Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Most Hated Family in America

Louis Theroux tried to work his faux naïve magic on the members of the Westboro Baptist Church on BBC2 the other night, but failed to find any trace of humanity or deep-buried sanity within The Most Hated Family in America.

There are religious nuts, and there are religious nuts, and then there is the family of Fred Phelps. They travel across America to picket the funerals of US soldiers, shouting at mourning mothers that God has killed their sons to avenge the country’s tolerance of homosexuality.

“God hates fags”, they encouraged their seven-year old daughter to shout from the roadside, as justifiably angered passers-by hurled abuse back at them.



Ben said...

I saw bits and pieces of that.

I thought one of the most shocking bits was the way the teenage girl laughed and grinned when she told Louis he was going to burn in hell for having premarital sex!

The glee on her face was unbelievable. It wasn't a mad look as if she was plotting the downfall of the human race, but it was as if she had just met her favourite pop star and he was all that she'd dreamt about.

Adelephant said...

It was particularly upsetting that the youngest children didn't really understand what it was all about, but stood on the roadside with extremely offensive placards being insulted by strangers. I couldn't help wanting to rescue them before they became like their siblings and parents. Surely this is a form of child abuse.

Harry Eagar said...

I've seen worse, where the kid got killed.

A kindly view of Phelps might be that he is crazy and the particular expression of his craziness comes not from him but from mainstream Christianity.

I suppose there are other ways of looking at him.

My younger daughter had a school friend whose father was a crazy man whose expression also took the form of religion.

In his case, militant vegetarianism and keeping his wife and daughters socially islolated, though not his sons.

I damn near slugged him once. Wish I had now.

The older girl, completely unprepared to live in the real world, left home and got herself beaten to a pulp, raped and thrown in the Charles River to drown.

I blame religion.

martpol said...

On a lighter note, I was heartily amused by one particular sign borne aloft by the nutters: it had a silhouette depiction of gay sex with the word "Coastguard" beneath. No context, no explanation. I expect the coastguard had been rescuing too many of those damn soldiers.

Brit said...

I thought the funniest bit was when Louis was examining the sign workshop.

They pulled out signs damning such random figures as Desmond Tutu and Martina Navratilova.

"How do you choose which people to use? There's no logic to it" protested Louis mildly.

Then they found the Princess Diana one.

"Why would you protest against a dead Princess?"

"She's a fag enabler" said the nut.

"I can't believe I'm seeing this" said Louis.

Mark said...

Harry Eagar

"I blame religion."

Phew that's profound and radical. Or is it just dumb and expressive of a lazy and shallow mind?

Blaming religion for the Phelps is more idiotic than blaming chicken farming for creating Himmler. At least his failure in that business might have sparked what he became.

The reason they are so utterly foul is inherent in their uniqueness. They are sui generis. If religion had caused their way of thinking there would be billions like them around the world and no commisioning editor would be in the slightest bit interested in a Louis Theroux going to make a programme about them.

Hey Skipper said...


According to the Bible or the Q'uran, just what does God think of faqs?

Brit said...


You are right in essence, I think, and it's true that Harry blames religion if his soup goes cold. He is neither a lazy nor a shallow thinker however - even his worse enemies admit to that. And indeed, I find it is generally unwise to open arguments with such personal accusations, they can only backfire if inaccurate or be futile if accurate.


I don't really see how that is relevant. If anything, it proves that religion works against fag-bashing. We all know that you can justify absolutely everything with Bible-literalism, therefore it must be religion - in this case moderate Christianity - that decrees that the Phelps family are unacceptable.

Hey Skipper said...


I don't really see how that is relevant.

I don't see how you can find that that anything but relevant.

Both the Bible and the Q'uran are uambiguously explicit regarding God's opinion of homosexuals.

That makes it a matter of religion, as Harry says.

That the Phelps are uniquely the most hated family in America is indicative of how many people take their religion seriously, not how serious religion is: moderate Christianity is a good example of unwitting self-mockery.

Religion directs fag-bashing. Reason demands otherwise.

Harry Eagar said...

I read a lot of true crime books. One thing that strikes me again and again is how often moderate jerks who would have gone through life doing nothing much worse than being jerks match up with a particularly simpatico other jerk and together they commit the most atrocious crimes -- things neither would have gotten into on his own.

Same with Phelps. He might have been a creep, but he would not have been an anti-homosexual creep without 2,000 years of Christian bigotry behind him.

As for Skipper's take, it would be interesting to quiz a Christian to find out how, exactly, they think Phelps is worse than them. Calling homosexuality a sin is the predicate action. How you act out is a detail.

David said...

Which is exactly why atheism is directly responsible for 100 million murders in the 20th century. How you guys can associate with such a murderous ideology is beyond me.

Harry Eagar said...

Atheism existed before the 20th c. without causing any number of deaths. What you are trying to blame is an odd ideology (Jewish, according to the best conservative minds of the time, too) that adopted atheism among a raft of other beliefs.

Blaming atheism for the murders in, eg, Russia makes no more sense than blaming electricity, inasmuch as Stalin said that communism was electricity plus Marxism.

Blaming religion for antihomosexual intolerance is a different matter.

Although Christians who concentrate on the NT for their doctrine can properly decide to be tolerant of homosexuality without challenging their holy book, the same cannot be said of Christians who include the OT in their divine repertory.

Also, it is not at all clear that the Phelpses are hated because they are intolerant of homosexuals. It appears to me that they are hated because of the way they are intolerant.

I believe that their opinions about homosexuality as such are shared by a majority of Americans and they are certainly shared by a majority of American Christians.

Mark said...


"I find it is generally unwise to open arguments with such personal accusations"

Point taken. Sorry, thought I was in the pub there for a second. And apologies to Harry for 'tackling the man rather than the ball'. And it is a bloody big ball too, pumped up as it is with an extraordinary amount of hyperbole.

We can all define any philosophy/belief/religion/what have you by its most extreme representation but, if where honest, we know it doesn't really tell us what the day to day reality of any of them are. I might point out Kirov, Beria, Streicher and Pol Pot as being examples of atheism, but I don't believe that Harry, Hey Skipper or the generality of atheists are like them.

Brit said...


I've long held that Christianity as practised by the vast majority of Christians has only a nodding acquaintance with the literal content of the Bible. It has to, since the Bible says everything and nothing and literalism is impossible. But I would still call Christianity as it is practised a 'religion'.

Therefore, I can't consistently make accusations against that religion based on what the Bible says. Deeds are what count.

The Christians are the mourners at the soldier's funeral, being shouted at by the nuts.

Peter Burnet said...


Do you blame libertarianism for the militia nuts in rural Montana?

BTW, you two continue to repeat the fallacy that the Old Testament condemned homosexuality. Notwithstanding Jimmy Carter's thinking he committed adultery in his heart, the law was about actions, not states of mind or hormonal predispositions. The sin is sodomy, not homosexuality, and I think your objection has more to do with a religion that commands sexual urges be sublimated. It wasn't exactly party time for the heteros.

Obviously there were very good material reasons for that prohibition. I know Skipper feels strongly that a loving god would have given the ancient Israelites clean water, but condoms too?

Hey Skipper said...

This isn't an argument about the existence of some god, but rather the effect of religion upon actions.

That is, the impact of the religious impulse itself, the argument from certainty in the complete absence, or even direct contradiction, of evidence.
The predations of communism and nazism are the consequences of the religious impulse, which is not reliant upon god or an afterlife. I trust you would not deny Buddhism is a religion, despite it being devoid of any god.

Atheism is not responsible for those murders of which you speak, the religious impulse is. Just as the religious impulse is esponsible for the Taliban, and the Islamist impulse to rule the world while killing as many khafirs as they can manage.

The Christians are the mourners at the soldier's funeral, being shouted at by the nuts.

The mourners may or may not be Christians, but the nuts most certainly are; truer, more knowledgeable believers would be very difficult to find. There are a great many ambiguities in the Bible, but the proscriptions against homosexuality aren't among them.

The Phelps are on very firm scriptural ground, as is Orrin when he insists that homosexuals should be burned to death, as are all the Christian sects who insist that homosexuality is evil by definition.

That conclusion is glaringly immoral, and impossible to reach without scripture.

Mark said...


I see we have now reached the point where any bad actions can be put down to the "religious impulse".

I'm sorry, it won't wash. You ask us to acknowledge that Buddhism is a religion even though it is true, as you stated, that it has no god. Well yes it is and the "murderous atheism" mentioned isn't no matter how much you might wish to pin the tag on. The first acknowledges and deals in the metaphysical realm and acknowledges the concept of what, in Abrahamic religions, would be called the soul. The second doesn't

Brit said...


As Theroux pointed out to them, gays aren't even mentioned in the Ten Commandments.

The best they could come up with was "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

They might be the "truest, most knowledgeable believers" if it is possible to coherently base a belief system entirely and exclusively on a couple of selected sentences from the OT. But that ain't Christianity.

The Phelps schtick may be a religion, but it's not The Religion. Christianity is based, imperfectly, on the gist of the New Testament, which is Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbour.

America is a very religious country, and they are the Most Hated Family in it.

Mark said...

Actually, talking of Buddhism, it has always intrigued me how the Dalai Lama gets a free pass on the homosexuality, abortion and contraception front. On the first his position is more 'conservative' than the Vatican. On the second it is the same, and on the third only slightly more liberal.

Is it because he is exotic; non-Western and smiles a lot?

David said...

Mark: It's because he's powerless.

All: In a world in which the excesses of Communism are also the fault of religion -- where, indeed, all religions are morally responsible for the excesses of all other religions -- it is child's play to show that the Buddhists do, in fact, have a god (a person who achieves Buddha nature is godlike for any non-Judeo-Christian purpose).

Also, you all might want to consider the fact that it is very difficult to tease a condemnation of lesbianism out of the Torah, though people have tried. (Which reminds me of a great, though almost certainly apocryphal story: it seems that for a long while male homosexual acts were outlawed in Britain but lesbianism wasn't because they couldn't convince Queen Victoria that any women would actually do that.)

Adelephant said...

Buddhists do have something to say about homosexuality, abortion and contraception, albeit indirectly. One of the five precepts is to refrain from sexual misconduct. Since Buddhists are advised to avoid sensual pleasures, most sexual acts would come under this umbrella (presumably procreation would not). Monks are forbidden any sexual activity (the Buddha had to list every possible one).

It is up to the individual to take the precepts, but if one does, then presumably abortion and contraception are not an issue.

Adelephant said...

"...it is child's play to show that the Buddhists do, in fact, have a god (a person who achieves Buddha nature is godlike for any non-Judeo-Christian purpose)."

There are gods in Buddhism, but they were reborn as gods because of their karma. Eventually, this karma runs out, and they are reborn again in another form. I believe that the Buddha said something about the gods not creating the universe, but that they just think they did.

I don't think that you can equate an enlightened individual to a god - that sort of goes against the whole point of it.

Peter Burnet said...

Following up David's point about there being no prohibition against lesbianism, you may also want to consider that hetero sodomy is also condemned.

David, I'm not 100% sure, but I don't think that story is apocryphal

Harry Eagar said...

It's the Westboro BAPTIST Church.

And the church's faxes to me quote scripture.

So I think Christianity is involved somehow.

One difference between atheist (or even Christian) socialism and Christianity is that socialism does not have a divine instruction book.

If Marxists decide to club togther and feed Christians to the lions, that's just an opinion, which can be (and was often) reversed on a mere political calculation.

The religious impulse is entirely different. You guys are making a big difference of the various interpretations of sacred text, while ignoring the great unifying principle: Thou shalt not hold an opinion different from the Big Spook's.

Phelps is no less a Christian than the other Christians. God gave him his marching orders and he is following them faithfully.

And, it appears, he is beyond argument because he is strong in his faith, calling to mind the greatest statement in English of the antireligous position: 'Gentlemen, I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think you may be mistaken!'

Oddly, from that firm Christian, O.Cromwell.

David said...

Now I'm confused. Harry, I thought that you and Jeff were arguing that Communism is a religion so that "religion" -- an artificial construct if there ever was one -- could be responsible for the 20th century.

In your hypothetical, though, Communists are like Mohammad Atta visiting a strip club. They're only pretending in order to achieve their long-term objective.

adelephant: I wasn't trying to make a statement about Buddhist (for lack of a better word) theology, something I am sorely ill-equipped to do. Rather, I was trying to say that it is no more of a stretch to say that Buddhism has gods as to say that Communism is a religion rather than a political ideology.

In any event, if our general topic is "religion" we have to make room for the pagans and the Dharmites.

Peter Burnet said...

So Harry, is your rational, secular objection to slavery just a matter of opinion that can be reversed on a political calculation?

Brit said...

It's CALLED the Westboro BAPTIST Church, but it is in fact very obviously a personality cult of Fred Phelps.

You can watch the programme on Youtube if you like, starting here:


Harry Eagar said...

I have never agreed that communism is a religion, though it has many features in common. My position is that 'religion' should be saved for concepts dependent on a Big Spook, for reasons that are described in my last post.

Objections to slavery -- extremely difficult to find these in religion, by the way -- can obviously be reversed on a mere political calculation. It happened over and over in the 20th c.

However, a belief, faith or commitment (whatever you want to call it) to the worth of humans as individuals would make it impossible to rationalize slavery, whatever its social utility. Another point against religion, which has always found it very easy to defend slavery.

I won't repeat my lecture about the distinction between personal antislavery and moral antislavery. It is an historical fact, though, that moral antislavery never appeared until previously religious societies began to carve out secular preserves.

Christianity values the individual, it's true, but more after he's dead.


Off topic, but I will shortly venture in realms where there are no Internet connections for a few weeks. When I return, I'll be a grandfather at last.

A little boy named Bertram. Tricia and I are very excited.

David said...

Mazel Tov.

Brit said...

Congratulations, Harry.

Hey Skipper said...

Well yes [Buddhism is a religion] and the "murderous atheism" mentioned isn't no matter how much you might wish to pin the tag on.

I'm not the only one. In "Road to Serfdom" F.A. Hayek compares communism to religious belief. So does The God that Failed. Also, The Triumph of the West, which asserts Christianity played an indispensable role in the formation of Western Civilization, terms Communism one of the great (i.e., large or significant) religions. As well, a month or so ago, the Wall Street Journal reviewed a new book (sorry, can't remember the title) of 20th century history whose thesis was that comprehending the 20th century is impossible without acknowledging that communists and nazis acted precisely as religious believers, and referred to communism and nazism as "non-sacred religions".

There is no functional difference between the monotheistic religions and Communism or Nazism. They all include:

-- revealed texts
-- a paternalistic deity figure
-- argument solely or principally from authority
-- a priesthood
-- the desire to establish a moral code
-- exclusionary moral communities
-- sectarian conflict
-- hostility towards competing religions

Neither a god nor an afterlife is a pre-requisite for religion. Scientology doesn't have the former, and Judaism need not include the latter. Additionally, insisting that communism is not a form of religion founders the moment a particular instance of communism takes the cult of personality one step further and converts humans into gods, as the Norks have done with Kim il Sung and Kim Jong il.

Focussing on whether the paternalistic deity figure is human or supernatural amounts to staring at one particular tree while ignoring the whole rest of the forest. Worse, doing so lets sacred religions off a hook they have fashioned for themselves. Communism managed to have industrial means of murder at its disposal, but to suggest that somehow communism had uniquely murderous intent or consequences is to ignore even recent history: the partition of India in the late 1940s, or the ongoing sectarian slaughter in Iraq.


I thought that you and Jeff were arguing that Communism is a religion so that "religion" -- an artificial construct if there ever was one -- could be responsible for the 20th century.
Not quite. I'm arguing that there is a class of belief to which the term religious applies that doesn't need a supernatural entity to exist, and that the bureaucratic instantiation of that belief constitutes a religion. Further, I'm asserting that the behavior of a religion has little, or nothing, to do with whether its paternalistic deity figure is supernatural.


The Phelps are on very sound theological ground, some of it very firmly entrenched in the New Testament. There is no way, from within the context of religion, to demonstrate their wrongheadedness.

Yes, I'm sure the appropriate versifying could prove exactly the opposite. But that isn't my point. Rather, it is that demonizing a specific group of people -- the Jews are another example -- always requires religion.



David said...

Jeff: If we're going to draw the boundaries that loosely, then atheism or Darwinism are even more clearly religions. The Communists, after all, claimed that their ideology was a science.

Sodomy is a sin, just like a bunch of other things are sins. The Phelps don't picket BBQs and hold up signs saying that G-d hates pigeaters. Also, one of the great moral triumphs of western civilization is individual morality. While from time to time G-d condemns whole nations, we are only to judge individuals for their own sins. The Phelps' religion is theological nonsense. If we wanted to be theological right back, I'd say that the Phelps are sinners for taking onto themselves G-d's role.

It's too bad, though, that we've been dragged down this cul de sac of "religion" being to blame. There are other interesting questions. Why haven't they been beaten to a pulp? What about the majority view that confuses members of the American military with Christian soldiers? How tolerant can we be without losing are exceptional nature?

Brit said...


Yes, it says in the Bible that sodomy is wrong. It doesn't say that this overrides every other concern in human affairs. It says a whole lot of other stuff is wrong too.

The Phelpses spend their time picketing mourners at the funerals of soldiers, on the grounds that America tolerates homosexuals, therefore God killed the soldiers to punish them for fighting for a country that tolerates homosexuals, therefore it is Right to spend all your time and money travelling the country to hurl abuse at the mourning mothers of those soldiers.

Show me where it says that lot in the Good Book.

Peter Burnet said...

Harry and Skipper hate religion, but they agree completely with Phelps as to what it entails and get as indignant as he if anyone disagrees.

Harry Eagar said...

'Show me where it says that lot in the Good Book.'

Just a matter of emphasis. I come from snake-handlin', poison-drinkin' Christianity country. That comes from the Bible.

Not too many people outside east Tennessee interpret the sacred word as instructions to play with rattlesnakes, but it's in there if you want to find it.

Hey Skipper said...


The Communists, after all, claimed that their ideology was a science.

A claim does not reality make. The distance between the two can be measured in one word: Lysenko.

I didn't draw the boundaries the least bit loosely. Argument from authority, and the desire to establish a moral code (among other criteria) clearly delineate religious belief.

Sodomy is a sin.


Absent religious strictures -- the word "sin" is a red flag here -- religion is very much to blame, as there seems to be vanishingly few material reasons to heap moral opprobrium upon homosexuals.

If we wanted to be theological right back, I'd say that the Phelps are sinners for taking onto themselves G-d's role.

The Phelps are no more taking onto themselves G-d's role than any number of Biblical prophets.

Their claims are nonsense. They are vile. But there is no way from within the Bible that you can get to that conclusion. Okay, I'm sorry. There are as many ways within the Bible to come to that firm conclusion as its exact opposite.

That's as may be. Our reaction to the Phelps is formed by reason, not Biblical citations.


The Phelpses spend their time picketing mourners at the funerals of soldiers, on the grounds that America tolerates homosexuals, therefore God killed the soldiers ...

Thereby playing the role of contemporary prophets, with all sorts of Biblical precedent.

David said...

Jeff: The idea of a false prophet is very much a biblical one. Sodomy is a sin because G-d said it was; which is, of course, the only reason that anything is a sin. Your definition of religion is ludicrously over broad, now encompassing anything a person believes that she hasn't proven herself starting from first principles.

Hey Skipper said...


Sodomy is a sin because G-d said it was; which is, of course, the only reason that anything is a sin.

Nonsense. But it does make my point that it takes religion to demonize entire groups of people.

Your revealed text says G-d said so, which makes it true because the text says its true.

That circularity is bad enough; worse is that it leaves you in the clutches of all the other revealed text circularities.

Muslims will rule the earth, because G-d says so.

And Jews are the sons of pigs, because G-d says so.

I very much doubt your are willing to accept the last two assertions merely because some revealed text says G-d said so.

Which hardly leaves you in the position of using one revealed text to define sin while ignoring the clearly divine diktats of another revealed text.

Never mind that puts in you in league with the Phelps: sodomites are inherently an abomination in the eyes of G-d, and must be killed outright.

That is, after all, what G-d said, isn't it?

Your definition of religion is ludicrously over broad, now encompassing anything a person believes that she hasn't proven herself starting from first principles.

First off, what I provided was a list of characteristics, not a definition.

Second, "believing something one hasn't proven from first principles" is either a red herring, or an unfortunate misunderstanding.

While you haven't proven the Theory of Relativity from first principles, I presume you afford it some factual authority for any number of reasons.

One of them being the clear expectation that you could, with enough effort, avail yourself of the relevant first principles, and arrive at precisely the same conclusions at did Einstein.

In stark contrast to a revealed text, where there are no first principles to be had.

E.g.: it is a sin because our book says G-d says it is a sin.

Unless argument from authority has suddenly become a first principle, you must surely acknowledge the difference between the Theory of Relativity and anything in the Bible.

David said...

Ah, I forgot. You make exceptions for your religion.

As for what the Muslims believe, I think that they're wrong and they think that I'm wrong. So what?

Hey Skipper said...


What exception?

As for what the Muslims believe, I think that they're wrong and they think that I'm wrong. So what?

Since when have you become a moral relativist?

David said...

What relativism? They're wrong.