In the theology of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), God has a pretty long shit list. Read the colorful placards at the group’s daily demonstrations and you get the idea: “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates Fag Enablers,” “God Hates Obama,” “God Hates America,” “God Hates The World,” “God Hates YOU.”
Led since its 1955 inception by Fred Phelps, who turns 80 tomorrow, the church is populated primarily by his progeny. Since taking their crusade to the streets in 1991, the WBC faithful claim to have staged 41,226 protests in 685 cities and towns across all 50 states plus DC--on Monday, they terrorized Sasha and Malia Obama’s school--not to mention Puerto Rico, Canada, and Iraq. (A U.K. visit was called off in February, when the British home secretary banned Phelps from the country.)
WBC achieved particular notoriety in 2005, when it began picketing military funerals. Taunting mourners with signs thanking God for dead soldiers and IEDs, church members declared that a “raging mad God” was waging a holy war on America for its acceptance of homosexuality and other “abominations.” (The father of one fallen Marine, who sued WBC, was initially awarded millions in damages by a jury, but the verdict was overturned in September by a federal appeals court.)
Hated on the left for their homophobia, disowned by the right for their anti-Americanism, the WBCers live in a world unto themselves. And that world, they say with supreme confidence, is nearing its end. “By the time you see the Antichrist Obama sitting in the highest office in the world, you know you’ve got a short time line, scripturally speaking,” explains Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of Fred Phelps’s 13 children and the group’s de-facto spokeswoman. Now, in the final act of that Biblical script, WBC has cast itself the part of the prophet Jeremiah--a lonely voice warning a disobedient nation of its impending doom. (Unlike Jeremiah, WBC boasts a state-of-the-art website, complete with a running meter of how many “reprobates have split hell wide open since you loaded this page.”)
With Armageddon approaching, WBC has trained its sights on a new target: The Jews. Though the gay-bashing and funeral-crashing continue apace, the church is now on a mission to call forth the 144,000 Jews who will be saved, according to the Book of Revelation, when their Christ-rejecting brethren perish in the rapture. (“Some Jews Will Repent,” says one of the group’s more optimistic signs.) Recently, the hunt for these “elect Jews” sent a WBC contingent on a whirlwind tour of New York, where members picketed synagogues and other Jewish sites in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island’s Great Neck (or “Great Stiffened Neck,” as WBC calls it), throwing in stops at “fag-infested” high schools for good measure.
What happens when a merry band of anti-Jewish, anti-gay rabble-rousers visits one of the most Jewish, gay-friendly areas in the country? Let’s just say that, in terms of brash willingness to speak their minds, these holy rollers may have finally met their match.
Benjamin Birnbaum is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. Ben Eisler, formerly a video reporter-producer at The New Republic, recently joined WJLA/News Channel 8 as an on-air reporter.