09.11.10

Inside the Real Koran-Burning Church

Pastor Terry Jones may have decided against burning Korans on 9/11 after he sparked global outrage, but that didn’t stop the Westboro Baptists. Amarnath Amarasingam on why the church burned a Koran—and the American flag—yesterday.

After the Dove World Outreach Center Pastor Terry Jones said he would “not today, not ever” burn a Koran, Westboro Baptist Church members, notorious for picketing the funerals of dead soldiers, decided to do it instead.

“That guy is an apologist. He was never going to do it,” says Shirley Phelps-Roper, the spokeswoman and daughter of Pastor Fred Phelps, the church’s leader.

So at noon Saturday, while the rest of the country was in mourning and remembrance of the 9/11 attacks, Westboro members in Topeka, Kansas, surrounded by local news media, photographers, Muslim and non-Muslim counterprotesters, opened a Koran, gently placed a single American flag down the middle of it, and set them both on fire. Westboro members also used the “mosque at ground zero” controversy to get their message out: America as a whole is doomed. In fact, they are supportive of the proposed plan to build a community center a few blocks from ground zero. “Why should the idols of doomed America take precedence over the idols of the next guy?” asks Shirley. Their support, in other words, does not come from a newfound respect for the Islamic faith.

Westboro has long latched on to controversy as a way to market their message. According to them, the United States, with its tolerance of homosexuality, and other vices, has spit in the face of God. The nation and those who defend it will continue to experience the wrath of God. The church, consisting of three families, with a total membership of about 60 people, has been protesting the funerals of homosexuals and American soldiers for some time. Attracting counterprotests, hate mail, and lawsuits, their actions have always provoked outrage.

“What we’ve never seen before is a whole bunch of people writing us saying how happy they were that we were burning Korans.”

When they announced their decision to burn Korans on 9/11, they noticed a slightly novel response from the public though. “One thing that was very interesting about this experience,” Shirley tells me, “is that as soon as the word went forth that we were going to do this, the emails increased drastically. What we’ve never seen before is a whole bunch of people writing us saying how happy they were that we were burning Korans.” Many of the emails said that while all of their other actions are abhorrent, the burning of Korans is commendable. “I’m thinking, what the heck is that about?” she says, “What happened to all this talk of ‘tolerance’?”

Understanding the church and its actions requires an understanding of its history and theology. Founded in 1955, Westboro falls in with the Primitive Baptist tradition, and preaches the five points of Calvinism often called the TULIP doctrine (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a University of Kansas Ph.D. candidate who has been conducting extensive dissertation research with the Phelps family since 2004, says Westboro members pay particular attention to unconditional election and limited atonement. “Those two together really mean a lot to them.”. The doctrine of unconditional election states that there is nothing human beings can do to obtain salvation. The elect and the non-elect have already been decided by God before the beginning of time. The doctrine of limited atonement states that Jesus Christ did not die for the salvation of all humankind, but only for the elect.

Unconditional election seems to undermine the actions of Westboro members, however. Presumably, if there is nothing they can do to ensure that humanity is saved, what is the point of protesting or spreading the word of God? Even if Westboro managed to convert throngs of individuals, it would, according to Calvinist doctrine, make no difference on their salvation. This is true, says Barrett-Fox, but adds that Westboro is not looking for converts. Rather, they seek to function as a litmus test for individuals. “I see them like a sieve or a sorting mechanism,” she says, “they approach you and say, hey you, do you believe that gay people go to hell? And you respond, well no, I don’t believe that. Then what they say is, by your word, you now know that you are going to Hell. They force everybody to express their opinion and, in this way, they say they are helping people discover whether they are hell-bound or not, whether they are one of the elect.”

Westboro has been protesting at the funerals of homosexuals since 1992, and they now maintain a travel budget of about $250,000 for the sole purpose of holding demonstrations around the country. Their decision to protest the funerals of dead soldiers, however, came in 2005. The reason for this “innovative” move is not entirely clear. Westboro members had made frequent trips to New York City holding “God Hates America” placards since 2001, but between 2001 and 2005, they did not picket any military funerals, despite the two wars involving the United States. “Something internal must’ve changed in the church for them to shift in this direction,” says Barrett-Fox.

According to Nate Phelps, the estranged son of Pastor Fred Phelps, the shift in this direction is reflective of his father’s personality. “My father knows how to just piss someone off,” he tells me, “he’s a pretty bright man, and I think that he spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way to piss off the most people.”

Barrett-Fox points to Lawrence v. Texas as the likely catalyst for Westboro’s change in strategy. This 2003 Supreme Court case repealed all sodomy laws in the U.S. “Before this case,” she says, “they had really only focused on cultural icons, local politicians, or journalists, or individual gay people. They saw this ruling as the moment when the United States expressed a clear national commitment to legitimizing or showing tolerance for homosexuality. So, I think that was a real galvanizing moment.”

According to Westboro members, because the United States expressed its tolerance for homosexuality, anyone fighting to defend this national commitment has become an enemy of God. “According to them, we as a nation have made God our enemy,” says Barrett-Fox, “and when a soldier dies in combat, it is God who is killing that soldier. You can’t fight for a country that defies God and expect God not to be angry with you.”

Although Westboro has gained national notoriety, they are in fact fairly isolated. “They’ve got no friends, they’ve got no alliances with other churches, nobody shares their ideology,” says Barrett-Fox. Even among other Primitive Baptist churches, Westboro finds little support.

Such an embattled identity, however, is important for Westboro’s self-conception. While growing up in the church, Nate recalls that such antagonism with the broader public was a frequent element of their weekly services. “The evidence that we were right was that so many people disagreed with us,” he says.

Amarnath Amarasingam is a doctoral candidate in the Laurier-Waterloo Ph.D. program in Religious Studies in Ontario, Canada, and is the editor of Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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