When I phone, the family are painting the church. They’re usually picketing funerals somewhere across America, garnering media attention and spreading the word of a hateful God. The subject of Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary, “America’s Most Hated Family”, the Westboro Baptist Church sees it as their duty to rejoice in all of God’s judgements, including earthquakes, cancer and war.
Famous for their signs – “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS”, “GOD HATES FAGS”, “THANK GOD FOR AIDS” and others – they have become sorry circus animals, paraded on shows like Jeremy Kyle, mocked and spat at. Shirley Phelps is the spokesperson for the family, and although years of defending the church’s views have made her rhetoric angry, snappy and reactionary – almost mechanical – it doesn’t take much probing to find an interesting underbelly.
Her dad was an outspoken civil rights lawyer with high-profile cases to his name. “When we were little, before we went to law school to help him at work, the phone would ring and somebody would be on there screaming – “nigger-lover”. And they would shoot at our cars and shoot at our windows. It was just…it was just kind of brutal, but it was okay. When you’re little and things are happening and you’re not conscious of danger then you just go along and trust your parents. By and by, I realised that that’s the way you have to approach God. You have to trust God – like a little child.”
It’s wrong to assume that America’s religious right always overlaps with the racist legacy of the Confederacy. Fred Phelps grew up in Mississippi. “He saw up close how they treated black people; he saw the whole separate but equal myth and it resonated with him. The Bible never says it’s an abomination to be black.”
We said thank God for 9/11. The very land is going to vomit the people out – it’s going to be beautiful
This strong sense of equality seems to jar with her extreme homophobia and anti-Semitism, but Shirley has a strict set of views, each with a basis in her dad’s reading of the Bible. “This nation went over to Africa and dragged their people over here. One law shall be – that’s what the Scripture says. Who maketh thee to differ from another?”
The Westboro Baptist Church has been picketing for twenty years now. For the first seven or eight years much of the media wouldn’t speak of them – “it was all mocking and scoffing”. Then a gay student from Wyoming was tortured and killed. The church went and picketed his funeral. According to their website – godhatesfags.com – “he lived a satanic lifestyle”.
“That’s when we first got really high profile in this country. Then 9/11 came – we said thank God for 9/11. This nation is going to be Japan on steroids. It’s going to shake and quake and sputter and spew. The very land is going to vomit the people out – it’s going to be beautiful.”
I’m always alarmed by the power of indoctrination. When I ask Shirley about her childhood she mentions her mum – “a stabilising soul” – but quickly moves on to her dad, the pastor of the church. “I remember when I was little I would listen to him talk about anything and everything. Don’t tell my kids this, but I didn’t like school. When I realised I could learn skills and help my dad in his law office I started doing that. So I would walk home, I would miss school – that was my favourite time, when I started to feel like I had control over my own life.”
She grew up in a busy home, one of Fred Phelps’ thirteen children. She now has eleven of her own. They read Harry Potter and Twilight, but every day they also read the Bible. “These kids don’t roam the streets; they have chores to do and their first priority when they get home is their homework.
“We don’t leave them floundering around in darkness to raise themselves. That’s what my generation does – as fast as they can do it, they turn their children over to the internet, to the fags, anyone and everyone because these lazy brutes don’t want to be bothered. They’re self-centred, egomaniacal, drug using, alcohol abusing rebels against God, and they didn’t want those kids in the first place.”
This is one of many bursts of anger, and during our conversation I get the impression that she interprets everything in a way that will fuel her belief. One of her sisters handles a lot of cases dealing with what she calls “CINC” – children in need of care. “She came in yesterday to my office in distress – she’s thick-skinned after everything she’s seen, but in this case the dad had punched the baby in the face because it was crying in the night, and its brain started bleeding. That’s happening all over this country – they kill their babies, they eat their babies. They eat them in so many ways.”
By “eat”, do you mean metaphorically eat? “I mean that too, but there was a woman in San Antonio who took her three week old baby and used a couple of big knives and a sword and she ate him. It’s just awful. And months later there was a little boy in California – they didn’t kill this little guy, but he said “daddy ate my eyes”. It’s horrible, but it’s the curse of God. And you may wonder, why is this nation getting all these curses? Isn’t that a big question?”
I remind her that these kinds of things happen in other countries. There are cases of cannibalism and extreme child-abuse in countries all over the world, but in general, it’s a small proportion of parents that eat their babies.
In the past two years, several of Shirley’s children have left the church as a result of its closed views. “If you’re going to be living in this neighbourhood, in these families, the house policy is that we’re going to serve the Lord our God. If that gets in the way of your idols, and your life is going to be “I’m going to play my videogames” or “I’m going to fornicate” or “I want to have my hair cut”, for the girls, or in the case of one of those young ladies, “I want to have breast enhancement surgery” – you’re going to pack your bags. Those girls make their own path. We are exactly where we were before they left. We’re not chasing the rebels – life is too short.”
Despite what seems like a cold outlook, Shirley sounds upset. She’s usually happy to preach, but when talking about her departed children she gives increasingly short answers. I ask if she hopes to see them again, but she’s quick to say that she has no interest in seeing the girls. “I’m ashamed of them. Don’t you understand? What would I tell them, except – you’re in so much trouble. And they know it.”
After watching Louis Theroux’s documentary I’m interested in finding out how many people they’ve had joining the church. She tells me there are people coming from everywhere. “We’ve had a guy come from Scotland, we’ve had a guy come from somewhere else in the UK, and another one says he’s coming shortly. There was a lady who turned up at 1:30 in the morning from Nashville, Tennessee.”
“We have only hope that everyone will hear these words. Wrath is coming down on this generation – wrath! The way it is described in the Bible looks just like what is happening in Japan. If you didn’t get it with the earthquakes you might have got it with the tsunami, and if you got away from both of those then you might get it yet from the radiation. They just had another earthquake yesterday. It’s a nation of idol worshipping, filthy people. Those are some filthy people. You just look a little bit at that culture.”
Puzzled by this disgust, I check one of their many websites – whygodhatestheworld.com – to find out the church’s position on Japan: “it’s just disgusting what this government has allowed their children to become – filthy whores as young as eleven. It doesn’t matter if their math scores and education exceed that of the USA. They are dumber than a box of baseball bats when it comes to their duty to fear God and keep His Commandments!” But it’s not just Japan – the website has a page for every country in the world.
There are some statistics in the sidebar: 5979 – soldiers that God has killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; 45,511 – pickets conducted by the Westboro Baptist Church; $14.12 trillion – national debt of doomed America; eight – people that God saved in the flood; and a counter – people who God has cast into hell since you loaded this page. I loaded it in the morning and it’s now on 115,355.
You can find the address of their church online. Publishing it could be seen as an admirable commitment to spreading their word – they must receive threats of violence, but Shirley says they can’t hide. “We’ve got a big banner across the front of the church that says godhatesamerica.com. It’s huge – it covers the whole front of the building.”
Have they been attacked? “There have been many, many efforts to try to burn the church down. They set off an IED twenty feet from where my baby was when he was four. But the promise from God is that no weapon that is formed against us will prosper, so we’ve got no worries. Sure they’ve tried. There was a guy sitting outside the police department when we were in there, and he was outside with three guns – a military assault rifle, an M4 with 90 rounds of ammunition, a Glock with a .38 threshold, and he was sitting right there by his car ready to ambush us.”
“We’re having a meeting in there, and here comes the police chief. “Do you guys hire security?” No, we don’t hire security. He says, “well there’s a guy sitting out in the parking lot and he’s all freaked out. We’ve arrested him, but he said he was your security – that you hired him.’ We don’t hire security, and we never have. We’ve got the best security there is. His name is God.”
Later, she recounts a story in which somebody tried to burn her hair; another man spat in her face. It seems to me there are better ways to protest the appalling practice of the Westboro Baptist Church – good-humoured demonstrations with absurdist signs: “GOD HATES FIGS”, “I HAVE A SIGN”, “DOG LOVES FAGS” and “I CAN’T BELIEVE WE STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT.” It’s sad to see a family become willing victims of their own hate, and to think of a life built on devotion to a twisted notion of God; a God who couldn’t save Shirley Phelps from 90 rounds of ammunition, and who didn’t save her from the indignity of having to wipe spit from her face.