“Lady Gaga was created by God and this is what he calls her: “a vessel of wrath, fated to destruction”. God created Lady Gaga so he could destroy her in a big way, get his glory in doing it and that is an amazing work of God.”
It’s quotes like this which have led the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, to international coverage on major television networks. They appear whenever a newscast, talkshow or live debate requires a token ‘crazy Christian’, and their extreme pickets lambasting everything from ‘fags’ to the ‘fag enablers’ that allow them to carry out their ‘depraved’ existence mean they often create the news themselves. Their beliefs are based on a primitive form of Calvinism, but in essence amount to the twisted and hateful teachings of Church leader, Fred Phelps, who founded the Church in 1955 after a religious epiphany. The Church today is as much about spreading the hate of God via pickets as worshipping his grace. The seventy members protest several times a day, even travelling cross country to cause distress at soldiers’ funerals (since they fought for a country which allows homosexuals to practice their lifestyle without rebuke) and other events they associate with the impending doom of their nation. Their particular gripe with homosexuals arises from their argument that it epitomises the moral downfall of America. The protests never seek to convert targets to their way of life, but to impress upon the people that God is sending them signs that he is about to destroy them and send them to hell. Their notoriety often leads to counter-protests. Men will make-out in front of them, drivers will wind down their car windows to shout abuse and even the children, (for no member of the family is spared the joy of protest), will have objects hurled at them, or phlegm spat at their faces. All of this serves to perpetuate their undying commitment to spreading the message that the world is a hate-filled place. Everyone they encounter loathes them right back, and so Church members remain bitter, but content with their apparent truth.
Despite this, Shirley Phelps-Roper, Fred’s daughter and the chief organiser of the Church’s activities, is a pleasant and polite interviewee. Her daughter Megan, also a member of the Church, explained to me, “She sees what this generation has done to their children, and inasmuch as she has 11 children and 46 nieces and nephews, it is most sorrowful to her. She is kind hearted in a huge way.” America’s young people are the targets of much of Shirley’s despisal, and this venom has most recently been directed at the pop-cultural phenomenon, Lady Gaga.
It’s easy to see why Lady Gaga was chosen. According to a press release written by Megan Phelps, 23 (incidentally the same age as the popstar), Gaga “gives lip service to “liberating” her young fans, Lady Gaga brings them into slavery to their own corruption, teaching them to glory in their shame.” In reality, hijacking Gaga’s ceaseless train of publicity gives them the chance to again air their views in the public forum.
The Church had planned to send a ten-strong group to protest her concert in St. Louis on the 7th of January, and had their brightly-coloured placards prepared for the occasion: “You’re going to love this,” Shirley forewarns me, “’God Hates Lady Gaga’, ‘America is Doomed’, ‘God Hates You’, ‘You’re Going to Hell’, ‘God Hates Fags’, ‘God Hates Fag Enablers’, ‘God is your Enemy’”. They were prevented, however, due to being snowed in. Ironically, Westboro teaches that all adverse weather conditions and even tragic natural disasters are a “smack from God” that show God’s wrath.
Instead, the Church took a trip to New York two days ago to protest Gaga’s concert there, an event whose entire proceeds are being given to charities helping Haiti recover from the horrific earthquake. Shirley was predictably unrepentant in her criticism, saying (and this isn’t for those of a sensitive disposition), “She has bats in the belfry if she thinks that she will ever have enough money to undo the curse that God has put upon the truly filthy and vile voo-doo witch doctors and catholic pedophile monsters that God has rewarded according to their filthy deeds. God has given those people the highest rate of AIDS in the world and now he is just sending wave after wave of God Smacks to discomfit, kill, maim, and turn into a nation of amputees. And this silly child thinks she can do something about that?”
Their campaign against Lady Gaga has gained momentum through an unintentionally hilarious parody of ‘Poker Face’ entitled – and this is inspired – ‘No Poker Face’. Shirley alerted me to its creation via email, writing “Here is a nice song the girls pulled together. We will sing it at our nice picket. YAY! “ She explained the meaning of her daughters’ parody: “She has no poker face [as in she is incapable of hiding her emotions], she is happy to show all her whoredoms to the WHOLE WORLD! She is so proud of her sin, so what better song to parody than that?”
The bile-infused lyrics include “Russian Roulette is what you’re playing, silly clod/But every chamber’s loaded when you’re playing with your God,” “You pissed off God, you’ll see what he’s got,” and “God promises, promises your destruction so marvelous.”
Other singers aren’t immune to this treatment from the Church’s members. Not before informing me that Michael Jackson’s death was the result of a “Smack from God”, Shirley says they often turn popular music into “Songs of Zion”: “Elton John can write a good tune and sometimes it was not unpleasant to listen to his music, in fact we’ve taken some of the songs of Elton John that we’ve grown up listening to and parodied them”.
The criticisms leveled at Gaga by the average Joe range from her lack of clothing to her often weird behaviour in interviews. The more highbrow press outlets, seeking a way to re-interpret this into a form they feel doesn’t stoop to tabloid documentation of her every utterance, have instead taken her self-proclaimed ‘art’ and her desire to “create a space for my fans where they don’t feel like a freak” and turned it into negative spin. Essentially, they say she is artless, contrived and appealing to the sympathies of an audience too young to be exposed to her sexual showmanship.
Gaga first became a part of Shirley’s quotidian hate-preaching when she was, “channel surfing and came upon this godawful sight: the simple slut with virtually no clothes on. I’m like, “can they put that crap on TV?” And of course the answer comes to my mind, “Yes of course they can. They put everything on TV.” I said to one of my kids “who is that?” They explained it to me and told me she received an award not long ago and said “for god and the gays’”.
Shirley is referring to Gaga’s acceptance speech for ‘Best New Artist’ at the MTV Video Music Awards, when after ‘killing herself’ onstage in an homage to Princess Diana, she dressed in an Alexander McQueen red lace dress to symbolise her eternal martyrdom. She thanked the gay community, which she believes form the most devoted proportion of her sizeable fanbase.
It’s therefore easy to see why Shirley became irate. It came as no surprise to her that gay people worldwide have embraced Gaga as an icon: “Duh! Hun she’s a terrible pervert and fags are terrible perverts, birds of a feather I say.” When I tell her that Gaga revealed on her Twitter account that at one New York concert of hers she spied two men having sex, Shirley argues, “This nation is so corrupt and evil that what else would you expect them to do? This nation’s destruction is imminent. Stupid doomed Americans. Even in the face of light: they’ve had the servants of god on their streets for 19 years [i.e. Westboro have been protesting for 19 years] and they didn’t repent.”
The Church pickets other artists in the music industry, (“We picket all of them. We’ve picketed Britney spears – they’re all simple sluts.”), but the aim of these protests is sometimes obscure. When I tell the matriarch that sales of hotpants in the UK have risen drastically as a direct result of Gaga’s influence, she highlights her approval, because the more people parading around in revealing attire, the quicker God’s rage will destroy the world. Westboro Baptist Church voices its indignation in the form of protest, but these demonstrations have no real wider aim. Shirley thinks Gaga is an abomination, but is happy she has been sent by God as a sign of his eventual destruction of the world.
The imminence of this destruction is something Shirley sees as parallel to the moral laxity of young America: “The whole generation has risen up to say screw you go and Lady Gaga is just the latest.
“There’s nothing going on on this Earth that doesn’t come directly from the hand of God. God says, “I kill and I make alive” but this goofy generation of rebels didn’t bother to read the words so they come to the table at this hour with gross darkness, ignorance abounding, so they look up and see simple slut Gaga, (the Lady thing not so much) and they fawn over her and raise her up as an idol and she gives the glory to herself and not her God, and she is in great peril.”
She isn’t the worst fag enabler. She’s just another fag enabler and she preaches rebellion. That’s very dangerous. Do you remember Heath Ledger?
When the Church is questioned about just who will be saved, their answers remain within the common course Westboro extremism, but are nevertheless strangely inconclusive. Their Church provides them with the path to heaven, but they acknowledge that, “only six were saved on Noah’s Ark”. Though the Church membership is majoritised by the Phelps’ extended family, they still seem unwaveringly confortable with limited atonement really limited atonement.
Shirley noticeably has a soft spot for her daughter Megan, and compares her with Lady Gaga: “It makes me so thankful that my child is clear about what the scriptures say, clear what god’s standards are.
“Lady Gaga could sing to serve God. You could do that and God would respect you and keep you, but they have no respect for God. They do all of these things against their own interests.”
Lady Gaga’s peaceful (and often inpenetrable) doctrine of art, love and dancing has been contorted by Westboro Baptist Church into a symbol for the ostensibly rebellious and evil nature of the American people. The celebrities they picket are seen as bad role models (of course, sent by God) and visible emblems of his eternal condemnation. They see Lady Gaga as most recent ‘whore’ to go against their rigid belief system, but insist she wasn’t the first and won’t be the last:She isn’t the worst fag enabler, She’s just another fag enabler.
“She preaches rebellion. That’s very dangerous, do you remember Heath Ledger?”
I tell her that toxicology reports determined that Ledger died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
“No,” she argues, “he died of a big fat god smack. He too taught rebellion. God is the one that put it upon his heart to be a drug addict.”
Westboro Baptist Church in the news
1995: The son of Fred Phelps is convicted of misdemeanour battery for allegedly spitting on Jerold Berger during antihomosexual picketing outside the Vintage Restaurant in their Topeka hometown.
1998: The church is featured on CNN after they picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard from Wyoming, who was beaten to death by two men because of his homosexuality.
2005: The picketing of the funerals of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan becomes a commonplace activity for the Church.
2006: The state of Michigan bans the intentional disruption of funerals within 500 feet of the ceremony. Violating the statute would be a felony, punishable by up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine for the first offense. Illinois enacts the “Let Them Rest In Peace Act”, to protect military families from funeral protests.
2007: Louis Theroux documentary The Most Hated Family in America is aired, bringing the group to the UK’s attention. Theroux spent 3 weeks probing the group’s beliefs to conclude that their belief system was “Palaeolithic” .
2008: 190 citizens turn up to counter-protest the church in Jacksonville, as the group picket the Marine Corps after Maria Lauterbach, allegedly raped by a fellow marine, was murdered before she could testify. One counter-protestor spat in Shirley Phelps-Roper’s face.
2009: After declaring their intention to picket a Basingstoke youth production of The Laramie Project – a play which deals with hate crime against homosexuals – the Home Office banned Fred and Shirley Phelps from entering the UK. Human Rights groups applauded the decision.
Targeting celebrities, even when unprompted, is a tactic Shirley uses to provide material for press outlets and gain more coverage for the Church. Aware that Nouse is based in England, she turns her attention to our national figureheads. Gaga’s performance at the Royal Variety Show last year, in which she sang Speechless whilst playing a 12ft Piano inspired by Dali’s elephant renderings, drew Shirley’s attention. She saw the image of the Queen meeting Gaga as the unity of two influential forces unleashing their collective hatred upon our nation.
Our monarch comes in for a special lashing: “That stupid old filthy Queen; her hand is dripping with the blood of her daughter-in-law – it’s dripping with her blood. She’s guilty! She taught her filthy nasty son. that spawn of Satan Charles how to be an adulterer, how to be a treacherous bastard against his wife. They caused her death, they’re both guilty. They accelerated her journey to hell.
“And how perfect that this simple bimbo, Queen Dumb Dumb, would have this Lady Dumb Dumb over there performing. There aren’t enough words to express the contempt God has for those brute beats. You think you can gussy up some old fool, put some stuffy clothes on her, put her in a car and you’r e still never going to turn that sow’s ear into a silk purse.”
The media attention the group receive is propagated and mediated through thier collection of websites. Their flagship site, Godhatesfags.com, which has a counter informing visitors how many “reprobates have split hell wide open” since they clicked onto the site, is accompanied by a brace of similarly delightful ventures: priestsrapeboys.com, beastobama.com, and jewskilledjesus.com. Their self-promotion can sometimes work against them, though. International awareness of the offence and disturbance they instigate means rights groups are ready to counter-protest wherever they go.
Shirley and her father Fred Phelps are banned from the UK, and anyone suspected of being a member of their Church is also liable to be denied entry. Their desire to picket our country, which shares so many facets of its cultural identity with the USA, remains strong, however: “I would picket all of you hun,” Shirley tells me, “I would put the signs on every street corner that I could physically get to and the signs would say “Flee the Wrath to Come”, God Hates You”, and “England is doomed”. You’re on the road to destruction.”
Lady Gaga represents a reliable source of discontent for the group, but she could just as easily be substituted with some other ludicrous cause; ‘fags’, ‘Obama’, ‘Jews’, inevitably slapped on a placard after the words “God Hates”. It’s a gimmick they feel works for them, but in waving their banners, and by lending their voices to masses of reportage, they simply condemn themselves in the eyes of anyone with a degree of sense. Yet one imagines that having people agree with them would make them feel uncomfortable. Their family unit and their Church is bound together by strict but inexplicable values, and the prophetic doom of carefully selected Biblical passages. One must feel something, though, for the young children holding banners with adult messages they don’t understand. They are coalesced into protesting an America they feel is doomed by the irresponsible behaviour of its citizens, but the Westboro Baptist Church is a movement you feel could only happen in the USA. And curiously, for all of their fire and brimstone, I couldn’t imagine them in any other century.