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News The curious case of people's reaction to the Westboro Baptist Church

  1. Oct 31, 2009 #1
    The westboro baptist church recently completed a tour of protests in New Jersey (where I live). For those of you who aren't familiar with the WBC, they are an infamous group with a hyper-calvinist view point consisting of Fred Phelps and members of his extended family. They are not a mainstream religious organization. They basically believe that homosexuality is some kind of unique sin, and that it's acceptance in any form (including not believing homosexuals should be put to death) is an irredeemable sin. Through a convoluted logic, this has lead to them to hate everyone and everything except for themselves (and possibly Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, according to their website.) They are infamous for staging protests of all sorts of things like military funerals, disaster sites, and random high schools. Recently they have adopted a streak of anti-semitism.

    The point of this post is not about the group, but about how people respond to them. Doing a little research, it appears Fred Phelps first got the idea for these protests when he erected an anti-gay sign in a park. The public outcry was great, and this apparently lead him to believe he was on the right track. He gained further notoriety when his church was featured in the documentary "The Laramie Project" about the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man from Wyoming who was apparently murdered due to his sexual orientation. They then went on protest school productions of the play based on the documentary, and really came into the public eye when they starting protesting the funerals of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to their views, there are a limited number of people who are saved, and these people are those who preach the word of the gospel as they see it. Their goal is not so much to convert people as it is to fulfill what they think is their duty to tell everyone else they are damned.

    They meet with furious counter-protests. The interesting aspect of this, is that they take this as confirmation of their beliefs. They pretty much subscribe to the philosophy that no publicity is bad publicity. Thus it seems the more people protest them, the greater lengths they go to be offensive and absurd.

    Some anti-hate groups such as the ADL have realized this, and have advised people just to ignore them. Yet around here, people were almost excited by the prospect of their visit, taking off from school and work to go to large counter-protests with an almost festive atmosphere. Many people are motivated by saying they can't be silent in the face of such hate. Yet for the people I talked to, it seemed like it was more of "let's go have some fun yelling at freaks" mentality. Note I am only referring to their recent trips in New Jersey, not the Biker group who blocked them from site at their funeral protests. Thinking about the dimensions of how to deal with such a group, it is a complex question. On the one hand, protesting gives them exactly what they want, and ensures they will continue. On the other hand, to those who oppose their agenda, they serve as "useful idiots." They are so despised that their advocacy for their causes actually hurt it, which they don't care about obviously because of their pre-destination view point.

    It is an interesting and bizarre phenomenon. I guess the question I'm pondering is whether the greater good is served by making an example of such people by means of the loud opposition, or just ignoring them entirely.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 31, 2009 #2


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    My mom went to one of their protests with a "Go Yankees" sign. It makes perfect sense. You want to demonstrate that the vast majority of people don't agree with their point of view via a show of force, but there's no specific reason to attempt to counter their "argument". Nobody really needs to be told that you shouldn't kill jews or gays. So why not deliver a message people in the area actually care about?
  4. Oct 31, 2009 #3


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    I don't see any problem if widespread opposition makes the WBC more radical. The more radical they become, the less appealing they'll be to the public and the less converts they'll get. The WBC hasn't resorted to violence yet, so there's no need to destroy the group; ostracizing them is good enough.
  5. Oct 31, 2009 #4
  6. Nov 2, 2009 #5
    Every group has extremists and it pains me that these guys have to call themselves any kind of Baptist or Christian.
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