When I was a young pup, about 20 years ago, I wrote for a local queer magazine called Siren. It was there that I first came across stories of the so-called Westboro Baptist Church. At that time, they were protesting the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was the victim of a vicious hate crime. Since I had grown up in a hate-filled church myself, it wasn’t hard to believe that a group espoused a doctrine this harsh. I took them at face value. Most people still do.
The time has come, though, to call them what they are. They are not a Baptist church. Let’s start there. They use the word Baptist, but not one single denomination that falls under the Baptist umbrella will support them. They are autonomous. They are not Baptists. As to being a church, let us examine that as well. The Hartford Institute estimates there are around 350,000 congregations in the United States. Legally claiming to be a church is a surprisingly easy task. By definition (as set forth by the IRS) they are a church. By our social definition, though, the title is not so clear.
Most of the so-called church’s 40 members (as of 2011 paperwork) are part of the Phelps family. Led originally by violent patriarch Fred Phelps, the so-called church was more a family obligation than a community organization. According to his son (and now LGBTQ+ advocate) Nate Phelps, family members were regularly beaten with an axe handle or a barber strap. This type of violence occurred in the families of the children and grandchildren as well.
Given no choice but to comply, the children were taken along to “protests” organized by the family. At these events, they were yelled at, mocked and physically assaulted, proving the family line that there was no safe place outside of the home. WBC is not so much a church as one of the most dazzling examples of Stockholm Syndrome ever created.
After Orlando’s tragic mass shooting, and as Pride approaches, we’re seeing a lot of news that talks about WBC’s planned bad behavior. But by calling them a Baptist Church, we are lending them the legitimacy of an organization that, while certainly on the hook for its own shortcomings, is not represented here.
I propose we start calling them what they are: One Abusive Family. OAF for short. They are just one family. One family that abuses its own members, has no affiliations and reflects no legitimate doctrine. They are not a church. They are not Baptists. They are Phelps’. That is all they are. (And, thanks to the folks that keep leaving and speaking out, we can even say #notallphelps.) They are not WBC. They are One Abusive Family. Let’s call them the OAFs they are.
As you report on them, share them in your feed or express your totally legitimate heartache that people like this still exist, remember: They are a very small group that no one wants to claim. They get together to hate and yell and pretend to be important. We get together to kiss and dance and celebrate love. Love wins. And One Abusive Family will not change that. Don’t give the OAFs space in your day, or in our national discourse.