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. —The Editors
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.
Westboro members say their purpose is not to convert souls. So why do they picket?
They say it’s obedience to God. They feel like God told them to do this, so they’re going to do it, regardless of public response. They use the same biblical passages used to justify any kind of preaching by any church: “Make it known to the world,” that kind of scripture.
They would say they know their preaching won’t save anybody. They are absolute predestinarians who believe that God chooses not just salvation and damnation, but everything. Not a sparrow will fall without it being God’s will. These beliefs, when taken together, make up the core of hyper-Calvinism. You are not saved because you heard them preaching; you are only saved because God wants you.
After you’d been going to Westboro for a while, were you starting to develop relationships with their members?
I was. I think it was easy for me because, having a certain amount of fluency, I can speak the language of fundamentalist discourse and never posit myself as anything except an interested observer.
I saw some folks, particularly journalists, just get chewed up by members of the church. Research is admittedly hard with a group like this, because in America, our sense of Christianity is either Catholicism or a kind of “evangelical-prosperity-gospel feel-good-Billy-Graham crackery”—that’s what Fred Phelps calls it. When you hear “Calvinism,” it does not match what we think about religion in America today.
Did the actual church service resemble mainstream Christian worship?
I had seen them preaching hate-filled messages on the streets. What amazed me was that they were saying the same thing in the church service—how do people come back Sunday after Sunday to hear this? Nothing new is being presented. I saw a lot of circling the wagons, with sermons about things like Noah and the flood and how only eight people got on the ark. This church is the ark, so if you’re a part of this church you’re getting on. The sermons are actually very typical of themes addressed in Calvinist teaching: questions of how you know that you are in or how you know that they are out.
So the attraction is the appeal of being part of the “in group.”
Exactly. And I could see the attractiveness of that in a world that is fragmented and scary, especially if you are not okay with doubt or gray areas.
Fred Phelps’ preaching is really a rhetorical act. You want to laugh at the jokes he’s making, and you want to be part of that group. He would say, “As it says in ...” and then he would drop the scripture and one or two people would call it out, or sometimes he would say, “Jon, what’s that Bible verse again?” And Jon better know it. It almost reminded me of law school, the level of pressure in a service.
Did children participate in this public biblical examination?
No, no. Neither did the women.
How were women expected to behave?
They can’t cut their hair at all, and they wear head coverings during religious services. But they don’t have to wear what I would consider modest clothing. I would sometimes see women wearing clothes I wouldn’t let my daughter wear to church, like shorts from Victoria’s Secret Pink collection, but also head coverings.
I was struck by how the congregation operated. It’s almost eerie if you are used to other kinds of church services. Nobody makes a peep; there’s no disruptive behavior, even from the kids.
How do church members discipline their children?
They are disciplined parents. I’m not saying that their kids don’t get spanked, but I have never seen or heard of a child being spanked there. They just have very high expectations, and they communicate those expectations very effectively. And they are very much with their children. As soon as those children are born, they come back to church.
Do the children of the church seem happy?
Yes. In some ways, that’s a disappointing finding, because you expect to see them being really unhappy. But the children who have left, the adult children of Fred Sr., talk about physical abuse and certainly mental abuse. Other members of the family say there wasn’t abuse, including one member of the family who has left the church.
These generations of grandkids and now great-grandchildren in the church are pretty happy and very normal. They go to public school. They participate in track, play saxophone, though what they can do is limited. The kids are very smart.
How does the group finance traveling to all those protests?
Everybody pays their own way. They are Calvinists in the very traditional way: They work really hard. They don’t pass a collection basket during services, and if you try to donate money to them, they won’t accept it. But the church’s travel budget is a quarter million dollars a year. A lot of them have careers in law, health care, and nursing, as sonogram technicians, and in computer science and robotics. Almost everybody has an advanced degree.
Fred Senior is a lawyer, and 11 of his 13 children are lawyers; they have a family law practice. If you looked at it, you would think it was a progressive firm. They do tribal law in the area, some family law. They won’t represent you in a divorce if you are in your first marriage because they don’t believe in divorce. But if you are in your second marriage, that doesn’t count anyway, so they will represent you. And they do a lot with immigration. Fred Sr. actually made his career as a civil rights litigator; he won settlements on behalf of African Americans. He reopened Brown vs. Board of Education in Topeka, and won.
I once heard somebody say that being in court against him was like being in a knife fight. He was disbarred for unethical behavior, once at the state level and once at the federal level. At the state level he badgered a witness—attacking her personal life, especially her sexual behavior. At the federal level, he made disparaging remarks about justices.
Did you ever feel drawn into the church’s perspective?
There was never a moment where I thought, gosh, let me join this church, but the appeal of the community—I could see that. I also think that church members create a culture that makes it uncomfortable to leave, and that becomes a high hurdle.
Because if you leave you are basically excommunicated?
They wouldn’t say “excommunicated.” They’ll take you off the church rolls, so you are excommunicated, but it amounts to more than simply excommunication from church services; it is de facto shunning because, as [Fred Phelps’ daughter] Shirley has said, “We don’t have time to talk to people who aren’t part of the church.” Shirley has one son who has left, Josh, who has publicly said, “I would like to have my mom be part of my life,” though he doesn’t agree with her theology.
So Shirley’s response to her son’s departure has been silence?
Oh no! She told everybody publicly that she’d just as soon line up all of her kids and punch them in their noses as let Josh back into her house, because she would be such a bad parent to give the message that it’s okay to leave this church.
Do you have the sense that she has any grief around his absence?
I can’t imagine how there couldn’t be. But if you go into Shirley’s house, on the refrigerator there are pictures of all of Shirley’s kids in foam picture frames, all in birth order, only Josh’s is gone—and no one has pushed the pictures of his two surrounding siblings closer together. Instead, there’s just a hole.
Shirley would say that he’s clearly not one of the elect since he left the church, so she’s not going to be in heaven with him anyway. For her to want Josh there would be like telling God, “You are wrong about this.” They probably don’t have an expectation that all of them will be chosen for salvation. That’s, again, that cold calculus of Calvinism, that maybe makes it easier when family members walk away.
Being a parent, you can’t imagine not crying at the loss of your child.
And for them, a loss doesn’t just mean a loss in this life; it also means eternal damnation. Among the Amish, there are ways to negotiate what “shunned” means, but there aren’t in this congregation. So it does seem very, very sad.
What has been your attitude as you’ve interacted with church members?
I don’t think I can get to an understanding of this group that is complete if I don’t think of them as full human beings. And I bear in mind that this group of 70 people is not going to go on forever; no church ever does. As painful as their behavior is, we can absorb it. They are not going to bring down American culture.
Did it wear on you, being with them that much?
No. I had a couple of very deliberate strategies, because some days were very long, and missing my home congregation was hard. Sometimes, my husband and kids would come to Topeka. One strategy of ethnographic research is to have someone with you. That way you can ask someone else, “Am I crazy, or is that what I’m hearing?”
How did you define your role among them?
There were those months of warmth, reciprocation, and participation. Maybe one of the cutest moments was when I brought cornbread to a potluck lunch. I said, “It’s John Calvin’s grandma’s recipe.” They looked at me and realized it was a joke. They cut it into little pieces so everybody could get some.
But the tone of our relationship had to vary from circumstance to circumstance. I couldn’t be palling around on the picket line.
What is the role of empathy in your research?
In the 1980s, feminist ethnographers started saying: We all know that all that stuff about sheer objectivity is not true. We have an emotional connection, and not talking about it is denying a traditional form of women’s language. One of the central tenets of feminist ethnography is that ethnography should be for the use and benefit of the subjects—for example, women survivors of marital abuse.
But what happens when you have some empathy with a person whose goals you can’t share, don’t share, won’t share, whose position you just generally don’t respect? Given my personality, it’s not that easy for me to turn that off. You want to connect, you want to be approved of. It was helpful for me to take new people to church services with me. I didn’t become desensitized because I could see the horror in their faces.
Taking careful field notes was helpful too. I was counting, How many times did they say “fag” today? Putting my own names to the types of people church members were sending to hell—Catholics, queer people, soldiers—was helpful: That person he’s talking about, that’s my friend Karen, my friend Alicia. We’ve learned that if you know someone who is gay or lesbian, you’re less likely to be homophobic. When you put a face to this hatred, you just can’t do it anymore.
That’s probably also true of your relationship with the Westboro members.
Yes, it is. You just can’t say these people are just awful anymore. What they do is awful, but it also illuminates how many other awful things are done under the guise of conservative Christianity. I don’t want to make a blanket statement about all conservative Christian churches—what I’m really talking about is the homophobic/political branch. You can have conservative theology that doesn’t end up here, proclaiming God’s hate.
Sociologist Kathleen Blee warns about using empathy either falsely or deceptively, or allowing it to turn off your critical thinking. I had the benefit of Blee’s insights.
What sustained you emotionally throughout the course of your research?
Anybody could have objectively gathered this data. If my heart was not attuned to the situation, there are insights I would not have seen. I’ve cried in my field work, Sunday after Sunday, sobbed in the car. What kind of a person am I, if I go to a funeral and I don’t do that? If I’m turning my heart off in research, I’m turning my heart off to other things that are valuable to know. I had that commitment and that community of support that made it possible for me to do it without losing it.
What does the Westboro Baptist Church activity, and our response to it, say about our culture?
It has illuminated for me the homophobia of some forms of conservative Christianity, and I find that far more dangerous than Westboro Baptist. Westboro makes those other guys look reasonable; conservative Christians make efforts to distinguish their own anti-gay message from Westboro Baptist’s. But Westboro is clearly a historic part of Christianity. There is a long strain of hyper-Calvinism in this country. Broader conservative Christianity does believe that God acts divinely in negative ways. Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes are said to be God’s punishment for Pokemon or voodoo or whatever evil thing Japan or Haiti or New Orleans has done.
What struck you about the way people responded to Westboro?
Some of the most progressive people fell for their homophobic and misogynistic taunts and responded with hostility. I was discouraged by how normative that kind of behavior was. Yet I don’t feel discouraged in my faith at all. It’s not as if I’m looking at this situation and saying, “Oh no, what’s wrong with the world?” I looked at this and said, “Passionate, devoted, intelligent people get led in the wrong direction.”
How do you think people should respond?
I don’t think if you ignore them they will go away, because they are not motivated primarily by a response. I think what’s more important is showing solidarity for your community: Make sure that those being targeted are loved and supported.
What was the most valuable thing you learned from your research?
I was able to see church members more as complete people and people in a process, and that made me feel hopeful. I think about St. Paul. Look where he started: stoning people, doing more damage than Westboro Baptists have done. There’s hope here for transformation. Westboro Baptists are fond of saying that “the arm of God cannot be shortened.” That is, you can do nothing to make God do less than God will do; you cannot lessen God’s ability to save. I try to apply that concept to how I see others—that I cannot limit them, that I cannot “shorten” their potential to be loved by God, to be people of love.
Text amended from print edition.