God Hates; Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right
The morning Rebecca Barrett-Fox, her husband and a friend drove to Topeka from Lawrence to check out Sunday morning service at the Westboro Baptist Church, she didn’t expect to find herself in a kitchen having a conversation with Margie Phelps, wife of infamous pastor Fred Phelps. But, as Margie was frying eggs, Rebecca and her crew asked for directions to the chapel.
“I accidentally wandered into the house attached to the sanctuary where Mrs. Phelps was frying eggs for breakfast,” Barrett-Fox recounts. “We scared each other terribly. It turns out the other church members were running late returning late from a series of pickets of other churches in Topeka, which they do each Sunday. So, she kindly offered us a spot to sit while we waited for the church members to return.”
And with that chance encounter, Barrett-Fox began the years of research that resulted in her stunning 2016 book God Hates; Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right.
As an undergraduate at Pennsylvania’s Juniata College, Barrett-Fox didn’t envision diving deep into one of the country’s most notorious hate groups. Her focus was on American Protestant churches and their relationship to whiteness.
“Most typical churches don’t want to be seen as racist,” Barrett-Fox explains. “But often, what they teach, and how they teach it, can be very contradictory to that. I’ve always found that fascinating.”
Barrett-Fox says that during her undergraduate years she attended at least one service at almost every church within a 150-mile radius of the Huntingdon, PA campus.
“State College falls within that range, so I’m sure I missed a few,” Barrett-Fox jokes. “But not too many. It became a Sunday tradition. I’d find a friend, pick a church and we’d go to their service. A lot of those little country churches are independent from any sort of governing or guidance from a larger congregation. They don’t report to anyone and that tends to lead to some more divisive preaching.”
While working on her master’s degree in American Studies at the University of Kansas, Barrett-Fox began seeing the Westboro Baptist Church and their protest across campus. One weekend a friend from her undergraduate days was visiting Lawrence and she had an idea.
“I was pregnant with my first child and it was Mother’s Day weekend,” Barrett-Fox laughs. “I asked my friend if she wanted a church adventure like the old days. And then we were off to Topeka.”
After finding a mistakenly unlocked door in the organization’s block-long security wall, Barrett-Fox found herself in the Phelps’ kitchen, then waiting for the service to begin in the church.
That Sunday morning service was the beginning of a multi-year experience with the organization. Barrett-Fox commonly attended services, pickets and became a welcomed guest at church events.
“The people of Westboro Baptist Church are, maybe surprisingly, welcoming,” Barrett-Fox explains. “They want to tell you their story. They want to have you join in.”
God Hates traces WBC’s theological beliefs to a brand of hyper-Calvinist thought reaching back to the Puritans—an extreme Calvinism, emphasizing predestination, that has proven as off-putting as Westboro’s actions, even for other Baptists. And yet, in examining Westboro’s role in conservative politics and its contentious relationship with other fundamentalist activist groups, Barrett-Fox reveals how the church’s message of national doom in fact reflects beliefs at the core of much of the Religious Right’s rhetoric. Westboro’s aggressively offensive public activities actually serve to soften the anti-gay theology of more mainstream conservative religious activism. With an eye to the church’s protest at military funerals, she also considers why the public has responded so differently to these than to Westboro’s anti-LGBT picketing.
“I don’t think it’s a conscience decision on the part of the church to be the most offensive wing of the conservative right,” Barret-Fox explains. “I think Westboro’s methods make it easy for others to use them as cover for their motives.”
Barrett-Fox has not had any direct contact with Westboro since her book published.
“I never expected them to reach out, directly, nor have I contacted them,” Barret-Fox says. “However, they do tend to help promote my talks through their social media, which I think is kind of sweet, in a way.”
Barrett-Fox now lives in Utah with her husband and two kids. She is currently researching Act for America, “the nation’s largest nonprofit, non-partisan, grassroots national security organization,” for a future project.