Saturday, April 25, 2009
Entering the House of Hate
Produced by the BBC's Louie Theroux, The Most Hated Family in America documents the Westboro Baptist Church.
It follows these unsettlingly-awful people through the course of various protests, one of their church services, and even their day-to-day life. It provides a window into their horrible world that most viewers will find hard to look away from -- much like a car crash.
Yet in a certain way, it makes the hateful gospel preached by the Phelps family almost make sense. Simply put, the alleged American embrace of homosexuality -- which would likely come as a surprise to most American homosexuals -- has allegedly placed that entire country in violation of God's sixth commandment: thou shalt not commit adultery.
Shirley Phelps-Roeper provides an intriguing definition of the word "fag" that isn't restricted to gay men, but rather to anyone engaging in any sex act outside of marriage, any sex act within marriage involving someone from outside the marriage, or any adulterous act.
In fact, she goes on to brand any of these acts as adulterous.
Phelps-Roper puts an extraordinary amount of time into researching the dead soldiers whose funerals they're protesting at. In the film, she not only knows the name of the soldier whose funeral they're picketing, but also very explicit details about the man's death.
The most striking diversion from traditional Christian activism is the purpose of the WBC's protests. According to Phelps-Roeper, the goal of the WBC is not to "win souls for Christ", but to provoke people into revealing what the church interprets as contempt for God through their reaction to what the church presents as God's message.
Phelps-Roper describes her and her fellow parishoners as "evil angels", who prophesize the evils God has planned for the world. When told that God isn't supposed to commit evil, she actually becomes exasperated.
The WBC offers no compromise, even to those who oppose the message of the church while also rejecting homosexuality. They treat rejection of their church -- not even necessarily rejection of its message -- as condonation of homosexuality.
By staging their protests near traffic thoroughfares, the WBC always guarantees themselves the last word. At some point, after all, an indignant motorist has to focus on their driving.
The more one sees of The Most Hated Family in America, the more they appear to fit the most classical definition of a cult. Almost all 70 members of the Church live together in a group of houses conjoined by a shared back yard.
Phelps-Roper's two eldest daughters acknowledged they were hated at school, yet insist that they're nice to everyone. They have a bizarre definition of niceness -- they admit to telling their classmates that they're destined to go to hell when they die because of their lifestyles. They even offer doctrinal justification for their lack of friends outside the church, insisting that "friendship with the world is enmity with God".
It's a little unsettling how happily members of the WBC will tell people they're going to hell -- as if they're actually happy about it. Later in the film, Jennifer Phelps explains that they view people going to hell as vindication of their church's message -- and apparently they need no confirmation that such people actually go to hell in order to enjoy this vindication.
The members of the WBC rarely seem to consider the possibility that they may be wrong, but they do apparently consider the possibility that they may be among the "wicked" that God banishes to hell. Jennifer treats the prospect of personal tragedy befalling herself as a confirmation that she is among the damned, and that she would go to hell if such a thing were to ever happen.
The WBC even maintains one individual whose job it is to disseminate their hate propaganda over the internet -- and apparently produces signs aimed at almost any public figure one can think of, from Bishop Desmond Tutu to the deceased Princess Diana.
The production of video propaganda by the church is actually quite a sophisticated process, complete with teleprompters for Fred Phelps to read off his hate speech.
It's almost physically painful to watch Shirley Phelps-Roper's grandchildren spout the hate propaganda their grandmother has so painstakingly taught them.
The bizarre rationalism of the WBC should be enough to make anyone question their belief in an interventionalist God. Phelps muses that God put the idea of invading Iraq in George W Bush's heart, and did this because Bush "tweaked his nose".
Yet one wonders if Phelps considers the possibility that God prodded Bush to act in the way that Phelps believe has offended him. If that were the case, then no one would fall within Phelps' narrow definition of the "wicked" -- after all, these people would only be acting according to God's will.
The actions that allegedly offend God would have been prompted by God, and thus would fall within the rationale that Jacob Roper offers for his belief that all of the WBC's protests are excellence. "God did this, therefore it's perfect," insists Roper.
A sociopathic rage seems to possess Phelps-Roper. Any appeals to her conscience seem to do about as much good as appealing to any sense of self-doubt -- she denies its very existence.
She often seems so sure that she is right that when she predicts Godly retribution, as if she believes it could happen at any instant.
Sadly, Theroux skips over the most intriguing part of the Phelps family story -- the story of the Phelps family members who have left the church. Fred Phelps has never restricted his abuse to the outside world -- he has also abused his own children, physically, mentally, and emotionally, in a horrifically brutal manner. Nate and Mark Phelps were subjected to physical abuse the likes of which has seldom been accounted for.
Yet Theroux makes little mention of the four Phelps who have left the church, save to ask Fred Phelps how many children he has, just so see if he'll include them. Phelps contemptfully concludes the interview at that point.
At the end of The Most Hated Family in America, it's obvious that Theroux has only been shown what the Phelps family wanted him to see. Quite obligingly, it's all he chooses to show the viewer.
It's the world behind this presentation that would really help people understand the Westboro Baptist Church. But on that note, perhaps it may be better that it is never seen -- there are somethings that defy understanding, and possibly even things that are better not understood.