Westboro Baptist Church signs

The Westboro Baptist Church gained international notoriety for their over-the-top offensive messages and constant picketing.

When’s the last time you heard from the church of “God Hates Fags”? It’s probably been a while, and there’s a good reason for that. Everyone’s favorite extremist hate-mongers have been relatively dormant in recent years. So what happened?

It all started with the death of controversial founder Fred Phelps Sr. back in 2014. Many were sure the church would dissolve following Phelps’ death, given that his leadership was instrumental in their success and the majority of the congregation was comprised of his 13 children and their families.

A $10 million defamation judgment didn’t help things, though that was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Then came the publicity eclipse. Their media coverage in 2018 was just a quarter of what it was back in 2015.

The Westboro Baptist Church is indeed still around, though it has transformed into a much milder version of its former self. Members still embark on daily picketing campaigns throughout Kansas, and dozens of church-run social media accounts persistently spread the word about the sin of National Ice Cream Day and other grave societal ills.

Time in the Spotlight

Perhaps no single U.S. congregation enjoyed the kind of notoriety the Westboro Baptist Church built beginning in the 1990s, when its familial cadre of Topeka, Kansas followers stalked gay pride parades, federal courthouses and even military funerals.

The church’s tactics were simple enough: shock and outrage as many people as possible in order to get its venomous anti-gay message out – hence the infamous “Thank God for 9/11” and “God Hates Fags” picket sign slogans.

Softening the Message

Perhaps most intriguing has been church’s adoption of a more subtle and gentle tone. Westboro Baptists have always justified their anti-gay exhortations as “tough love.” According to member Shirley Phelps-Roper, this message was really “a great kindness”, designed to “get in their face and show them.”

New Westboro baptist church signs

WBC member displays some of the group’s new signs

But those days are gone (well, mostly – it should be noted that “godhatesfags.com” is still the group’s official website). Although the church still pickets consistently, their signs no longer feature venomous homophobic messages – instead invoking more positive ideas of Jesus, scripture and love. Nor are they so obsessed with gay people anymore. The WBC seems to spread the sins of the day around, expanding their reach beyond homosexuality to include divorce, remarriage, same-sex marriage and adultery.

“To the extent that we are given, from time to time and by the grace of God, better light on any piece of Scripture and how it speaks to the situations we see on the ground in the world, we are always only interested in preaching the truth of the Scripture,” explained new media relations head Steve Drain.

Tough to Compete in Today’s Media Landscape

As for why the church has chosen to retire the more incendiary picket signs, several competing theories have been offered. Losing their dogmatic leader was certainly part of it – it’s hard to hate the gays if your heart just isn’t in it. Another possibility is that they’ve decided to take their homophobia underground in an effort to appeal to a wider swath of Christians.

But perhaps the most likely explanation is that media attention is hard to come by these days. With the media primarily focused on bigger issues – whether it’s coverage of the White House, the latest mass shooting, or a cave rescue in Thailand – there simply isn’t enough room in the headlines for a bunch of gay-bashing Christians.

Once the cameras stopped showing up, maybe church leaders decided it just wasn’t worth it anymore.  The WBC may have once thrived on a shock doctrine of hateful speech, but its recent evolution is proof that even the most extreme groups are forced to tailor their messages when faced with decreasing membership and changing societal views.

Parents often advise their children that if they ignore the school bully, he will eventually lose interest. Perhaps there’s something to that method, after all.

 

53 comments

  1. Guairdean says:

    When the media went away, Fred Phelps legacy began to fail. If you want the full story, check here. http://www.skeptictank.org/hs/atohate.htm

  2. James says:

    Why was trump brought up? Why is this blog from a church and groups of minster s always dragging up the most political crap, the most divisive topics and always dragging up some sexual topic?come on everyone. Things are looking up, economy is doing good, hope for a brighter future is close. Why keep going to the gutter to find something to cry about things that have and will always go on. If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all. We would ask be happier if we ask for that.

    1. Dr. F350 says:

      what are you crying about, the article literally did not mention trump’s name a single time.

      1. Guairdean says:

        The ULC blog post about the story initially had this in bold. “Tough to Compete in the Age of Trump” It has since been changed. The email about the blog has the original version.

      2. John Owens says:

        There is a pic of Trump in the photo. Just saying.

        1. Donald Schmidt says:

          Good point John. Didn’t notice that.

        2. Kaye Dyer says:

          Why not? Everyone else’s picture have shown up on the WBC pickets.

    2. Joachim Rigor says:

      So are we going to John Lennonize this situation and say that Trump is more popular than Jesus?

      Like it or not, Donald Trump, for all of the fantasized good he is doing, he is a big part of the equation, and big part of the problem. He is NOT a man of God, nor is he a man who should be in charge of anything. If Christian Evangelists can justify supporting Donald Trump, the I can justify NOT supporting him. This is MY right as an American Citizen.

      1. Cathy says:

        How do you KNOW he is not a man of God or what’s in our President’s heart? How do you have the right to judge anyone?
        You are the typical HYPOCRITICAL “CHRISTIAN” I find abhorrent and why I left organized “religion” for a spiritual path of love and guidance by our Holy Trinity.

        1. Carol waldenburg says:

          Correct, we do not know what ANYONE’S relationship with God is like and we all are works in process – THANK GOD.

          1. Carol waldenburg says:

            Progress too!! 😉

        2. Donald Schmidt says:

          You know what’s “in his heart” by his deeds. ‘Nuff said.

          1. Cathy says:

            Then, Hooray for our President because he’s doing great things for America, Americans, the economy, military and our borders!!!
            MAGA!!!

          2. Donald Schmidt says:

            Obviously you are a Trump fan Cathy, but your statement about economy, military and borders has nothing to do with illustrating what’s in his heart concerning faith; his observable actions, however do. Sadly, you appear to have “drunk the cool aid” the Trump propaganda continues to distribute via press manipulation and Tweets. Your statement that “he’s doing great things for America” is not compatible with facts as the long term effects of his actions are yet to be seen. I, for one cannot agree with you to shout “Hooray” for a supposedly “Christian” man who:

            •Separates families and traumatizes/harms innocent children for years to come
            •Has had multiple marital affairs and paid hush money to cover them up
            •Continues to hire unqualified staff just to support his personal agenda without regard to propagating a scandalous presidency
            •Tolerates and actually defends corruption in his Cabinet
            •Sucks up to dictators while alienating allies, thus destabilizing world peace and democracy
            •Initiates a trade war that is now devastating farmers and hurting American companies such as GM
            •Prolifically tells lies and works hard to silence or discredit those who speak truth
            •Follows a dictator’s playbook by bullying and attacking individuals and the free press in an attempt to discredit them, vilify them and discourage transparency in what is supposed to be a democratic society
            •Publicly disparages American institutions such as the FBI and Justice Department to discredit them and obstruct justice to protect his own interests
            •Through word and deed, sets the example for hate groups and individuals to justify human and civil rights violations
            •Allowed Congress to pass a “tax break” that was a handout to the rich that will be paid for by the poor and middle class for years to come

            I could go on, but suffice to say that the above observable behavior is factual; not an opinion such as “he’s doing great things…” You, of course, may continue to propound many beliefs that are not compatible with facts – Trump does so daily. So if it’s ok for the Office of the President, I guess that makes it justifiable to follow his example.

            As is your Constitutional right, you are, of course, free to carry on shouting “Hooray” for Trump’s observable actions, statements, instability, lying, bullying, misogyny and narcissistic behavior and, yes, even his unknown beliefs.

            So, “Hooray” for you as you follow your “spiritual path of love and guidance by your Holy Trinity.” I just have to wonder which “Holy Trinity” you’re following.

          3. Cathy says:

            How naive are you? I suppose you supprted that half-white gay president and his tranny “wife”? That figures! Or how about the proven rapist Bill Clinton and Killery for making all women Bill abused the ones at fault!!! Or how about the Clinton Foundation who “plays for pay” and is the is front for child porn and human trafficking?? Our President is the one who is working to expose the TRUTH about these truly evil scum and you talk about ME drinking kook aid!! What an outstanding hypocrite you are!!
            Like you said. There is SO much more to be said but if you can (with a straight face) condemn President Trump and support the truly EVIL, than you are ONE OF THEM.
            Please no more pathetic response from you. I won’t waste any more of my time with the lost and ignorant.

          4. Dan Velez says:

            So sad that we have to involve politics in our discussion. What has happened to the separation of Church and State. I’m here for Church!! The only reason our current president was brought up was because of the picture that was posted above. Hopefully the moderators of this blog will be more careful in the future so we can avoid these political rants.

          5. Donald Schmidt says:

            As I suspected, you have proven my point about your “Christianity” with your latest racist, homophobic, inaccurate and hateful comments. I agree that this conversation is over as I cannot continue to hold a logical debate with someone whose logic is not based on facts. Buh-bye and remember, “Love Thy Neighbor.”

        3. Padre Obstato says:

          To run for public office, particularly the highest office in the land, is to voluntarily submit to the judgement of each and every individual voter.

      2. Dick Nigh says:

        Completely agree, Joachim.

      3. Donald Schmidt says:

        Dan…I agree that it’s sad we have to involve politics in our discussion. Respectfully though, the “political rant” was intended to be illustrative of non-Christian behavior that is so rampant in politics. Unfortunately, “Church and State” are intimately linked these days as politicians continue to use professions of faith as a means to obscure their non-Christian behavior. In the context of how religion is perverted for political gain, I think this content is fair game for this forum.

        1. Dan Velez says:

          Donald… there are many valid points on both sides, but ultimately a house divided will fall. “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand” Whether it’s the left wing or the right wing, they are both part of the same bird. If we are ever going to fly, then we must come together.

          I respectfully disagree that this is a proper forum to discuss politics. So far I’ve heard more conversation with the intent to divide as opposed to unify. The tone is of hatred, not from Love. Name calling which leads to fighting. What happened to agree to disagree? We as Clergy should be building up, not tearing down. “Where’s the Love?”

          When I attend Church, I want to be in a safe zone where we discuss what we have in common as human beings and how we can help one another. There are hundreds of forums on the internet to discuss politics and if it’s your calling to serve in politics, then please go there.

          1. Donald Schmidt says:

            Dan…It’s not so much about politics as it is about hypocrisy. I don’t think that factual information that lends credence to the premise that politicians and others use Christianity as a way to manipulate people and justify their actions should be considered “hateful” or un-Christian just because it is an opposing idea to another who is a professed Christian.

            Those who do not call out hypocrites, liars and non-Christian behavior — with politicians or any other person or organization — in my opinion, fail in a moral responsibility to do so and are therefore complicit in those activities. (“For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” Romans 10:10). So, I agree to disagree your on whether this forum is appropriate to discuss Christian values in politics.

            Also, I don’t think I called anyone a derogatory name, unless you’re referring to my characterization of Cathy as a “Trump supporter.” Or, perhaps, you’re referring to her calling me naive, a hypocrite and a supporter of evil who is lost and ignorant?

            In any case, I agree with you that a house divided will fall, but that analogy assumes that those who are in opposition reside in the same house. To extend your analogy, houses are built upon different foundations and if we see a neighbor building his or her house on a crumbling foundation, isn’t it the right thing to help them identify the cracks rather than to ignore the issue? I submit that that is “where the love is.” Yes, doing so may push you out of a “safe zone” because you might alienate someone who professes to be Christian but whose behavior is markedly contrary to Christ’s teaching. Sometimes that is necessary to live a truly Christian life.

            Obviously, some people profess to be Christians as a smoke screen to justify non-Christian behavior and are, therefore, not of the Body of Christ, but are actually harming the Body. So, I have no issue in calling them out publicly and, in fact, feel an obligation to do so. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (Matthew 5:29)”

            Concerning your request to share my thoughts on this topic in other forums, I’ll have to decline as I think that is actually a divisive suggestion. This is a discussion forum; not a Church where everyone holds the same views. So, in like response to your veiled admonition, I’d like to point out that there are also hundreds of forums on the internet to discuss religion and if it’s your calling to serve Christ by discussing scripture only in “safe zones,” where people hold your same views, then please go there.

    3. Donald Schmidt says:

      So…”If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all?” Basing happiness on that premise works only for those who prefer to remain ignorant of facts and abdicate responsibility to society. To ignore an obligation to criticize what is wrong in our society is to ignore moral responsibility and is exactly what powerful oppressors need to maintain their power. Calling criticism “crying” is just another strategic tool used to disparage and silence justified dissent. Silence certainly is not golden, except for those who hold all the gold.

      Remaining silent about immoral behavior antithetical to the great principals shared by all religions is not only unpatriotic and servile, but, as President Theodore Roosevelt said, “morally treasonable to the American public.” Of course, the principals I speak of are not embodied in behavior displayed by organizations such as the Westboro Baptist Church. (Reference: https://integralchurch.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/15-great-principles-shared-by-all-religions/)

      Additionally, I respectfully disagree that “things are looking up.” You, not the article, brought up Trump, so I’ll respond in kind. While the economy may be doing good (because it’s been on an upswing since 2008), there is no indication that this money-centric indicator portends a “brighter future” on the horizon for the majority of Americans or citizens of other countries. Under the “leadership” of Trump — a philandering narcissistic liar (check his statements against facts in evidence) — America is becoming an isolationist country, alienating its allies, embracing and empowering dictators and lining the pockets of the rich and powerful.

      The future may indeed look bright — but only to the blind.

      1. Waya says:

        I applaud your comment. It was taught to me by an elder that silence is the voice of complicity. People may not like what we have to say, but it’s our right and our moral responsibility to do so, just as they feel it is their right to pound on us. Well said, sir.

  3. Dr. Tinsley Keefe says:

    They were out at the OKC Pride Prade 2018 with their hateful signs!

    1. Carol waldenburg says:

      Jess, you nailed it = CULT

  4. Brien M Demartino says:

    That group is just a scab. Eventually it will simply fall off. Until then, just ignore it.

  5. Carl Elfstrom says:

    Eventually, as the family grows, more and more of its members will be gay. It happens in every large, extended family. It can’t be prevented. That’s the way nature works. There are probably some gays or bi-sexuàls in that family who haven’t come out of the closet. Regardless of that such a large family can’t maintain all the same beliefs for very long, if they ever truly did. Some of them might just be afraid of being rejected by the others. But even that won’t last long in this slowly but surely improving society. Even if the founder had lived it was doomed to failure from the beginning.

    1. Padre Obstato says:

      If it’s true that the most virulent homophobes are always themselves latent homosexuals (and in my observation it is), WBC has been a “closet queer” organization pretending to be a church from the very beginning.

  6. Waya says:

    From what I heard, there was a coup, basically excommunicating Fred Phelps (who was apparently trying to reconcile with his estranged family members) and further deposing Shirley and Margie Phelps as Spokespeople. The Phelps boys are running the show now, with Steve Drain, who refers to himself as a “Watchman” for the group. Megan Phelps, the granddaughter heir-apparent, has fled the church with her sister, now apologizing for her former actions. Sounds like the grandkids are embarrassed by their parents and their grandfather, and are fleeing the nest. There is a gofundme page set up by Lauren Drain to help the escapees.

  7. Frank Villari says:

    Haters will hate. These are truly the epitome of the League of the Perpetually Offended. They will have to answer to God for their sins against the rest of humanity. Until then we will simply have to abide their nonsense.

    1. Waya says:

      Frank, Reverend Fred Phelps actually said that in addition to God and Christ, he would help pass judgment on the fate of all individuals. He actually said this to an interviewer before he passed. Arrogance in the extreme to think you can sit at God’s hand at Judgment. Hope there’s a nice BBQ where he is now.

      1. Carl Elfstrom says:

        It may have been a schizophrenic delusion of grandeur.

      2. Donald Schmidt says:

        You “hope there’s a nice BBQ where he is now?” That sounds ironically like passing judgment.

        1. Waya says:

          Nope. Comes from his Bible about prophets insisting they have more exalted state than they do. Christ himself said that those who did this would face the worst punishment. If Phelps taught the entire Bible as literal, he preached his own punishment.

          1. Donald Schmidt says:

            Oh. So you hope he gets punished because you judged he is guilty of that. I get it. Ok.

          2. Waya says:

            And Donald, I don’t judge anybody. The punishment is in the book itself. He preached that he would sit at God’s hand, and nobody but who God chooses sits there. I don’t have to judge him. He judged himself. I think he knew before the end what he did was wrong because he was excommunicated from his own church and wanted to bring family back together. But final judgment is for the Three alone, God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. No provisos were ever named in the Bible. In what Phelps said, if God and Christ judged a man worthy of heaven, that “Ol’ brother Fred would (and could) say, now wait a minute, that one doesn’t belong here.” So Phelps felt he had veto judgment over God and Christ. I’m not Christian, but that sounds like arrogance to me.

        2. Donald Schmidt says:

          Agree.

  8. Dr asha Sharma says:

    I am totally amazed the the so call Christian Religion is so full of hate and negative toward Gods created children Humans

    1. Rev. Brien says:

      Dr, with all due respect, there are ignorant groups in all religions, Muslim religion comes to mind. Having said that, do I believe that all muslims are murderers, no I do not. Nor should you believe that all Christians are hateful assholes. Sorry for the plain language but I trust my point has been made.

    2. Dick Nigh says:

      While Rev. Brien may be right that “there are ignorant groups in all religions,” this article IS about a “Christian” group. I too am amazed that Christianity seems to have been hijacked by people who are uninterested in Christian principles. When Christians get up and say that they want their country to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and, in general, make life better for the people in America than for an elite rich group, then I might start to think of today’s Christianity as good. As it is, Christianity today seems to place more importance on whether they can find Noah’s ark, on abortion and gay rights, on how to debunk science and other subjects that are unimportant compared to issues they should be talking about. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Give people a liveable wage. Let people retire with a decent pension instead of continuing to raise the retirement age and cutting benefits. Come out and say that dividing families is a crime. — Okay. It’s too long. I’ll stop.

      1. Michael says:

        The “religion” that God teaches has nothing to do with temporary things. Yes, feed the hungry, visit the sick, and clothe the naked, visit those in prison. The Bible teaches the main point of life is to serve God, not man’s idea’s of God. Everything passes away. Before we do, we need to focus on God’s plan for us. Don’t get bound up by what some ones opinion is, ask God His opinion by reading His word with a clear mind and no preconceived opinions. His truth is the only truth.

        1. Donald Schmidt says:

          I must point out that “man’s idea of God” is actually God and it it is not a universal idea. If it were, there would be no religious debate nor differing religions.

      2. Michele says:

        I am confused by the fact that, presumably, most of us here are ordained. If that is the case why by so concerned with what others are doing? Why not use your ordination to do positive things and perpetuate that through your ministry. Regardless of your faith.

  9. Bill Fox says:

    (NIV) Matthew 19:4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ ? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
    7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
    8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

  10. Michelle Wilhelm says:

    Wow –

  11. Blue Butterfly says:

    I’m saddened to see comments on this page that resemble common comments on a YouTube video.
    That said, I live about 4 blocks away from WBC (and The Rainbow House, located across the street from it). They still change their marquee weekly with hateful things, and local folks just continue to drive right by, not blinking an eye. I can safely say that MY interpretation of it is that without Fred and his financial backing, most of the Phelps family has to concentrate on making a living, and are involved in civic and local commerce and activities. Also, numerous family members have defected, and their actual numbers have dwindled – manpower.

    1. Waya says:

      You have my sympathy and admiration for tolerating such a group of hate mongers. Maybe they ran out of money to spend on plane trips. The citizens who live near the WBC truly have a challenge on their hands and I pray you and they have the strength to continue despite these hateful souls. They only deserve pity.

      1. Blue Butterfly says:

        I grew up with one of his cohorts, and went to school with the kids. The stories I could tell, and the hate I could have, but there’s no need. They are the ones who have to answer, and I don’t want to have to answer for hate. It took me years to overcome the way I was brought up. As far as living literally 4 blocks away, like I said, The Equality House (painted like a Rainbow) is right across the street from WBC, and we all focus on their events, like the community garden, etc. Most of the people in my neighborhood have ‘tolerance’ signs in our yards. Most people drive right by WBC and don’t even pay it any attention. The only thing we have to tolerate with them as neighbors, are the random tourists that come by and are full of just as much hate, and cause trouble. For a time, the neighborhood was afraid it might be the target of bombing or something, but that’s all subsided. We just plain ignore them. I did notice yesterday all of their houses (they’re all neighbors in a square block) are getting new windows installed, so there’s some money, somewhere, lol.
        Ignoring them is best, for attention is their fuel.
        I am a federally enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and have spent the last 20 years working for my tribe in the language, history and culture department, and as head woman at one of the ceremonial grounds for a large amount of that time, so I’ve just come ‘back’ to Topeka from Oklahoma. But during the time I was gone, I came frequently to visit my grandfather, and we would always drive by going to the grocery store. They have toned down quite abit, as for many years, they would have all of their signs and banners on the fence and in the grass. Now it’s just a regular church marquee, and then one large banner that states ‘god hates f*%#” As I said, it’s ignored and we have no difficulty ‘continuing.’

        Wado for your comment, Wold 😀

  12. Rev Comrade Shelly Frances Kershaw says:

    I find it funny WBC appear to be contradicting themselves with their Trump sign, but good luck to them

  13. Dan Velez says:

    I believe that what is of God will endure the test of time. The WBC was created by a man that has passed and his ways, (not God’s way), passed with him. If you can’t find Love in anyone’s beliefs, then God is not there because God is Love! “Where’s the Love?”

  14. Johnny says:

    Hi!

    Curious, if anyone knew if the Illinois House of Representatives of the same name are involved in WBC?

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