The Tenacity of Hate

A submitted post by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, author of God Hates; Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right

The Sunday service at Westboro Baptist Church is over, and some members of the small, Topeka, Kansas-based church move on to music practice. They’re working on a hymn familiar to many Protestants this afternoon and later, some of the younger women will practice a parody of a pop song, its familiar words about love and romance replaced with a message about God’s hatred for America. Church members are quite talented, and the choir sounds good.

img_9363I hear it from the nursery that adjoins the church sanctuary, where some of the youngest participants in church life are playing.  As the women rehearse, I work through the theology that allows them to sing a hymn celebrating Christ’s redemptive death and a pop song celebrating the damnation of gay people in the same afternoon. A young mother is in the room, too, bouncing a baby in her arms. A blonde-haired cherub is showing me some toys and telling me about the Disney princesses she likes best in her sweet toddler voice. It turns out we share some favorites, and I join her in her play. Through the open door, and we hear her mother’s voice distinctly in the choir. It breaks the little girl’s concentration, but I assure her that her mama will be back soon, and we settle back into our game, pulling out new toys to join the scene we’ve already constructed. Behind the little noises we are making in our own world, the choir sings about God’s mercy for sinners. Above the crib, a sign declaring God’s hatred for gay people hangs in the place where, in a different church, there might be a painting of Jesus welcoming the little children or searching for a lost lamb.

westborobaptist4Rehearsal wraps up. The girl’s mother arrives and she excitedly tells her that we both love Ariel.  They are holding hands, her mother listening attentively. It’s a tender scene, one that informs, rather that disrupts, the church’s funeral picketing. They picket, explains one church member, because they love their own children. That love for their own children helps them understand the agony of a parent who is burying a child killed by an AIDS-related illness, an enemy IED, or a school shooter. It is their best qualities–their love for their families and their concern for other church members–that inspire what outsiders see as their most hateful activities: picketing funerals. The church sees such picketing as an act of love–albeit one almost universally seen as hate. “Love thy neighbor,” declares one church-produced video, means you must “rebuke” them when they sin. They would rather have you know this and hate them for it than for them to fail to tell you and thus fail in their duty to love you.

The advantage of ethnographic work on hate groups is that you cannot deny the humanity of groups members as you might be tempted to do if you are working with documents or statistics. The Institute of Hate Studies at Gonzaga University, with which I am affiliated, stresses that hate begins with enmification: constructing an enemy by denying their humanity–then, if you can, their right to exist, not just individually but in any form, and, finally, any trace of their existence. When working with hateful human subjects, you can’t emnify, even if you want to, because it is the humanity of the research participant that allows the research to happen. The work would be easier if the research subjects were less human. Their complexity can be exhausting and sometimes disorienting, requiring careful ethical consideration[1] and scholarly self-reflection on the difficulties.[2]

One challenge arises not from how different hate actors are from “the rest of us” but from how similar we are. They are like us not in our worst ways but in our best. They love their children, their friends, and their country–even if it’s not presently living up to their hopes. They see the world changing quickly in ways that are taking it farther from their ideals. They think changing it is possible through individual and collective action. They work hard and care deeply. Because they have good qualities–ones they may even use in the pursuit of wrong ends–we may be tempted by what Antonius C. G. M. Robben calls the “ethnographic seduction” to tell their stories in ways that affirm them and their causes.[3] Ethnographers of “unloved groups”[4] are not wrong, though, to report on the charity, kindness, hospitality, or generosity of people who also do awful things. Though we are right to be wary of confusing victims and perpetrators,[5] thick descriptions of unloved groups will almost always show joyful, tender, and gentle moments.

Much of our discussion about hateful acts focuses on how those committing them are unlike us, the good, moral, righteous people. We invoke psychology to suggest that they are abnormal and the legal system to label them criminals. We report on them as “outsiders” and “lone wolves.” We invoke “not all men” or “not all white people” or “not all Christians,” making them exceptional when they are, in fact, as Clara S. Lewis notes, “disturbingly conformist.”[6]  In short, we emnify the emnifiers, denying that our silences support misogyny or white supremacy or religiously-inspired violence, rewriting our national history to erase the hate on which the nation is (literally, through Indian removal and African enslavement) built, pretending that our collective romance with guns and violence is irrelevant to “lone wolf” actors, refusing to see hateful actions as an “expression of extended histories of often state-sponsored violence against minority groups,”[7] and ignoring the way that many of us benefit from the hateful acts that others commit. Violent white supremacists see themselves as saving white America, and, to be sure, all white people benefit from terrorism against people of color just as all men benefit from misogyny–even if they also suffer from it.

Our surprise that hate actors are also often generous, kind, and loving speaks to our own need to distinguish ourselves from them, to have an alibi for our “shallow understanding” and “appalling silence,”[8] and even, at times a scapegoat. But surprise is a privilege. Enslaved African Americans knew that slave traders, plantation overseers, and slave patrollers were often “good people”–to some people. KKK members from 1865 and onward have seen themselves as good patriots and defenders of women and children, not as racists and xenophobes-[9]-just as members of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups do today.[10] Those who have seen hatred up close–its targets, those who have left hate groups, scholars of hate studies–know that hate actors see themselves as heroes, not villains. Today, the narrative of white supremacy is less about genetics (how unpalatable!) and more about Crusaders saving civilization non-white, non-Christian forces–the same racist story that “won the West” and the 2016 presidential election.

Even as (or perhaps because?) those with firsthand memories of the Holocaust and pre-Civil Rights America pass away, the hatred inherent in Trumpism has inspired new conversations about the ability of seemingly ordinary people to commit extraordinary violence. In the days after Donald Trump’s executive order prohibiting the legal entrance of many foreign-born travelers and residents into the US but before its thorough rejection by a federal appeals court, low-level government employees followed through on orders with cruelty beyond what the rejected executive order required. A five year old American citizen returning from travel abroad was kept from his mother for more than four hours, despite ample forewarning from his senator that the child would be disembarking; parents of an infant being treated for burns in a US hospital were left stranded in Iraq as their baby headed to the United States; a breastfeeding infant—an American citizen—was kept separated from her mother. We wonder at the TSA agents who separate small children from parents and the ICE agents carting deathly ill undocumented immigrants from the hospital to detention centers, just as we wonder about National Guards opening firing on student protestors, Bull Connor’s police officers, the guards at Japanese internment camps, the white picnickers cutting the knuckles and toes off the lynched black man as souvenirs of their families’ day out, the soldiers opening fire at Wounded Knee, the Pinkertons killing labor union members, the auctioneer facilitating to end of a slave family. We didn’t need the Milgram experiment; history has shown us–and we’ve captured it in photos–that it is frighteningly easy to follow orders that inflict pain on others when you believe authorities command (or even simply permit) you do to so , whether those orders excite already-held prejudices or not. Yet, here we are, making laws to protect drivers who hit protestors and inviting transphobic collaborators to report trans people using the “wrong” bathroom. These are not laws to enforce public safety but efforts to make permissible violence that would otherwise be clearly immoral—a kind of Crypteia for our age.

We don’t need to be shocked at either the idea that hateful people are often also good or at the idea that good people will sometimes (and sometimes often) be hateful, especially in political contexts that reward them for it. Hate is not exceptional but functional, perhaps the most destructive tool in oppressive systems worked hard to maintain inequality, and many of us–even otherwise good people, people who love our children, people who sing in church choirs–will pick it up when we want to maintain our preferred supremacy.

s200_rebecca_barrett-fox

Barrett-Fox is a professor of sociology at Arkansas State University. She is currently researching Act for America, “the nation’s largest nonprofit, non-partisan, grassroots national security organization.” You can follow her blog at anygoodthing.com.

 

 

footnotes: [1]Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki, “Who’s Afraid of Oral History? Fifty Years of Debates and Anxiety about Ethics,” The Oral History Review 43, no. 2 (2016): 338-366.

[2] See, for example, Kathleen Blee, “White-Knuckle Research: Emotional Dynamics in Fieldwork with Racist Activists,” Qualitative Sociology 21 no. 4 (1998): 381-399; Journal of Contemporary Ethnography’s 2007 special issue on racist and far right groups, edited by Kathleen M. Blee (vol. 36, no. 2); Pete Simi and Robert Futrell, American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015); Fieldwork under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival, edited by Carolyn Nordstrom and Antonius C. G. M. Robben (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995); or Rebecca Barrett-Fox, “Anger and Compassion on the Picket Line: Ethnography and Emotion in the Study of Westboro Baptist Church,” Journal of Hate Studies 9, no. 11 (2010/2011), 11-32.

[3] Antonius C. G. M. Robben, “Ethnographic Seduction, Transference, and Resistance in Dialogues about Terror and Violence in Argentina,” Ethos 24, no. 1 (1996), 71-106.

[4] Nigel G. Fielding, “Mediating the Message: Affinity and Hostility in Research on Sensitive Topics,” in Researching Sensitive Topics, edited by Claire M. Renzetti and Raymond M. Lee (Newbury Park: Sage, 1993), 146-180.

[5] See, for example, “Similarities among Differences,” Martha K. Huggins and Marie-Louise Glebbeek’s introduction to their co-edited Women Fielding Danger: Negotiating Ethnographic Identities in Field Research (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 1-30.

[6] Clara S. Lewis Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013): 85.

[7] Ibid., 60.

[8] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Signet, 2000), 73 & 74.

[9] Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. 

Meet the Authors: Rebecca Barrett-Fox

God Hates; Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right

img_9363The 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.

westborobaptist4“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.”

s200_rebecca_barrett-foxBarrett-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.

Investigative Scholar Rebecca Barrett-Fox Offers a Glimpse Inside Westboro Baptist Church with “God Hates”

9780700622658“Well, I thought we had a jewel this time.” Not the cruelest words ever spoken by Fred Phelps, founding pastor of the infamously hateful Westboro Baptist Church, but their victim knew them to be as condemning as any of the slogans on the church’s notorious picket signs. They meant that she, Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of perhaps American Christianity’s most famous homophobe, was not only going to hell—she had never been going to heaven at all. “Gramps,” as Megan and her cousins called their beloved grandfather, shared Megan’s eternal fate with his elderly wife as their granddaughter left the church’s sanctuary for the final time, she recalls in a recent article in The New Yorker. Though she might experience the pleasures of life outside the confines of the church’s hyper-Calvinist doctrine, she would suffer the eternal tortures of the hottest corner of hell, the one reserved for former church members who reject the church’s teachings, “[f]or it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them” (2nd Peter 2:21-22).

Megan is one of more than a dozen young adults who have left Westboro in the last few years. Indeed, she left with her younger sister Grace, following in the footsteps of an older brother and several cousins. A younger brother would leave a few months later, bringing nearly half of the children of Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church spokesperson for nearly all of Megan’s time in the church, out of the church. Another couple has lost all but one of their children to the secular world. In the public view, church members report these departures dispassionately. In a public statement on “departed unbelievers” such as Megan, the church writes: “The WBC does not control salvation, nor do we apologize for the ungodly that go out from us.”

Yet in the pews and in the homes of parents, the story is somewhat different. For many years—including during the before, during, and after the departure of Megan and many of her cousins—I studied the church close-up and from afar, attending church services, eating at potlucks, attending Bible studies, observing pickets, and interviewing current and former members as they have made their way out of the church. Their parents—people who were, for the most part, themselves not yet born when the church was founded in 1955—saw them reject the church that they believe is the only “candlestick” shining light into the sinful world, the ark that will carry them, like Noah and his family, to safety while the rest of the world is destroyed for its sins, and the rejection was heartbreaking. The problem wasn’t merely that their children were going to hell; it was the very practical matter that they weren’t going to share this life with them either. They took pictures of their children from the walls and refused to meet their new sons- and daughters-in-law and even grandchildren, but they also cried a lot. Rather than refusing to talk to me about their disfellowshipped children, some women simply couldn’t talk because their voices were choked with tears. “Of course I miss her,” snapped one otherwise softspoken church member when I asked about her daughter’s departure. The question, I realized, was stupid, because I had seen with my own eyes the love that the women had had for each other.

Those relationships are what keep some members inside the church for longer than they would be otherwise. Sam Phelps-Roper, Megan’s older brother and an elder in the congregation, shared with me during an interview that some people stay not for the theology but for the camaraderie. Members of the church share the burden not just of their extensive picketing schedule but of caring for each other. Any day of the week, they will be working together to babysit the many children in the church, fix a leaky roof, build an addition for a growing family, or paint a fence. For Megan in particular, the church was a good place. She was the star child of the star child of the famous pastor, a role that had made her the envy of some of her cousins at different points in their growing up but that she was occupying with relative grace as she entered young adulthood. Smart as a whip, she shares her mother’s best qualities, both intellectual and physical, with Shirley’s strikingly light eyes and curls that have never been cut cascading down her back. Unlike her mother, she skipped law school, a setting where she surely would have excelled, in order to work full time on the ministry of the church. In an office in her parents’ home, she worked alongside her madre, as she lovingly called her mother, organizing and executing pickets and, eventually, pioneering the church’s use of Twitter. She was also changing the voice of WBC, never dropping the fire-and-brimstone but bringing in more humor and pop culture.

And then, in a process that she shares in The New Yorker and in an interview with Sam Harris, she had to leave. At first, she still believed in WBC’s key tenets but felt that the church was changing, growing harsher in ways that repulsed her. She didn’t trust this revulsion because she had been taught that her own feelings were deceptive. As the church grew harsher toward its own members, though, she realized the pain that they had long inflicted on others was now directed inward as well. That seemed to undermine the loving community—the one with the swimming pool they all shared and the monthly gatherings to celebrate birthdays, with one person holding up a sign of all the names of the church members who were born that month so that they could insert all the names into “Happy Birthday,” so everyone could be loved and appreciated. The increased stridency toward members seemed to run counter to the Bible. And when scripture and the church couldn’t be reconciled, then the church had to be wrong; that’s what anyone in the church would have said, too. And so, when their parents asked the departing Grace what the church could do differently, Grace answered  “I want you and everyone else to leave with me.”

In Perfect Children: Growing Up on the Religious Fringe, Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist shares several case studies of what happens when a new religious movement’s second generation comes of age. Unlike their parents, who chose to join the group and shaped its founding, the second generation finds itself socialized into a group that has no history of socializing children and may be unprepared for the challenges that young adults deliver to the group’s theology and practices. Leaders can clamp down, patrolling the border even more vigorously and ostracizing doubters and dissenters. They can change and adapt, neutralizing criticisms and complaints by making just enough change to undermine revolt. And, of course, they can die out. Even if half of their young people left, though, Westboro Baptists, who generally have very large families, have enough people left to continue. The long-term question—and the one that Megan has answered with a definite no—is whether they have enough love in their hearts for each other to make that worthwhile.

–Written by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, author of “God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and The Religious Right