speak or write ANYTHING. The world would be silent. And lots of books I like would be banned, like Don Juan and A Doll’s House. (Okay, so the latter is a play, not a book… whatever!)

  12. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the extra comments.

    Robert – lol :o) Gives a whole new meaning to a law banning fags in public places, doesn’t it? Perhaps someone should tell the Westboro’ posse without telling them about what ‘fags’ means. Could be interesting… ;o)

    I’m not really here, but just wanted to say I find these Baptist people’s actions abhorrent…

    *looks round* Who said that? There’s no-one there. Spooky… ;o) But whoever said it, yes, abhorrent is the word.

    Alex – Of course, if we were to believe the Daily Mail (ha ha ha ha) the country will be all-islamic within a decade, because of all the Poles arriving in the country. Or eveil social workers. Or something. I’ve got to be honest, i may have muddled up a couple of different moral panics there. ;o)

    I think (although i’m not certain, which is why i didn’t mention it in the main post) that religion is going the same way in quite a lot of western Europe – France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and even Spain (they recently voted for some kind of gay rights measure (have i mentioned i have a lousy memory?) in a referendum there, against the wishes of the catholic hierarchy) – and also in places like Canada and Australia. And church attendance is even starting to fall in America. I think there are reasons to be fairly broadly optimistic. But, then again, i am always trying to convince myself to be a glass-half-full kind of a guy, so my optimism might well be exaggerated. :o)

    Lucy McGough – i entirely agree with you on the ‘no right to not be offended’ thing, and for the reasons you say. Not that it stops me complaining like crazy when somebody says something i think is offensive, mind. But that’s the way it should work, i think, with everyone allowed to say what they think, but the extremists being drowned out by the majority. Although it does make things uncomfortably noisy at times… ;o)

  13. Phelps is a prick. I’m glad they barred him – and the play got loads more publicity as a result.

    I don’t think there’s a problem with the home office telling potential offensive persons from other countries they can’t come here – there is no automatic right for those from outside the EU to visit here, or indeed, to visit the USA, for any reason. If he’s coming here purely to be a prick, why can’t the HO tell him to fuck off?

    Interestingly, the Patriot Guard were formed to deal with Phelps. They are veterans with motorcycles who show up at veterans’ funerals and ensure Phelps and his ilk can’t physically get close. They now show up for lots of funerals as families really appreciate it (especially ww2 veterans and the like) and did so for a friend of mine’s dad’s funeral in Chicago.

  14. Oh, and he needs to realise that if he goes around with ‘God hates fags’ signs in the UK, he’ll be beaten to death by the smokers outside the next Wetherspoons he encounters.

  15. Robert says:

    Na smokers cannot fight they are out of breath. plus if you stand out side a pub it means your disabled and cannot get in.

  16. ‘Na smokers cannot fight they are out of breath.’ You haven;t been to Glasgow recently have you? :)

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