How Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptists Are Christians, Explained

God is love, right? It's sort of a cornerstone of the Christian faith: He "so loved the world" that He gave his son Jesus up to save us all. And if God is love, then a sociopath who pickets dead soldiers with a "God Hates Fags" sign can't really be Christian, right? Well, the answer is complicated.

Fred Phelps is dead. The founder of Westboro Baptist Church, the litigious head of this hateful community, will soon be in the ground, and the media consensus is to be joyful and happy for the misery of a hate group that brought so much misery to others.

In the longstanding furor over their reprehensible tactics—a furor I, too, have indulged in over the years—few commentators have ever taken a moment to come to grips with the WBC's theological foundations. That's a shame, because WBC's belief system is intellectually consistent in many ways that the "mainstream" religious right is not. And it's based in a uniquely American theology as old as the colonies—a Christian paradigm that's influenced our culture in myriad respects, but is seldom addressed by anyone but its most devoted adherents.

The broad theology of WBC can be summed up in one basic statement:

Everybody sucks.

Only awful, terrible, despicable, depraved people would cause a political hatemongering ruckus at a funeral or an elementary school. That's absolutely true. The thing is, the faithful of Westboro Baptist Church would be the first to claim that they're depraved—and so is everyone else. This is the bedrock of their belief system, laid out on their website:

These doctrines of grace were well summed up by John Calvin in his 5 points of Calvinism... Although these doctrines are almost universally hated today, they were once loved and believed, as you can see in many confessions of faith. Even though the Arminian lies that "God loves everyone" and "Jesus died for everyone" are being taught from nearly every pulpit in this generation, this hasn't always been the case. If you are in a church that supposedly believes the Bible, and you are hearing these lies, then your church doesn't teach what the Bible teaches.

Primitive Baptists

It sounds pretty outrageous to an outsider, but there's a lot going on here. Technically, WBC falls under the umbrella of Primitive Baptists. During the Second Great Awakening in early 19th century America, there was a rift among Baptists over how much missionary work they should do. Newly energized Baptists wanted to spread the good news everywhere, and to form temperance unions, Sunday schools, and other missions familiar to us today.

But some conservative Baptists disagreed. They felt that missionary works were wrong for two reasons: First, they represented manmade institutions that distracted people from the Lord's authority. Second, they found it pointless, because they believed in the five main tenets of Calvinism, including predestination—the idea that an omnipotent God must know already who is saved and who is damned, and so your eternal fate is already determined.

As a result of the split, the conservative Baptists began to start their own ministries, identifying as "primitive" or "original" Baptists whose doctrines were closer to God and further from man.

"Five-Point Calvinism"

When people talk about the teachings of the early Protestant theologian John Calvin, they usually fuss over predestination. But he offered four other tenets of the faith that are no less controversial; together they make up the "five points" referenced by WBC:

  • The total depravity of man. This one is everything: Human beings' default mode is damnation (thanks, Adam and Eve). We are not merely headed for damnation, though: We are depraved, alienated from God and goodness and unable to return to goodness by yourselves. In short, humans without salvation are all irredeemably terrible. Does that sound bleak? Well, that's the way it is, according to Calvinists.
  • Unconditional election. This is the predestination thing. God in His omniscience and in his mercy will save some of you. He already knows whom He will save, and he's not doing it because you're nice or funny or pretty, but because He can. Deal with it.
  • Limited atonement. Jesus died to save some people. But not all people. Just the ones God has elected. You can't atone for you sins, and maybe Jesus can't, either, because at the end of the day, maybe God heard your prayers and Jesus', and said "Yeeeeeeeeeeah no."
  • Irresistible grace. How do you know if God has saved you? Oh, you'll know. Because he'll touch you with grace, and you won't be able to refuse. No matter what a dirty philandering murderous gay Episcopalian you may be, God might save you, and you will heed His call, because that's how He rolls.
  • Perseverance of the saints. Once you go saved, you never go back. Here's the thing about an omniscient God: If He's elected you for salvation, you're getting saved, even if you keep being a dirty philandering murderous gay Episcopalian. That's just how grace works. No takebacks!

Basically, five-point Calvinism boils down to: There's a God who saves some people and screws the rest over for eternity, and there's nothing you can really do about it. If there were, He wouldn't be God, and you wouldn't be a depraved, terrible not-God quivering mass of id urges.

If God really is all powerful in that way, then your good works here really count for nothing. (Although, based on the tenet of irresistible grace, it's considered highly likely that you have God's grace if you suddenly find yourself hating sin and loving the Lord.)

It sounds like a bleak nasty business, doesn't it? As the old Presbyterian joke goes (Presbyterians still take the Calvinist points quite seriously): "God has answered your prayers. The answer is no."

And that's just WBC's point: It's a harsh teaching for a harsh world, distinct from the hopeful Arminianism of most modern churches.

Arminianism

All you need to know here is that Jacobus Arminius, another Protestant Reformer, taught doctrines that diverged slightly but importantly from Calvin's. the main difference was that Arminius wasn't cool with the "limited atonement" idea: Sure, God can save whom He wants, but the idea that he doesn't want to save everyone, or at least make it possible to save everyone, just didn't make much sense to Arminius.

Instead, Arminianism teaches that God's saving grace is available for all, and there's a little more space in there for free will. This is the bedrock of what we in America, churched and unchurched, generally refer to as Christianity—the "Jesus loves you" Christianity of modern Baptists, Methodists, and the like.

Which is great—except for Five Point Calvinists, who are represented in the mainstream U.S. today by Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian and Primitive Baptist churches. They see Arminianism as intellectually inconsistent wishful thinking.

You can see now how this dovetails with WBC's beliefs—basically, that Christianity today has gotten away from its harsh reminders of the differences between man and God, and has essentially been taken over by secular, manmade hopes and fears and beliefs. WBC sees its job as shocking people into the recognition that most of what passes for niceness and faithfulness in the U.S. is nothing of the sort.

Obviously, not all Calvinists are going around being obnoxious pricks at funerals, though. There is, ironically, a cultishness among WBC members that suggests they've become exactly the sort of secularized mission the original Primitive Baptists hated. But hey, that's how the Phelps clan interprets limited atonement.

Consistency

Have you ever wondered why religious conservatives focus on the sin of homosexuality over, say, God's condemnation of mixing cottons and wools in one outfit? Here's where WBC is at least more consistent than most right-wing religious agitators in America today.

Obviously the church is, at least in terms of public rhetoric, monomaniacally obsessed with homosexuality in a singularly cruel and psychotic way. But if you look past that front—which is as much a function of public relations savvy as theology or run-of-the-mill bigotry—you will see that they also profess to hate everyone else equally, too:

We adhere to the teachings of the Bible, preach against all form of sin (e.g., fornication, adultery [including divorce and remarriage], sodomy), and insist that the sovereignty of God and the doctrines of grace be taught and expounded publicly to all men.

You're straight? Not a fornicator? Married and faithful? Good for you. But you're still damned, because somewhere along the way you fuck up and sin, in ways large and small. Remember, you're totally depraved—that is the defining attribute of your humanity!

But WBC's public to-do takes a more focused, expedient approach to provoking spectators. It capitalizes on what's already hot, and hot-button, in American culture: gays and 9/11, mostly, because these are the topics that gain them maximum exposure and evoke the most visceral response from viewers. Or as they put it, engaging "in daily peaceful sidewalk demonstrations opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth."

At the end of the day, being consistent in the limited way they're consistent is enough for the WBC clan. Most of us, though—Christian or otherwise—see that sort of consistency as heinous. Make of it all what you will. I mean, they're still a bunch of folks who call gays "fags" at funerals.

The important thing is that there's a theology behind this. Sincere or not, WBC and its members are part of a far-reaching religious heritage in America. They are, strictly speaking, Christian. That doesn't mean they're nice, or not a cult, or even saved from hell, if you believe in that sort of thing.

So fear not: You can still call them hateful douchebags. After all, you're totally depraved, too!

[Photo credit: AP]