It’s been a busy year for the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), and it shows no sign of slowing down.
The Church is reportedly considering picketing “gay-agenda” “enabler” Robin Williams’ funeral, has announced plans to picket a Goo Goo Dolls concert and had said it would picket the funeral of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot by a policeman on August 9 in an incident that has subsequently become the focus of sometimes violent protests and reignited the conversation about racial politics in America today.
Said the WBC in a flyer posted to its Twitter page announcing their intent to picket:
“The truth of what went on when Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18 year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, may never be known,” the WBC’s picket schedule announces. “Regardless of the details, the cause was from the Lord! Missouri has made itself known worldwide for three things: Fags (e.g. Michael Sam); beastiality; and shredding the constitution in order to remove the Word of God from their streets.”
“Parents, teachers, preachers, government actors, media, and people of Missouri: your Creator loaned you Michael Brown to raise up in obedience to God. Instead, you taught him that God is a liar, you taught him to serve himself, and thereby you raised him for the devil! All evidence points to Michael now being in Hell. It’s your fault, Missouri! His blood is on your hands! God has only just begun his righteous judgment against you: WBC rejoices!”
There is a saying on the Internet: “Do not feed the trolls.” Westboro has been trolling us for quite a while now.
In the early days of their protests, or at least in the early days of media coverage that started in the 90s, there was worth in highlighting just how terrible the WBC’s agenda is. One can hardly forget the protest against Matthew Shepard, and the beautiful counter protests that it inspired. When striking back against the “God Hates Fags” message mattered deeply, because if we’re honest it was only a little more extreme than general discourse around gay rights at the time anyway, there was a need to show the WBC’s hateful signs and talk about why this kind of religious messaging (and like it or not, they are deeply religious) was not just tasteless but harmful to many.
But we’ve come a long way since then. Now the WBC is perceived as a lunatic fringe rather than anything close to resembling a religious body, and that was helped in no small way to their divorced-from-reality reaction to 9/11 which they categorized as “God’s judgment” on America. And this is where the media fascination with them becomes slightly strange, if not self-serving.
To be sure, there are noteworthy stories to report. The fact that the WBC has been shedding family members at a pace, who are leaving the Church for a life outside its narrow, apparently indoctrinating walls, is worth the column inches. So too is any and all investigative journalism into the Church’s internal workings and the welfare of those within its reach.
However, the constant running commentary on what funeral the church plans to picket next, be it a prominent LGB or T person, or a soldier’s funeral, isn’t needed — the Church often doesn’t turn up now. What’s more, there’s strong evidence to suggest that reporting so ardently on the WBC does in fact “feed the trolls” exactly what they need: the chance of counter-protests where albeit legitimately outraged people infringe on the WBC’s rights so that they can then sue for damages.
While we know that several of the church’s members work to provide additional sources of income, the church has received substantial payouts from the courts and made an industry of sorts out of it. The Southern Poverty Law Center summarizes:
Fred Phelps and his small congregation provide WBC’s funding; the group neither solicits nor accepts outside donations. In addition to this income, the church makes money by winning or settling civil lawsuits involving the church. During the 1990s, the group sued Topeka multiple times for failing to provide sufficient protection during its protests. Although they lost most of their cases, WBC did win $43,000 in legal fees in 1993. According to Shirley Phelps-Roper, they also won more than $100,000 in 1995 in a lawsuit against Kansas’ Funeral Picketing Act, which they claimed violated their First Amendment rights. Because the Phelps family represents WBC in court, they can put the fees they win towards supporting the church.
Those cases now appear to be fewer and further between as counter-protesters have become wise to such tactics, but nevertheless the media attention given to them fulfills their primary mission which is, in essence, to preach as loudly to as many people as possible their, essentially, “God Hates Everyone But Us” message.
So why does the the media keep reporting on the church? Well, it profits from this in a distasteful way because the latest story about the church is sure to stir outrage and draw readers. As such, the church is useful to the media. It is, to borrow another Internet term, clickbait — and it needs to stop.
As annoying as the WBC might be, they are a small-time operation that is getting smaller. Also, they can do very little to affect change in lawmaking or policy. The same cannot be said of other religious conservatives like, for instance, Scott Lively, who is known to have played a roll in Uganda’s anti-gay (or as he termed it, “pro-family”) obsession, and also Russia’s recent crackdown.
Not only is our attention better spent looking away from the WBC and at people who are actually trying to impinge on our civil rights, but it might just be that showing restraint here could finally banish the WBC into the obscurity its members deserve. That all depends, though, on whether the media is prepared to let go of this attention-getting angle it currently, perversely, enjoys.
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