Reflections on and prompted by Rev. Fred Phelps (a bit scattershot)

I just finished watching a documentary on Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers. He is the frothingly homophobic preacher from Topeka, KS, whose congregation pickets homosexuality-related events like PRIDE and the funerals of gaybash victims. (You can google his website(s) if you like. I can’t bring myself to link them.)

They also picket the funerals of (straight) American soldiers killed in Iraq. How exactly this is connected to the anti-gay tack is less than clear. I used to think the argument was that—as Bush himself argued—the war was about exporting Western values to the Middle East, and Phelps took these to include tolerance, or encouragement, of homosexuality; I figured he took up this line to say, these values are bad, so exporting them is bad, so the war is bad.

At this point, I don’t think he makes that much sense, even. His opposition to the war isn’t about exporting values but protesting anything representing “America.” Actually, judging from the signage, his anti-Americanism is a more prime focus than the homosexuality. (Though again I suspect the former stems from the latter. Some signs call the dead soldiers “fag enablers,” suggesting this is the problem with them.) Phelps equates liberal values with the nation-state and is prepared to protest anything he thinks the nation-state does or anything that, however tenuously, represents it.

Sure enough, soldiers represent the state and provide the security which makes it possible. Of course, blaming rank-and-file soldiers for the state’s actions is not the same thing. That connection is tenuous enough, but it gets weirder: A funny part in the documentary comes when the Phelpsians are protesting a Kansas University debate on the violability of the Pakistani border, while puzzled students are interviewed wondering aloud what “God Hates Fags” has to do with any of that.

Watching Phelps, it strikes me that any definition of “fanatic” has to include never thinking about strategy. I’ll never understand why the people with the goofiest ideas never bother to think about the most effective way to promote them. That just isn’t a concern. They have a feeling that being right (as they think they are) is quite enough; that a right idea is fit to be disseminated by any means, in any tone, at any time. (Perhaps they just drop the seeds and trust God to take care of the conditions for their taking root in the soil of people’s minds. In that case, though, why not trust God to drop the fucking seeds? How do you know what part to trust him with and what part to do yourselves?)

The video also reminds me of the deep contempt I have for (classical) liberal arguments on social issues like abortion and gay rights. I probably have more contempt for the onlookers, counter-protesters, and “good ministers” who oppose the Phelps’s protests than for Phelps himself. Given the chance to say, on camera, anything in the world about why Phelps and virulent homophobia are bad, all they can come up with—I mean, down to a person—are tepid lines against “hate” and “judging other people.”

(i) I mean, as if nobody could ever do anything so bad that you shouldn’t hate them for it. Not that “hate” is ever really defined; so I have to speculate: If by “hate” is meant simply any very strong opposition, what’s wrong with that? The counter-protesters display their own strong opposition to the Phelps’s. I’m sure we all strongly oppose all kinds of bad things, and if we don’t display the opposition publicly, we certainly wouldn’t object to it.

On the other hand, if “hate” refers to a consuming emotional state wildly out of proportion to its object, an unhealthy obsession of some kind, then, yes, “hate” is probably something nobody should ever hold for anything, no matter how bad. (Nursing this hate would psychologically harm the hater, if nothing else.) But I don’t reckon Phelps’s protests display this kind of “hate” in a clear way. He has an irrational opposition to something, sure enough, but I don’t know the emotional state attending this. That’s a separate issue.

Even if we could know Phelps “hated” in this sense, this wouldn’t be the most interesting thing about his protests.  It wouldn’t rank high on our list of criticisms. If Phelps “hated” Hitler, or some guy who molested his son, nobody would object. Nobody would even mention the “hate.” So if he does “hate” gays, the “hate” isn’t the real problematic issue here. I guess I’m saying that the “hate” is something separate from the position entailing it. Hating something that is actually good or benign is bad–but that doesn’t make the “hate” itself bad, any more than carrying a dangerous weapon around in a container makes the container dangerous. And on the other hand, just because Phelps’s “hate” is a vehicle for a bad viewpoint doesn’t make his “hate” the problem. It’s the viewpoint that should be opposed.

(ii) The counter-protesters’ whole “don’t judge anyone” tack is worse. I doubt it were even possible to act upon this maxim consistently. Surely the counter-protesters “judge” Phelps, for one. Not making judgments about people would prohibit social intercourse entirely. And can you imagine us refusing to “judge” the quality of music, or food, or the morality of child ripper-rapists? Can you imagine a father hearing his daughter’s favorable recital and telling her, “Sorry, it would be wrong to judge your performance (or you as a performer)”?

The formulation I hate the most is when someone offers the challenge, “Who are you to judge?” This makes me want to say: Who do I have to be to judge? I can only respond, “Well, I hope I’m the guy with the right view—the guy judging correctly; that’s who I am to judge.” Now, you can argue that I’m not right about my view, after all, and that this is why I can’t judge; and fair enough, I don’t guess anyone has a “right” to false judgments. But that’s different from saying nobody can hold an opinion on the thing in the first place. It’s the judgment that would be wrong—not the act of judging itself; and damn it, we won’t know the judgment is wrong until the judging is committed, and we can evaluate it.

In short, I judge the hell out of homosexuality, and so should everyone else. Namely, we should judge it to be perfectly fucking acceptable. That is why Phelps’s homophobia should be opposed: Because there is simply nothing goddamned wrong with homosexuality. (If there were, well, then…; but there isn’t.) It is OK because it is OK, not because nobody is allowed to hazard a guess as to what is or is not OK.

But there has to be a reason why this, the ostensibly most straightforward and “natural” reason to oppose homophobia, is virtually never brought up in these “debates.” If Phelps was protesting something good, or benign, like cartoonists or egg yolks, we would not shake our heads and sigh, “It isn’t proper to make judgments.” We’d say, “WTF?? What’s wrong with cartoonists or egg yolks, already? These things are fine. You’re crazy!” And if he was protesting a genuinely bad thing, like an inefficient tax cut, nobody would ask him not to “judge” issues. For that matter, nor would anyone say he were right to judge issues. “Judgment” just wouldn’t come into it; we would just talk about the merits, or not, of the thing being protested. I know I must be missing something here, but I can’t see why we talk differently about homosexuality.

This liberal way of assessing things has a leveling effect upon the whole moral field, reducing all values to neutral. Not judging cuts both ways: If homosexuality is OK simply because nobody is in a position to say that it is not OK, than homosexuality can’t be good, either. (That is, we cannot say that it is good—for that would be to judge it.) When all things become, effectively, equally valuable, then all things become equally trivial. That is, “value” ceases to be a term of distinction, a usable concept, altogether. Be gay, be a hermit, watch youtube or twiddle your fingers in a sandbox all fucking day, whatever. It’s all the same. It no longer means anything to be anything. And that is a loss. I want to live in a world, a culture, where there is a place for saying that homosexuality is good, its a good way to be. But this requires us to judge some things, and it may even require us to “hate” some things (in the first sense of the word).

Finally, the Bible probably doesn’t condemn homosexuality anyway—at least not the New Testament (NT), which I think Christians are (or should be) concerned with, since otherwise there isn’t a basis for their chucking all of the other Levitican laws out while picking on homosexuality. First, it is bizarre that people read the Soddom and Gommorah story and conclude a fundamentally anti-gay message from it. The story is about men wanting to gang-rape another man [1]—a stranger who was entitled to special hospitality from this group, no less. (And hospitality was virtually a sacrament in that time and place.) Isn’t it straightforward enough what is wrong with that? If the story were about men wanting to gang-rape a woman, would Christians interpret this as anti-heterosexual?

My understanding, anyhow, is that the archetypal homosexual relationship in the ancient world does not resemble the contemporary phenomenon. The former was not between freely consenting equals. It was often coercive in the full sense and nearly always so in our statutory sense. It was like our “pederasty” or close to it. (Again, I refer to the “archetypal” ancient homosexual relationship, not “every single ancient homosexual relationship.”) We are talking about two different concepts carrying the same name; it is perfectly within warrant to oppose the one and accept the other. Whether the coercive aspect is why the Bible condemns homosexuality is not clear to me. But it seems Christians could make a distinction here that they could live with. All of the specific injunctions against homosexuality (or what appear to be against it) in the NT are problematic as well. (The Metropolitan Church site has resources on this sort of thing. Pretty interesting stuff.)

Phelps’ trademark is to say that “God hates” homosexuals and other sinners. His evidence for this–at least, for the idea that God is capable of hating certain humans–is that the Bible quotes God as saying, “Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated.” I doubt whatever word translates as “hate” here is any less ambiguous than our own “hate,” but I guess I don’t know. But even if it isn’t ambiguous, it can still be used metaphorically: If our word “hate” meant (only) a deep, abiding, serious moral hatred, we could still use it metaphorically to say we “hate” peanuts or having to work on a Saturday. So Phelps needs to say more here. Not to mention that there are other places in the Bible that suggest God loves everyone, no matter what; so the “evidence” is mixed or incoherent at best. Anyhow, not that we should care what the Bible says, but (a) I may want to talk to those who do, and (b) I just can’t help myself….


[1] Well, a male angel–someone they thought was a man.


2 responses to “Reflections on and prompted by Rev. Fred Phelps (a bit scattershot)

  1. From what I remember, this church got sued and lost a year or two ago for quite a large sum of money. What really pissed me off is that it didn’t really seem to matter to anybody for years, at least not on a large enough scale to sue these assholes, that is, until they started picketing the funerals of dead American soldiers… of course that makes all the difference.

  2. Yeah, good point. Everybody knows soldiers are more important than everyone else. They are always singled out for their “service” as if the rest of us workers contribute piss-all to society. Its the same way with cops; you hear about a “cop killer,” but “grocer killers” and “accountant killers” don’t rate a special category of interest. I hate that shit. I could see if we were at some specific historical juncture in which soldiers (or cops) were especially needed. Then it might makes sense to equate their particular brand of service with “service” per se. It would be that important. By analogy, there were a famine, then farmers might be singled out for their “service.” But we are at no juncture like that. If anything, the work soldiers are doing now is counter-productive to security. (Not that I blame them for that.) Thanks for the response. We should talk soon.

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