The Phelps and the Rest of Us: Insights From Lauren's Book

The Westboro Baptist Church, founded by Fred Phelps in 1956, is well-known to most people. They stand on street corners at high-profile events or after high-profile tragedies successfully getting people riled up with their offensive slogans of judgement and hate.

Despite their use of the name Baptist (which they are able to use because there's no authority in Baptist life that can take it away from them), they make virtually every other religious person in the world angry. In unprecedented agreement, churches from across the entire conservative-liberal spectrum revile the group and say clearly, "We are nothing like them." But after the book I just finished, I'm not convinced we're as different as we'd like to think.

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church is written by Lauren Drain whose family was actually a transplant into the church; they are not related to the Phelps by blood or marriage. She lived in their compound for 7 years, is now out and has written about her experiences in the church as well as what led up to her family joining. There are, of course, some shocking things about the group and no other church I know of intentionally inflicts pain the way they do, but there are several things Lauren reveals about the group that are unfortunately fairly common among other Christians as well.

1) Retreating into dogmatic certainty when our beliefs are successfully challenged. Lauren says that raising questions is tantamount to trouble-making and back-sliding in the WBC. Perhaps the clearest example is when she posed a question to Fred Phelps through his daughter Shirley. Fred had no answer, and Lauren was promptly berated by both of them for stirring up trouble. Yes, the Phelps represent an extreme, but the difference is only one of degree. I've seen it over and over in other settings. Many Christians will initially engage in a discussion with someone who believes differently from them and might use standard methods of reasoning, but as soon as the other person says something the Christian has no response to, the Christian shuts off debate and spouts off some religious certainty. I myself have had many discussions with people who simply refuse to see or engage evidence that doesn't bolster their case. For the Phelps, their beliefs determine what reality is, instead of the other way around. But are we that much different?

2) Squaring off religious life into its own little corner. Lauren confirms in her book something I had heard from teachers and lawyers who work with members of the Phelps family. In most areas of life, the Phelps are quite normal and even pleasant. Many of the adults are lawyers, and they work for their clients well and professionally . The Phelps grandchildren get along fine with the other children in public schools and even have friends. You wouldn't even know they're different but for the fact that they don't say the pledge or participate in holiday celebrations. Fitness is a big thing for them and several are runners. In fact, all the Phelps, adults and children alike, are incredibly hard-working and do everything well. But when it's time to go to church, have Bible study, or form a picket line, it's like someone flips a switch and they're as mean as snakes. Lauren says that when she was in high school, she and another girl would go through their school day normally, but when the bell rang, they would pull our their signs and picket the school as their peers went home. It's almost as if they have a thick partition between their religious activities and the rest of their lives. But so do we! Yes, the Phelps represent an extreme, but the difference is only one of degree. According to surveys, a majority of Christians who attend church services never mention or even think about their faith during the week and can't give an answer as to how their faith impacts their work and daily lives. The Phelps do what they believe is their duty for God, and then promptly pack up and blend in. But are we that much different?

3) Assuming divine protection and then having a crisis of faith when tragedy strikes. The Phelps consider themselves God's only elect and by virtue of that status they clearly don't expect their close family members to experience the kind of hardships they see elsewhere and peg as God's judgement. Lauren tells the story of when Shirley Phelps' son Josh decided to leave the church, the first of her 11 children to do so (two of her daughters later left in early 2013). Lauren writes, "I had never seen [Shirley] so upset and torn apart. She was completely beyond composure, bawling insanely and blaming herself. 'Why me? What have I done? Why did he leave me?' she asked desperately." In my work as a pastor, I see many people struggle through many different things, but the most profound struggles I see are in those who had previously lived with the assumption that anything could be prayed away or that God gives special protection to people of faith. Yes, the Phelps represent an extreme, but the difference in only one of degree. Life can jump up and bite anyone at anytime, and unfortunately many Christians have been promised otherwise. I've always wondered: what exactly do we mean when we say "prayer works?" It works like how my coffee machine works? I press a button and it starts to go? I certainly understand the psychological need to believe that we will somehow be afforded special protection. I'm not interested in robbing people of this belief, but it's hard to watch the crisis of faith it produces when things don't pan out. A good place to start is to remember that the purpose of our relationship with God is our own transformation, and this often takes place as a result of--not in the absence of--our pain and hardships (Romans 5:3-4).

4) Interpreting bad things that happen to others as God's punishment. This is the flip side of #3. OK, so I actually don't know many everyday people who do this, but for some reason people seem to admire and follow popular Christian leaders who do; Pat Robertson and John Piper, for example. We all know this one about the Phelps. Everything that happens is God's punishment, and they make sure they communicate this belief in the most shocking and insensitive way possible. But again, even though the Phelps represent an extreme, the difference is only one of degree. I have taken heat for comparing John Piper with Fred Phelps. "How can you compare a respectable theologian like Piper with an evil man like Phelps?" people ask. But the two men have theologies that are virtually identical on this issue; it's only the presentation that's different. John Piper doesn't picket funerals or use shocking imagery, but consider that after the 2004 tsunami that killed over 230,000 people, Piper wrote that it was a "merciful warning" because sin deserves even worse. He berated his readers for being upset about the tsunami instead of thanking God for all the other days he withheld his wrath. That is unequivocally the theology of Fred Phelps; it's only the presentation that's different. Ironically, after the Moore, OK tornado on May 20, 2013, Piper started tweeting verses from the book of Job, a book whose narrative directly refutes his theology of sin and punishment.

Here's the real test and here's how a church can make sure it's fully differentiated from the Phelps: how we treat outsiders. You see, what Lauren says in the book about how the Phelps treat each other actually has some very admirable aspects to it. She writes that the church made an inspiring first impression on her:
Everybody was super-accommodating, bending over backward to lend a hand. They were the most welcoming, organized bunch of people I had ever met. They started helping us unload the trailer and the truck, and they had everything inside and unpacked in less than two hours. They had already stocked the refrigerator and the pantry with all kinds of dry goods and supplies...I soon found out the kids and teens did all the landscaping and garden work. In two hours, we could mow, blow, and bag the entire communal property and all the yards. No one complained. Kids were expected to help; it was part of the discipline the church instilled. The sense of community was really impressive. When someone needed something, everybody was always there at a minute’s notice.
They've got the Christian community thing figured out better than most churches. But they treat outsiders like dirt, not caring what happens to them and rejoicing in their pain as righteous judgments of God. As Jesus said, anybody can love those who love them; that's easy (Luke 6:32). The real test is how we treat outsiders; whether we value others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3) and whether we are willing to actually enter into the pain and struggle of others and walk beside them (Galatians 6:2). In the same way that the test of democracy is not just the majority getting its way (even failed states can accomplish that), the test of true, Christ-like, non-Phelps Christianity is who we welcome (Hebrews 13:2) and to whom we extend the love we have for each other.