On 19 March 2014, Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church died of natural causes. His death did not receive widespread media coverage; neither nationally nor internationally. Why, then, is his death relevant to the contemporary nature of U.S. society? Or even western civilisation at large?
The Phelps clan’s notoriety grew in 2007, thanks to The Most Hated Family in America, a documentary made by the BBC’s Louis Theroux. Among other scenes, one showed Noah, one of Phelps’s grandsons, decrying the US as a “nation of fags”. Of greater importance for the movement and the very Western definition of freedom was a March 2011 Supreme Court ruling. The Court upheld an appeals court verdict rejecting a $5m award by a lower court to the father of Lance Cpl Matthew Snyder, a US marine killed in Iraq, whose funeral was picketed by Phelps’s church. The clan’s homophobic and hate campaigns were ultimately protected by the First Amendment.
On the one hand, the Church can be viewed as a peripheral outlier; an extremist cult which fails to attract significant support beyond Topeka, Kansas. In these terms, the Church is not emblematic of the groups found within the so-called ‘Bible Belt’; the south-eastern region where socially conservative Evangelical Protestantism is said to dominate religious, and to an extent, social and political life. Then again, the very existence and renewal of cults including the Westboro Baptist Church is suggestive in and of itself. Whilst the Westboro Church is chiefly recognised for its ardent homophobia, white male Protestant supremacy can be said to have their origins in such cults. Indeed, the lack of Congresswomen, together with the absence of ethnic ‘minority’ representation on Capitol Hill, forms the central irony within mainstream Congressional politics. For a nation-state which swore by the dictum ‘no taxation without representation’, and whose population is 17% Hispanic, white male Protestants reign supreme.
To suggest that members of groups such as the Westboro Church share similar world views with Ivy League educated members of Congress would be ludicrous at best. However, to reject the view that the Church shares certain foundational beliefs found within the mainstream would be equally foolish. As Michael Billig reminds us, George Bush Sr, on the eve of the First Gulf War, called on God to bless American forces. Bush finished with the imprecation: ‘May He continue to bless our nation, the United States of America’. This is the same God which the Westboro Church claims to represent. Despite the Church’s claims otherwise, it shares along with the nation a profound belief in exceptionalism; the suggestion that it will follow an unbridled and unique future path. Indeed, the Church can be said to be the most extreme culprit of what Billig refers to as banal nationalism. For ‘at regular, but intermittent intervals, the crisis occurs, and the moral aura of nationalism is invoked: heads will be nodded, flags waved and tanks will roll’. The Church, among other political groupings across the US, provides the very national foundations which Obama, an African - American, so frequently alludes to in times of national anxiety.
In my last article I called for Obama, in light of the Ferguson protests, to introduce a comprehensive programme of affirmative action. This would enable him to renew the ‘American Dream’ he talked so highly of in his 2008 Presidential campaign. However, the renewal of the ‘American Dream’ would also depend upon the maintenance of cosmopolitan rhetoric echoed throughout 2008. Calls for racial justice in Ferguson, Missouri must not only be heard in Topeka, Kansas but in Iraq, Israel and beyond. In 2008, Obama’s future success rested on uniting the nation, redressing ‘problems that confront us all’. If ‘us’ means the American nation at large, it also means accepting and renewing the very Christian faith which Fred Phelps purported to espouse.
By Michael Tavares