Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church takes in-your-face to a whole new level. The church is nothing if not an equal opportunity offender, from its burning of both a Quran and an American flag on 9/11 to its signs proclaiming God’s hatred for ... well, pretty much everyone. While Westboro, established by a lawyer named Fred Phelps in 1955, claims to be a Primitive Baptist Church, that denomination denounces the actions of the church as “deplorable.” The church boasts of conducting 47,770 demonstrations since 1991 proclaiming its gospel of hate—while taunting on its website that the number zero represents the “nanoseconds of sleep that WBC members lose over your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiiings.”
From Rebecca Barrett-Fox’s first visit to the church in 2004 until defending her dissertation “Pray Not for This People for Their Good” in 2010, the scholar became intimately acquainted with the people of Westboro in a way that few outsiders have. Barrett-Fox, now a professor at two Mennonite colleges in Kansas (Hesston and Bethel) and book review editor of The Journal of Hate Studies, conducted intensive ethnographic research on the church, joining members at Sunday services, pickets at memorials for gay and lesbian people, and outside the Supreme Court when it ruled in favor of the church’s right to demonstrate at military funerals.
Freelance editor and writer Joanie Eppinga (eagleeyeediting.com), who is the former editor and current assistant editor of The Journal of Hate Studies, met Barrett-Fox through Gonzaga University’s Institute for Hate Studies and interviewed her last April.
Joanie Eppinga: How did you become involved with Westboro Baptist Church?
Rebecca Barrett-Fox: I had grown up with fundamentalist Christianity, with a particular emphasis on the scary parts; I was born in the decade of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. My mom did a wonderful thing for us, which was to send us to every religious service that was available, in part I think because she wanted us out of the house. When I came to the University of Kansas, a group of friends and I decided to go to every religious service we could find, and that included Westboro Baptist.
What made you decide to move forward with your study?
In some sense, I felt called to it. So I spent a lot of time grounding myself in Calvinism. It was a long, dark winter! I wanted to historicize Westboro teachings, because I sensed early on that there was a lineage here in American intellectual and theological history. Then, in 2010, I studied them intensely through their Supreme Court trial, and traveled to the Supreme Court, though not with the church, to witness that process.