So, notorious funeral picketer and First Amendment test case Fred Phelps has finally passed from this life. Few will mourn his passing, although some will undoubtedly be more gracious than others.
Fred Phelps. We forget that his first funeral was that of Matthew Shepard.
I have been thinking about writing this post for some time, but now seemed the right time. (I jotted down much of this post well in advance.)
See, the more I listen to my fellow Evangelicals, the less I can escape the conclusion that our rhetoric and actions demonstrate that we don’t really think that differently than good ol’ Fred Phelps. We may deplore his methods, of course, but deep down have the same underlying assumptions and reasoning. Let me explain.
First, let me get this out of the way at the outset: I am not going to get into the arguments about sexual orientation. Nature/nurture. Innate trait/personal choice. There are plenty of cogent theological arguments for all sides; and scientific, and other information readily available online for those who want to explore the depths of the argument. There is also plenty of name-calling and stupidity from both sides. Surf at your own risk. Rather, for purposes of my argument, which is after all with Evangelicals, I will proceed from their usual starting place that all homosexual acts are sinful. I am also going to use “we” in referring to Christian Fundamentalist/Evangelical thought, as I was raised Evangelical. That said, and I hope this will be obvious, I do not personally subscribe to many of the ideas that I will be exploring, but I did in the past.
That out of the way, let me proceed:
The basic assumption of the Westboro Baptist Church and the Phelps clan is that God hates homosexuality so much that he will punish the entire United States because we haven’t purged homosexuality from our nation. Every dead soldier is a sign of God’s wrath, and that wrath is directly the result of our tolerance of homosexuals.
For Phelps, this assumption led him to picket funerals, starting with Matthew Shepard, but eventually progressing to a systematic protest at the funerals of soldiers. His iconic slogan was "God Hates Fags."
While most Evangelicals condemn Phelps’ methods, our own words and actions betray the fact that we tend to believe the exact same assumptions as Fred Phelps.
This assumption combines with our view of politics and the nature of the Kingdom of God.
In my opinion, much of the political insanity that has characterized the religious right over the last few decades can be directly traced to a belief that the United States is the new Israel, and that it can claim the political promises that God made to Israel in the Old Testament.
There is no doubt that we believe this. Count how many signs you have seen with 2 Chronicles 7:14. “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” This is a specific promise to Israel that doesn’t neatly fit with today’s situation unless you believe that the United States is now God’s “chosen people.” (And don’t tell me you think it means “Christians,” because then why do you expect God to bless America?) Although this idea dates at least to the Puritans, who sought to establish a "City on a Hill," the modern Evangelical belief is heavily influenced by the Christian Reconstructionists, of whom more below.
Thus, because we associate the Kingdom of God with some sort of mythical America as a “Christian nation,” we spent our time, energy, and resources focusing on politics.
So here is what we seem to believe: In the past (take your pick when), America was a “Christian nation,” God’s chosen people. We were good, so we were blessed. Now, we feel America is in decline, because we are now not so good. We have to stop this decline, so we find a visible representation of how we have gotten worse and thus drawn God’s wrath on us. Hmm, how might we do that? What sin shall we pick?
We believe that homosexual sin is in an entirely different category from other sins. And, conveniently, it is one committed by a small minority.
I have heard so many times a little code phrase used in Evangelicalism. “I fear for our country. There are some lines you just can’t cross.” Make no mistake, this is a reference to all things homosexual.
The source of this particular idea goes back to approximately the 6th Century CE. It was at that time that the term “Sodomy” came into use as a description of sexual behavior. Even more importantly, this was the time at which it became common belief that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of homosexuality. Particularly in Old Testament times, this was not the case, as I’ll explain below. This new belief was, unsurprisingly, motivated in part by political considerations. The emperor Justinian I was able to blame recent weather and earthquakes on homosexuals - and then trump up charges against his political opponents so he could whack them. (The more things change…)
Out of this arose the concept of homosexuality as the reason God destroys nations. Hey, He destroyed Sodom, so that must prove that He will tolerate all other sins, but not that one. The Catholic leadership took this idea and ran with it. Not only was it nice to have something to blame for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, It was a convenient tool to regulate sex. If we believe that sexual sin is the one God hates the most, then any deviation from the official dictates of the Church could draw the wrath of God. By the time that Sodomy was enshrined in the criminal codes of Western Europe, its definition had grown to encompass all sexual acts other than a penis ejaculating into a vagina. In the most extreme cases, this included any sexual act undertake for non-creative purposes.
So much for the modern conception of Sodomy. But was it always believed that the primary sin of Sodom was sexual?
Did you know that there is actually a verse on point? One that actually states what the sins of Sodom were?
“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me.” Ezekiel 16:49-50
Wow. That is a bit inconvenient. That hits way too close to home. The resemblance to modern America is striking. The resemblance to the modern American church is also striking. Have you listened to the contempt in the way we talk about the poor and immigrants lately? (I’m not talking about voting and policy. Obviously, reasonable people disagree on policy. I am talking about what we say about the poor.)
Let’s also look at the actual account of Sodom too. What actually happened? A couple of angels go to visit Lot at his Sodom home. While they are visiting, a roving gang of men threaten to break down the door if Lot doesn’t surrender his guests up to them for a gang rape. Lot refuses, but instead offers up his virgin daughters to be the rape victims instead. (I discussed this aspect of culture in my post on women in old testament times.)
I see a huge elephant sitting right in the middle of this story that is ignored completely by the definition of sodomy. Does anyone else see it?
This is a story of violence and rape.
If I were to write a story to illustrate a depraved culture, wouldn’t this be a good one? All a visitor to this place could expect is to be gang raped, and even the “righteous” man is willing to give up his young daughters to this abuse. Yikes!
This is even more clear in light of the culture at the time. This was such a horrific breach of the expectations of hospitality and safe passage for guests. Sodom was like a whole city of Jeffrey Dahmers.
Yet somehow, we came to ignore all this and make it primarily about the same-sex nature of the gang rape. Huh?
So, I believe that poor exegesis, combined with the political needs of a dictator started us on the wrong path. We came to believe that there is one sin and one sin only that God cannot abide. One so terrible that He has no choice but to destroy nations because of it.
This belief that homosexuality is the one sin that God destroys nations for can be stated succinctly: “God Hates Fags.”
So where does it go from there? Well, there is this huge problem. In order to avoid Divine Smiting, we have to somehow purge the evil.
For the Christian Reconstructionists (who I discussed in this post), the solution is obvious: Kill the Fags. The Reconstructionist connection to this whole philosophy is interesting too. I believe that their influence has been significant in our current obsession with politics as the focus of the Kingdom of God. The Reconstructionists believe that the Antebellum South was the pinnacle of our “Christian Nation.” The closest to a truly Christian society. (Never mind the slavery thing. Slavery is Biblical, right?) So the Reconstructionist would say that God is telling us, “Nice little theocratic Christian nation you folks had there. Too bad you forgot to kill the fags. Now I have to destroy you.”
However, in addition to being illegal, murder makes most Evangelicals uncomfortable. So another approach needs to be found that will show God how hard we are trying so he doesn’t destroy our nation.
So we have to find ways to express our disapproval. It isn’t enough to just oppose gay marriage. We have to actively express our contempt. To communicate that God Hates Fags.
It isn’t enough that most people (unless they live under a rock) know that the vast majority of Evangelicals do not approve of homosexual acts. That obviously isn’t enough to get God off our backs. We believe God requires us to do something or he will punish us. We have to take more concrete action.
And guess what? Recently we have had the opportunity to do just that.
There has been a concerted drive in several state legislatures to introduce bills that would provide a religious exemption from laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. These were sparked by a case in which a baker refused to sell a cake for a gay wedding. However, the texts of the various bills went far beyond the facts of this case. Kansas probably had the broadest bill (which fortunately did not pass) in that it allowed government employees to refuse government services based on their religious beliefs.
I have seen some arguments coming from the conservative side that these bills would only exempt participation in same-sex weddings, but a plain reading of the bills show that they are far broader than that. As an attorney, it is easy to see them applied to permit businesses to hang out “no gays” signs. And even if a court later narrowed the scope of the exemption, the provisions for attorneys fees against the plaintiff would discourage suits. The risk would be great for someone without a deep pocket.
Let’s also be realistic about what kinds of cases have been raised as examples of why we need these laws. A florist wants to refuse to sell flowers that would be used at a same-sex wedding. The above-mentioned cake. These aren’t religious actions unless one believes that God requires us to withhold goods and services from people committing certain sins. I doubt anyone at that wedding looked at the flowers and thought that it was express support for the couple any more than anyone assumes that the flowers at the front of my church are a statement by the florist in favor of our denomination. But we are determined to make it a political statement.
So here we have it: a good way to prove to God that we are taking the homosexual problem seriously! We can be sure to say, “we don’t serve your kind here!”
But if we don’t do this, won’t we be approving gay marriage?
This is an argument I have heard. The idea that by failing to make our displeasure and refusal abundantly clear, we are giving our approval.
Let me answer that one by noting that even in the context of marriage, we lend our services all the time to weddings we may or may not approve. I play my violin at weddings and other events as part of a string quartet, so I understand how the dilemma arises.
For example, how many weddings have I played that were second weddings after a divorce? Quite a few, I believe. Did I ask before playing if one party was divorced? Why not? Christ (arguably) wasn’t keen on remarriages. Wouldn’t I be “giving approval” to those weddings?
How about weddings that were ill advised. I can think of a few weddings that I didn’t give the chance of more than a couple of years before the marriage broke up. Should I have screened them?
How about weddings between people of different religions? One of the most memorable weddings I played was one of those. We were playing the prelude when one of the grandmothers came up and requested that we play Ave Maria. I assumed that she just liked Schubert. Until the ceremony, which referenced a sealing ceremony in Salt Lake City. Yep, this was a Mormon/Catholic wedding, and grandma had to give the middle finger to the other side of the family. (Fortunately no fight ensued. Presumably the Mormon side just enjoyed the beauty of Schubert…) Should I have asked that question? But we don’t screen for all these other particular sins. Just the one.
Or what about some other ones? I’ve played at Catholic weddings where prayers were offered to Mary. (That’s idolatry to a Protestant.) Or one where the ceremony was neo-pagan. Or the Jewish funeral. Should I have been part of offering comfort to grieving relatives? Or should I have been holding a sign saying she was burning in hell?
How many of these weddings have had people get drunk? Too many to count. And I suspect someone indulged in gluttony at every single one of them.
See, we really only care about this in ONE case. Because that is the one sin we believe is worse than any other. And not just that, but we believe God will punish us because other people commit this sin and this sin only.
“Nice little Christian nation you have there. Too bad I have to destroy it because you didn’t purge the fags.”
So yes, I believe we are saying, every bit as clearly as Fred Phelps: “God Hates Fags.”
If we believe that, perhaps we should be out there waving signs too.
But if we don’t believe that, then perhaps we need to reevaluate our behavior, our rhetoric, and our own hearts.
For more, here is the follow up post: Thought Police and Religious Freedom
Note on the legal aspect:
Did you know that a minister can refuse to marry African Americans? It’s true. Also, a church can refuse to let its premises be used for an African American wedding. Likewise, cases have held that ministers can refuse to officiate at mixed race weddings. That is why all the fear mongering about the loss of religious liberty is a bit silly. Performing the sacrament of marriage is and remains protected by the First Amendment. Even for clearly bigoted ministers.
That isn’t the case for civil marriages. A judge or clerk in his or her official capacity must grant all lawful requests. A civil marriage isn’t a sacrament. Thus, it is not a religious conviction that would lead to a refusal, but a political one. Only if we confuse the State with the Kingdom of God is this an issue. A minister gives the couple the blessing of God. A judge gives the couple the blessing of the State.
For that matter, providing a cake or wedding music isn’t a sacrament. My contribution is similar to - and significantly less important than - the work the janitor did to provide clean restrooms. If my music was a sacrament, I would be an idolator for playing that neo-pagan ceremony. And I could never hire an non-Christian to do anything at my wedding either, right? If they are equally sacraments - expressions of faith - then it would be equally sacrilegious to hire a Buddhist caterer as to hire a Wiccan priestess.
I also am not exaggerating when I claim that this is about more than just gay weddings. There was a big case here in California when I was in law school over housing discrimination. (I watched the arguments at the California Supreme Court.) The issue was whether a landlord could refuse to rent to an unmarried heterosexual couple. (Here in California, one cannot discriminate on the basis of marital status. The court ruled that religious belief didn’t trump those laws.) This very much could become a situation where gays, particularly in certain communities, are refused housing, and one could see it extend to any service that people thought could possibly be “supporting” homosexuality.
I also find it a bit disturbing that many are so determined to be able to say “we don’t serve your kind” that they are willing to go the full libertarian route and eliminate all anti-discrimination laws. I was surprised that several friends and relatives re-posted this one, by Matt Walsh.
Let’s just go throw the Civil Rights Act under the bus so that we can avoid the argument. Never mind that, just as in the case of Phil Lancaster, we once again feed the “all Christians are racist, sexist, and bigoted” stereotype.
Note on the religious aspect:
I touched on this a bit in my post on the Christmas Wars. Somehow, we have gotten the idea that the way to serve God is to be an “Asshole for Jesus.” We are to be salt and light by hassling people who don’t share our beliefs. We boycott businesses for saying “Happy Holidays.” We make sure we never serve homosexuals. Some of us even picket funerals. We do our best to prevent others from sinning. Or at least to make our contempt for them known.
We think that this is the sacrament we offer to God.
As my own pastor put it, instead of spreading the sweet fragrance of grace and love, we act as though God has called us to fumigate for roaches.
What really burns me, though, is that when there is blowback for this assholery, we are quick to cry “persecution.”
To quote Saint Peter:
“If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.”
We have become a church of meddlers. We are more interested in “taking America back” by forcing others to abide by our moral and cultural standards than in showing love and compassion to our neighbors.
This is another area in which I believe that the Reconstructionist view of the world has infiltrated Evangelicalism. To the Reconstructionist the Church is in fact the next nation of Israel, and we are primarily called as Christians to establish a theocracy. Just like the good ol’ days in ancient Israel, we either convert, enslave, or slaughter those who stand in our way. That’s why they speak of those outside of their movement as the “enemies of God.” And they don’t mean it in the “love your enemies” sort of way either. Unless stoning is an act of love. (Actually, some of them do argue this…)
The whole viewpoint is to divide the world into the “us” and the “not us,” and defeat the “not us.” And, as I have pointed out, we live in mortal fear that if we don’t somehow purge the “not us” element, God will smite us. And by corollary, we believe that the way to God’s approval is to purge the sinners from our nation.
I don’t see this attitude anywhere in the teachings or actions of Christ.
Note on the history of the 20th Century:
If we are to learn anything from the bloody history of the 20th Century, it should be that we should take serious notice whenever a small minority group gets blamed for the decline of a society. This is compounded when there is a separation between the groups. If the majority and the minority live increasingly segregated lives, then two things happen. First, it becomes easy to forget the humanity of the minority group. Second, the disappearance of the minority isn’t even noticed. I recommend reading They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer for how this played out in Germany. And no, I don’t want to hear that Christians are the true minority here. That doesn’t even pass the most basic test of statistical possibility. Also, it has largely been Christians who have emphasized separation from the unwashed sinners over the last few decades.
A few links:
Let me offer a few interesting links.
This one is by Ben Corey. You may or may not agree with all of his theology, but I think he nails this one.Great perspective.
I also recommend this one from Murray. The commandment to love our neighbor was followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan. Those who we wish to hold in contempt are the very people who Christ calls our neighbors.
And one final bit, from a man who is one of the targets of Fred Phelps and his church, George Takei. (Best known as Mr. Sulu, in the original Star Trek series.) Takei posted this on his Facebook feed (which is one of the best things on facebook these days - he has a great sense of humor and a love for terrible puns) after news of Phelps’ final illness hit the news.
"I take no solace or joy in this man's passing.
"We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding 'God Hates Fred' signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many.
"Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end."