Aside from the Ku Klux Klan, there isn’t another group in America that evokes an immediate visceral response like the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). They have turned funerals into media circuses and trampled over what many consider to be sacred ground. At the front of their crusade against all things sinful they fly a rainbow colored poster declaring “God Hates Fags.” Most people are unaware of the church’s origins, makeup, and theology. These facts are concealed under hate-laced rhetoric and threats of litigation. The truth is, the WBC history is as colorful as the posters they hold.
The origins of the WBC can found in 1954 on the eastside of Topeka, Kansas. At that time the East Side Baptist Church of Topeka invested in a second chapel across town. The East Side Baptists employed an associate pastor by the name of Fred Phelps. By 1955 the chapel was ready to open and was christened the Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps was promoted to full Pastoral status and placed as the head of the new chapel. Soon after his appointment, he cut ties with the church on the eastside and began his own theological curriculum.
From 1955 to 1963 there is little known of the church, other than to say Phelps was conforming the church’s ideology to strict Calvinism. In 1963 a book titled, “The Five Points of Calvinism Defined, Defended, and Documented by David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas” was written and spread through the Calvinist reformers. From this work, many followers of Calvinism, Phelps included, adopted the “Tulip” method for explaining their faith. The word is an acronym for the five points; Total depravity (everyone is a sinner by nature), Unconditional election (only God’s chosen will return to him), Limited atonement (Christ only died for the chosen), Irresistible grace (once chosen, you are compelled), and Perseverance of Saints (the chosen will continue in righteousness). Phelps and his followers strictly adhere to the ultra-Orthodox TULIP Calvinism. Among the Five points are smaller theological planks including zero tolerance for homosexuality. Adherence to this overly rigid theology goes a long way in explaining the unabashed confrontational nature of WBC members. True to their ideology, they fully believe they are the wake-up call to a world that is irreversibly hell bound.
In 1964 Phelps achieved a law degree and opened his own law firm. He immediately dove into civil rights cases. Phelps won a series of cases wherein he represented African American clients in discrimination lawsuits and civil rights violations. Phelps was well known for confronting “Jim Crow Laws” and at one point claimed to be the reason they “fell” in Kansas. He and his family would later claim that racist suspects were responsible for shooting at their vehicles and wreaking mayhem on the family. In 1977 Phelps was disbarred after targeting a clerk of court whose only mistake was failing to produce a transcript on time. Phelps conjured up eight fraudulent sworn affidavits against the woman leading to his ouster. He continued to practice law on a federal level well into the 1980s. At one point he even filed a lawsuit against President Ronald Reagan alleging a violation of the “Church and State Clause” because the US had an ambassador in the Vatican. In 1989 Phelps’ federal law career ended in a compromise with a district court.
In 1984 Phelps and the WBC were deep in Kansas politics. They strongly backed Al Gore’s Senate run in ’84 due to Gore’s anti-homosexual position. The WBC also backed Gore in 1988 for the same reason. In 1991 the WBC held their first official protest. They selected a Topeka public park and labeled it a “den of homosexuality.” By 1994 WBC was protesting across the United States with a great emphasis on anyone or anything that supported or was thought to support gay rights. By 1998 they were fairly well known, but in ’98 WBC became a household name. The WBC decided to protest at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was killed in an alleged hate crime. The news of the WBC spread quickly through cable news networks, elevating the WBC to mega-status overnight.
Throughout the 90’s the WBC won several court cases and lawsuits across the country. By 2005 WBC was dead-set on protesting at military funerals. Members of WBC stated in very clear terms that each death in the battle field was God’s divine punishment for accepting homosexuality. This set off a fire-storm of criticisms and legislation across the country. WBC members often claimed they were threatened or even assaulted at funerals. Some of the cases proved to be true, including one incident in Arizona where two members were nearly run-down by a distraught mourner. By 2010 however many people began to believe the alleged assaults were nothing more than publicity stunts. WBC went on to protest at the funerals of Michael Jackson, an LDS Prophet, Steve Jobs, and the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting.
In 2014 Fred Phelps died of natural causes. Many people feel his successor is not as radical which they hope will lead to a decline in the church’s activities. This is probably wishful thinking as Phelps himself was never the driving force behind the church’s protests. WBC members are motivated by a very strict ideology that transcends personal boundaries. As long as there are members with such devotion, the Westboro Baptist Church will persevere as will their colorful signs.
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