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…