Category Archives: Religion

The danger of dismissing Fred Phelps

 Are he and his small band of followers on the lunatic fringe of the Christian Right, or aren’t they? First they blame the wildfires in California on homosexuality. Now the loss of American troops is also the fault of gays and America’s failure to properly condemn them?

The New York Times today has the story of a lawsuit against the Westboro Baptist Church, which is being sued for creating a media circus outside of a soldier’s funeral. They protested outside the funeral carrying signs that blamed the deaths of American soldiers on the fact that the U.S. condones homosexuality. Actually they’ve been doing this for at least two years now, but because the father of a soldier whose funeral was protested has filed a lawsuit, Fred Phelps and his crew are back in the news.

Westboro Baptist Church members protesting Laramie Project in Ann ArborIt is easy to cast Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church as a kind of lunatic fringe among Christians. The Wikipedia page for Westboro Baptist Church cites sources estimating its membership as between 70 and 150 people and most of them are related by blood or marriage. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Westboro Baptist Church to be a hate group. Phelps, and Westboro, maintain the web sites “God Hates Fags” and “God Hates America“. They also hate Jews, Catholics, Muslims and anybody who supports any of those groups. (They are certain that God hates Canada and Sweden , for example.) And they’ve been around for a long time. Phelps started out protesting the funerals of people with AIDS. You may recall that he and his followers picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard. There is a counter on GodHatesFags.com, that keeps track of the days Shepard “has been in hell.” (Shepard isn’t the only one, either. They also have a counter for Diana Whipple, a lesbian who was mauled to death by dogs that Fred Phelps believes God sent to punish her for her sins.)

Yes, he sounds like nothing more than lunatic fringe, and it would be reassuring to put him in that box, put that box away on a shelf, and ignore it.

Yet in many ways he is not so much “fringe” as we might want to believe. While Fred Phelps might be crazy, and may lead a small number of people, there are folks like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and others who ultimately promote the same basic ideas but in more mainstream venues and who as a result have exponentially larger audiences, and access to Congress, and to power. Dobson, for example, has a radio show that is reportedly run on over 1,000 radio stations, and reaches over 3 million listeners. His Focus on the Family organization has much more political clout than Phelps could ever muster, yet it works for the same basic agenda. When Dobson came out against Republican presidential hopefuls like Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson it made national news, with stories on CNN, the Washington Post, and other mainstream news outlets.

Conservatives for American Values, which runs the disclaimer “Everything posted on this blog is satire and should be read as such” spoke more truth than satire about the relationship between Phelps’s lunacy and Dobson’s comparatively staid performance when it published this in 2005:

Also, it’s people like Fred Phelps who limit the donations that groups like Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family can get from righteous Christians who dislike gay people. He hurts the rest of us because he’s too stupid to know how to effectively frame his own disgust with homosexuality. Simply put, he’s hurting the cause he claims to support.

Listen, I’m sure if Fred Phelps, Dr. Dobson and I all sat down at a table we’d find a lot we could agree on. I mean we all understand what James Dobson meant when he spoke out against the Texas sodomy case. When he says that he doesn’t want homosexuals to have the right to have sex because it will destroy the family we catch his drift. He didn’t come out and say, “I don’t want homosexuals to have sex because they’re gross and I hate fags.” Dr. Dobson is much too smart for that.

It will remain difficult to believe that Phelps and Dobson don’t represent mainstream Christian thought until many more Christian groups stand up and speak out against them, and call for more understanding and respect for sexual diversity. The silence of the real mainstream lends credibility to the extremists. It isn’t enough to denounce Phelps, either.

It is important to see past the theatrics of the Westboro Baptist protests and recognize that the basic principles of sexual oppression that motivate Phelps and clan are the same ones that motivate folks like Dobson.

In fact, the danger Phelps poses is really that he makes the Dobson crew look reasonable. Yet Dobson’s rhetoric is just as dangerous when it comes to disenfranchising people because of their sexualities. Without similarly denouncing Dobson, mainstream Christians will just be making the hate and the heterosexism seem more polite.

I give a lot of credit to groups like the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing. Debra Haffner and her organization do important work. But many more mainstream religious organizations and left-leaning religious organizations need to add their voices to the call for acceptance of sexual diversity.

Otherwise, it’s going to seem more and more like the “the love-thy-neighbor” and “judge-not” Christians are the fringe, and the one’s who’d like to bring back stoning are the majority.

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Photo of Westboro members protesting the Laramie Project in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2005 taken by AlanLK and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.

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Filed under civil rights, discrimination, heterosexism, Homophobia, News and politics, public discourse, Religion, sex, sexual orientation, sexuality

Some thoughts on religiosity and sex

According to a Pew Research Center poll on attitudes toward premarital sex 38 percent of adults in the US think that premarital sex is always or almost always wrong (note that the question is framed in terms of heterosexual couples only).

I thought this was odd given that a much smaller percentage of people actually do wait until they are married before having sex, so I poked around in some of the charts. In terms of basic demographics, there are predictable differences between people’s attitudes depending on their age group, with older respondents being more likely than younger ones to think that premarital sex is wrong. Other demographic factors that are correlated with a greater likelihood of thinking premarital sex is wrong include income (as income goes up tolerance for premarital sex also goes up) and education (people with more education are less likely to think that premarital sex is wrong), thought the differences are small.

And not surprisingly by far the variable most strongly correlated with a belief that premarital sex is wrong is religious affiliation, but even I was surprised by the numbers. Remember, 38% of all adults surveyed believed that premarital sex between a man and a woman was always or almost always wrong. But when broken down by religious affiliation, only 8% of those who identified as “secular” felt that way, and only 29% of Catholics felt that way. On the other hand, almost half (49%) of Protestants thought that premarital sex was always or almost always wrong.

When Protestants were broken down into White evangelical, White mainline, or Black Protestant groups the differences became even more stark. (And no, I don’t know why they broke white and black protestants down differently, except that perhaps Black Protestant churches are just much more likely to be evangelical than White protestant churches.) In any case, among White evangelicals, 71% said that they thought that premarital sex was always or almost always wrong.

Of course this fits in with the abstinence-only sex ed agenda that has been driven by the white evangelical Christians, but it’s interesting to see the numbers so starkly laid out there. It tells you just what segment of the population those policies appeal to, and it tells you who is left out.

I was thinking about this all the more because of the conflict this must create for people who believe so strongly that sex before marriage is wrong, but then who have it before marriage anyway (because most people do, according to the most recent sex research). The feelings of shame and guilt must be tremendous! And then there are the sex scandals that ooze out of the evangelical churches with some regularity. Remember, it isn’t the extramarital sex per se that causes the scandal. It is the apparent hypocrisy that causes the scandal.

And it makes me wonder why it is that that branch of religious folks so vocally and visibly hangs on to a belief that is so extraordinarily hard for so many to live up to.
Because it doesn’t have to be that way even for deeply religious folks. There are coalitions of Christians who believe strongly in their Christian faith but who make room for openness around sexual diversity. I’ve recently learned a little bit about the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, for example. They’re an interfaith organization that works on helping congregations to create sexually healthy environments for their members. They focus on things like sex education, sexual and reproductive health, and gender and sexual diversity. Their web site contains statements like this one, from the Gender and Sexual Diversity page:

“All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure.”

and

“While religious denominations continue to debate issues of sexuality, the silence and condemnation of clergy have led to destroyed relationships, suicidal despair and discrimination and violence against LGBT persons. Denying that God created diversity as a blessing is denying Biblical teaching”

I’m not a religious person, myself, but I’ve often thought that much of what is missing from progressive politics is a recognition of the potential strength of the “religious left.” Just as among conservatives there are different voices (ranging from the free market fiscal conservatives who couldn’t care less about the social issues of the religious conservatives, to the evangelical conservatives whose interests don’t always mesh with the deregulation logic of the fiscal conservatives) on the left there is also a range. But ironically, I think sometimes that the atheists, secular humanists and religious leftists have more in common in terms of their positions on actual issues than do the conservatives. What would happen if the religious left could really tap into the same kind of political power than the religious conservatives have tapped into? What if the religious left could motivate the same kind of voter turnout and political urgency? Would the rest of us on the left support them? Would we see our interests as at all in line with theirs?

Click here to read the Institute’s “Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing”

It gives me hope that deeply religious folks can be allies in the fight for sexual freedom and sexual justice.

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