The first time I remember reading the name Fred Phelps was in 1998 when he, along with members from his Westboro Baptist Church, picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, the University of Wyoming student who was targeted, tortured, and murdered because he was gay. As mourners grieved the loss of Shepherd, Phelps & Co. stood outside holding signs promoting their “God-inspired” homophobia. Like many others, I was appalled that a so-called man of God would exploit a community’s tragedy and heartbreak to advance such a hateful message. But having grown up in Christian fundamentalism, I wasn’t surprised. As a child, one of the things I learned about Jesus-focused fundamentalism is that “God’s truth” contained no compassion for the people it hurt, offended, or mocked.
Starting in the early 1950s, that’s the mantra that led the “ministry” of Fred Phelps, an understanding that his version of God’s truth was always more important than people, and a license to use it however the hell he wanted.
Since my first introduction to Phelps and his God-ordained hate, we’ve witnessed the lengths he was willing to go to spread his version of the gospel, a message that always focused on God’s disgust for humanity and his soon-arriving damnation. Phelps approach to sharing “good news” was always dogmatic, extreme, and seemingly void of humanity.
But therein might lie the one, dare I say, redeeming quality of Phelps: that he was always upfront about his beliefs, intentionally wearing his fundamentalism proudly—like a badge of honor—and without a filter. Sure, he was a mean, self-important jackass. But we knew he was a jackass. In fact, Phelps never felt the need to try and prove to us that he was anything but a jackass.
Historically, at least since the term was coined in the early 1900s, blunt—sometimes downright disturbing—honesty has been the fundamentalist’s calling card. Religious professor George Marsden wrote that a fundamentalist “is an evangelical who is angry about something.” Phelps, of course, seemed as though he was always angry, sometimes to the point of becoming a caricature of Marsden’s definition. But there might be a silver lining to Phelps’s form of Christian fundamentalism. Though it was laced with hate-filled religious jargon that often got under our skin and made our blood boil, it was also a kind that was easy to detect, to form an opinion about, and, once our shock and anger wore off, to simply ignore.
That was the kind of fundamentalism I grew up in. Ours was never quite as extreme as what Phelps’s delivered. We never picketed funerals or held signs declaring “Thank God for AIDS.” But I heard our pastor loudly preached on many occasions about how HIV was sent by God to punish “the homosexuals.” Around my small town, my church earned a reputation, a “holy prestige” that pissed outsiders off, often causing them to shun us with passion.
But that type of fundamentalism—the kind that Jerry Falwell said was defined by practicing “separation from the world and all its entanglements”—is a dying breed. There was a time when one could easily point out the fundamentalist in a crowd. But that’s becoming much more difficult to do.
Is Christian fundamentalism dead in America? I don’t think so. Among this country’s wide and varied Christianities, fundamentalism is very much alive; it’s just harder to recognize. Rather than being fanatical, loud, and obnoxious, today’s fundamentalism masquerades under wide smiles, hipster garb, flowery poetic language, and synth-pop beats. Unlike the former champions of fundamentalism—people like Falwell, Phelps, Oral Roberts, and Pat Robertson, all of whom seemed to love being fundamentalists—today’s self-appointed gatekeepers of heaven are far less inclined to own the moniker.
In fact, most pastors go out of their way to insist they’re not fundamentalists. Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill in Seattle, flat-out said “I’m not a fundamentalist.” And one would assume he’d know. Driscoll certainly doesn’t look the part, but his sermons and books suggest otherwise. Is Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the beststelling The Purpose Driven Life, a fundamentalist? It’s hard to say. The man often called “America’s pastor” seems friendly and kind and yet, when mixing his message with politics, sides against marriage equality and the rights of women. And what about John Piper, who suggested God sent a tornado that hit Minneapolis while the Lutheran church was voting on whether to allow gay clergy?
Though even in their worst moments Driscoll, Warren, and Piper are nothing like Phelps, are the tenets of their theologies—hell, inerrant scriptures, a coming apocalypse—really that different from what Phelps believed? Is a person’s fundamentalism defined by their approach or by the message they adhere to?
The lines of fundamentalism are blurrier today than what they once were. Most of today’s conservative evangelicals don’t seem all that angry; they don’t spend much time boasting about things like hell or promoting their assumptions about America’s coming doom or theologizing their cases against homosexuality, and they rarely carry their doctrines around on signs. But when push comes to shove or a vote comes to the ballot booth, is their God all that different from Fred’s God?
One thing we can say about Fred Phelps is that we knew his God. We knew that Fred’s God hated us, or most of us. We knew that Fred’s God couldn’t wait to destroy the world with hellfire and brimstone. We knew that Fred’s God was seemingly void of a conscience. And we knew what Fred’s God had done to Fred.
Fred’s hateful God left nothing to the imagination, and was easy to reject. But for countless American Christians, finding a God who doesn’t hate them for what they are is a long and painful journey.