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Please Stop Giving the Westboro Baptists the Attention they Crave

Please Stop Giving the Westboro Baptists the Attention they Crave

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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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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79 comments

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9:57PM PDT on Aug 31, 2014

WESTBORO who?

11:03AM PDT on Aug 31, 2014

There seems to be a fine line between ignoring the trolls and apathy.

12:09PM PDT on Aug 30, 2014

Well, then, Michelle....who gets to decide if they're ''real Christians" or not?

Frankly, I'm weary of Christians who smugly announce that no ''real Christian'' would do this or do that--whatever it is.

If they call themselves Christians....who's to deny them that title?

Are groups of ''real'' Christians actively working to remove the WBC's religious designation? No? Why not? Are groups of ''real'' Christians actively working to shut the WBC out of demonstrations? No? Why not? Are groups of ''real'' Christians formally advertising their sentiments against WBC? No? Why not?

This reminds me of Muslim fans who will write comments such as "No REAL Muslim would say/do so-and-so." Really? Who gets to decide what's "REAL Islam" and what isn't?

Who gets to decide what's "REAL Christianity" and what isn't? Because there are hundreds of denominations, churches, pastors, etc, and you're all different. So, you'll have to excuse the rest of us who haven't the time, energy or desire to say what's a "REAL Christian" and what isn't.

6:08AM PDT on Aug 30, 2014

While people do need to be informed about the hate group known as Westboro Baptist Church, everyone also needs to know that those people are not Christians. No real Christian would say the things they do.

1:09PM PDT on Aug 28, 2014

They just get more and more disgusting, I give them no space in my head or life.

12:37PM PDT on Aug 28, 2014

I have to wholeheartedly disagree with this article. We need to keep these deranged opposers of sanity and reason in complete view. We need our children to know exactly what a detriment to a just society these people represent.
I want these type of people in complete view rather than operating clandenstinely.
That old saying, keep your friends close and your enemies closer applies here.
We need to keep talking about these issues and these kind of people. We have to never let ourselves be lulled into thinking that they are not out there plotting to undermine our Constitution with insanity. Granted they shouldn't monopolize and media but when darkness rears it's ugly head we all should be aware of it and guard ourselves against the danger it represents. Bigotry. Racism. Religious persecution. Enacting religious laws. Oppression. We are better than they are but we have be ever watchful for what they represent. Even in the injustice of the Hobby Lobby cause. A small loss but it undermines the human condition.

10:32AM PDT on Aug 28, 2014

How about if we encourage the news folks not to mention even the name.
Maybe only that" crap" has threatened to Attend "X". Then normal people could have peace at their event. If picketers did show up to rant..maybe holding hands and being silent ..physically moving back to "fence out the mouthy idiots." Not much news to put out there if quiet people are just moving backward
Losing backers for his program and ending up in dead air worked on Rush Limbaugh..maybe with this gang?

8:18AM PDT on Aug 28, 2014

If anyone asks me to define irony, I will give them this article.

8:00AM PDT on Aug 28, 2014

Their leader died. Hasn't he come back from the dead yet to help them?

7:11AM PDT on Aug 28, 2014

Of course this article isn't giving them a scrap of publicity, is it ?

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