The fag end of America

The gay-bashing Phelps family in Louis Theroux's latest exploration of 'weird America' is a cranky fringe group that reveals nothing about the US.

Dolan Cummings

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In the liberal imagination, American right-wing Christianity is intimately bound up with patriotism and militarism. It is disconcerting, then, to see Christian zealots picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, with placards declaring, ‘God hates America’ and ‘Thank God for 9/11’.

In last night’s BBC2 documentary The Most Hated Family In America, Louis Theroux visited the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas – a tiny church dominated by a single family, the Phelps. The pastor Fred Phelps, known to his followers as Gramps, looks just like the scary pastor ghost from Poltergeist II, and seems similarly unhinged. While an obsession with ‘the gays’ is not unusual in contemporary churches, Gramps seems to have reduced the entire Christian message to the distinctly unbiblical notion that ‘God hates fags’. His daughter Shirley, who runs things on a day-to-day basis, concedes that there is more to Christianity, but explains that this is the ‘front-burner issue’.

Since America has collectively affirmed that it is okay to be gay, God has condemned the entire nation, and duped President Bush into going to war in Iraq so that he can pick off ‘fag troops’ (for God’s purposes, the term includes ‘fag enablers’ – those who tolerate the gays – as well as the gays themselves). Even as explanations for the war in Iraq go, this one is pretty out there, and unsurprisingly, the church’s pickets of funerals are met with incredulity and downright hostility by passing drivers.

The Phelps meet the stereotype of religion as weirdly irrational, insanely dogmatic and feverishly sex-obsessed. They could be pin-ups for people who hate religion and consider it a threat to civilised society. It is telling, then, that they are so directly at odds with mainstream American values. Thus, they blow apart another stereotype. The Phelps don’t represent the heartland of America railing against the coastal liberal elite: they are dead set against America itself.

One driver passing a funeral picket feels obliged to concede that he doesn’t ‘agree with the [gay] lifestyle’, while remonstrating with the picketers, but he is in no doubt that it is the picketers’ behaviour that is disgusting. Indeed, what seems to animate the church’s hate is the realisation that even though many Americans claim to disapprove of ‘the gay lifestyle’, in reality they are indifferent, and when they will ultimately side with ‘fags’ against God. The Phelps are outraged by the discovery that the great bulk of American right-wing Christians don’t fit the stereotype their own tiny church so faithfully represents. Thus they have no interest in winning souls for Jesus; they just want to tell Americans that they are going to Hell.

Theroux’s title is apt then: Americans hate the Phelps more than they hate fags. But in fact ‘hate’ is probably a bit strong. How can you hate people so far out on the fringe as to represent nothing? We see clips of the funeral pickets being covered on American TV networks, but this is a story that’s hard to blow out of proportion. It’s not a movement sweeping America, nor a hidden epidemic of hate; it’s about a very small group of people with a mad idea. It is a resolutely eccentric story.

Louis Theroux has long specialised in this sort of thing, famously in his ‘weird weekends’ series, in which he visited various political cranks and sexual weirdos. But the Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t even represent a subculture, and Theroux is probably right to conclude that the whole thing stems from Gramps’s personal hatred of the world. While Theroux gets on with the rest of the family, and especially the disarmingly normal young women, there is palpable friction during his brief interviews with the patriarch. The old man hates Theroux, too.

For his part, Theroux worries about the psychological effects of the church’s activities on the youngest children, who join the pickets and hold placards without having any idea what they mean. The teenage girls say they are unlikely to get married, explaining when pushed that they are dedicated to God’s word. But I got the sense that their incredulity when Theroux asked about this revealed a more prosaic understanding that nobody would want to marry into such an insane family.

Gramps won’t live forever, though, and I can’t see the church surviving long without its hateful pastor. To quote Shirley Phelps’s weirdly folksy response when asked if any of the soldiers killed in Iraq would go to Heaven: ‘Not a chance, poopy pants.’

Dolan Cummings is research and editorial director at the Institute of Ideas.

Previously on spiked

Dolan Cummings observed that Louis Theroux, in his documentary about a brothel in Nevada, could not articulate his objections to prostitution without insulting the prostitutes. He also argued that although the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was interpreted as evidence that Christianity is on the march in America, it was little more than a religious snuff movie. Frank Furedi examined the curious rise of anti-religious hysteria and Michael Fitzpatrick was repelled by Richard Dawkin’s polemic against religion. Or read more at: spiked issue Religion.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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