Hoping This is The Last Article Ever Written on the Westboro Baptist Church

Most people know what the Westboro Baptist Church does—i.e., pickets really terrible places such funerals with really offensive signs like “Fags Die, God Laughs,” “Pray for Dead Soldiers,” and the simple, but poignant “God Hates You.” It seems, however,  that most people give little consideration to what drives this church or how our collective actions encourage their despicable actions.

The church was founded in 1955 by a then 26-year old Fred Phelps. Almost 60 years later, Mr. Phelps continues to lead the church. Membership in the church is estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 70 members. While there is no public list of the church’s members, at least one former member of the church estimates that 90% of the church’s congregation is a member of the Phelps family. The size of Mr. Phelps’ family would certainly make such an estimate possible (if not likely) as Mr. Phelps has 13 children, and an undisclosed number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are part of the church. In fact, my research into writing this piece was unable to find a surname of a single member of this church that was not Phelps.

What the above membership numbers demonstrate is that the Westboro Baptist Church is essentially just one crazy family—who had a difficult time figuring out contraception—plus 4 to 7 other people. If one was to Google “Westboro Baptist Church,” however, he or she may believe the church actually has many thousands of members and a great influence on our elected leaders because there are literally thousands and thousands of news articles, tweets, status updates, blog articles, and other postings about this crazy family. When I see numbers like this, or come across a new story on the church, or read a tweet on them, I don’t feel anger at the church so much as I feel anger at everyone who feels the need to continue drawing attention to these loons. There is simply no reason to give these people any attention. While I recognize there is some irony in writing a piece on a subject that encourages others to not write or read about said subject, I think this piece’s title adequately addresses the potential irony.

From what I can see, nothing new or insightful has been said about this church in the past five years. Every news article I read is only about which outrageous spot they will choose to hold their next picket. Every tweet and Facebook post I read about the church is nothing more than some person expressing disgust at the church for its latest picket location. The mass coverage this handful of people continually receives serves just two purposes. First, it satiates our morbid curiosity to observe a train wreck; and second, it feeds the church’s desire for fame and encourages them to engage in more of these outrageous acts. As one former church member explained, “The international media have covered our protests with unflagging interest, to the deep satisfaction of the WBC leaders my aunts, Shirl and Marge, and my grandfather, Fred, the group’s pastor and founder.”

There have been at least two incidents in which the Phelps have agreed to give up their protests in exchange for access to the media. For instance, in 2006, after the church announced it would be protesting the funeral of five Amish people killed in a school shooting, a nationally syndicated radio host agreed to give the church 30 minutes of air time in exchange for not picketing the funeral. The church accepted the offer, thus confirming any doubts we may have had about the fact that these people’s top priority is not picketing, but rather to disseminate their message to as many people as possible via free access to the media.

I can sort of understand the media’s coverage of this family. While there may be very little in the way of actual news, virtually any story on the Phelps and their protests is likely to generate a lot of clicks. What I have a much harder time understanding are the people who feel the need to publicly denounce this family as “sick”, “crazy”, or “just wrong.” Really? Are you saying these things because you are concerned that without your pithy observation, your peers will consider agreeing with a sign that says, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Or do you just want all of your friends to know what a principled person you are because you don’t agree that 9/11 was a good thing.

People who feel the need to bring attention to the Westboro Baptist Church by publicly criticizing the church’s beliefs remind me of the worst stand-up performance I ever had the misfortune of seeing. I saw Jimmy Walker (aka, J.J. from Good Times) begin a set with, “Is it me, or Michael Jackson looking white?” Mr. Walker opened with this joke around the year 2000—you know, about 15 years after every person in America had already thought the exact same thing. So basically, when a person criticizes the Westboro Baptist Church, I find their take on current events about as fresh and interesting as Jimmy Walker’s stand-up routine.

If you truly hate what these groups stand for and despise their picketing of funerals, then hit them where it hurts. Ignore them. When you see an article covering their latest zany antics, don’t click on it. If you feel the urge to take a bold position (it isn’t) that these guys are bad, fight it.

This logic also holds true for the Quran burner down in Florida, Mr. Terry Jones. Every time he decides to burn a bunch of Qurans or hang an effigy of President Obama on the highway next to his office, a media blitz descends upon him. Mr. Jones ran for president in 2012 and has already announced he’s running in 2016. This guy loves the attention.

These merchants of hate thrive on attention, and as soon as they can’t get it, they’ll fold up their tent. And if I am wrong, their tent will still be on display, but instead of being on the world stage, they’ll have to settle for upsetting a couple hundred people in Topeka. Either way, I’d say we won.

I would also be remiss if I did not point out the very real cost of this “news pornography.” Every time you see a news article about insane people like Mr. Jones or Mr. Phelps, you have to ask yourself what would have been in that space had a profit-driven media outlet been motivated to provide real news rather than infotainment. Perhaps it would have been an article about the plunder of Detroit by Wall Street (or any other number of vital issues that are underreported). By ignoring stories of cartoonishly evil bigots, we not only marginalize the bigots, we encourage our media to cover real news.

– Dylan


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