Yasmin Nair

Conversations with God Hates Fags/Westboro Baptist Church

Filed By Yasmin Nair | December 21, 2008 8:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Media
Tags: Barack Obama, Chicago, Fred Phelps, Fundamentalist Christians, God Hates Fags, Katherine Hockenberger, Westboro Baptist Church

I promised I'd post a transcripts of my conversations with people in God Hates Fags, so here's a brief account of my encounter made available only on Bilerico. Links will take you to my previous Bilerico posts.

It's Monday, December 4, outside the Democratic National Committee Headquarters which also serves as Obama's transition office. 233 S. Michigan.

I'm here to cover the Westboro Baptist Church, also known as God Hates Fags because of the signs they carry with that message. I'd already shown up earlier in the week at the Federal Building on Dearborn (Obama's Senate office), where they were supposed to have appeared but didn't. So, I'm understandably thrilled to see the bright signs from inside the bus, as it pulls up at the stop. These are professional signs, with large, bold images and simple phrases like "God Hates Pakistan," and "Antichrist Obama."

There are only five of them. I'd expected a larger crowd. It's possible they've split up into small groups and dispersed all across the city and the state since, judging by the number of places they plan to visit as announced on godhatesfags.com, they've got quite a few places to protest. I'm surprised by how young they are.

Except for a man who turns out to be Fred Phelps Jr. and who seems to be about 50, none of them look like they're even 30. I start with Fred Phelps Jr., and it's a relatively brief conversation, much of it involving scripture. Throughout, my conversations with Phelps and another member of the church are perfectly civil.

I identify myself as a reporter from Windy City Times to each of them, assuming that they know it's a gay paper; I'm sure they keep tabs on the queer community. I expect them to refuse to talk to me or hurl sermons, but instead they're quite forthcoming and even genial. Which makes sense, given their professed desire to get the word out on as many channels as possible.

Fred Phelps Jr.

Yasmin Nair: So, why are you here and what are you protesting?

Fred Phelps Jr.: We're here to do a little preaching to Obama. He's given over the civil rights movement to the filthy homosexuals and the baby killers. He claims to be inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, but he's ignoring the basic message: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Have you read the Sermon on the Mount?

YN: Don't remember much about it, actually. [All I can remember is that there was a sermon. On a mountain. I think. As I talk , I'm desperately trying to remember all my Bible/Moral Science classes from when I was a girl].

FPJ: It has the strongest language condemning homosexuals.

YN: What about the sign about Pakistan (God Hates Pakistan)? What do you have against Pakistan?

FPJ: They're not Christians. They don't believe in Christ.

YN: But a lot of people don't believe in Christ.

FPJ: Yes, and God Hates the World. (At this point, he starts quoting Scripture and talks about how the world is going to end).

YN: But what would happen to all of you? Wouldn't you be stricken just as much ?

FPJ: No, it's like the story of Sodom. We'll be like Lot and Noah. Do you know the story of Lot?

(All I can remember about Lot is something about a pillar of salt. I'm an aetheist, on top of being a queer lesbian, so can't be expected to remember this stuff. I tell him I don't remember.)

FPJ: Well, this country is doomed. Read Genesis chapters 18 and 19. Lot was taken out of the city by angels. And that's what will happen to us as well.

We end our conversation on that note, and chat briefly about the weather.

Afterwards, I talk to someone who's more theologically informed, and he reminds me of Lot's incest story - about his daughters trying to get impregnated by their father. I'm scarred.

Jon Trott, of Jesus People, is the lone counter demonstrator and stands on the opposite side of the street. He's got two signs, one that says "Gays are our neighbours." I talk to him for a bit.

I don't want to return hate for hate, but I certainly hate their message and believe God hates it too. I think they're cartoon theologians. There's an obvious psychological issue here, with the leader of the group somehow is getting his own strange reward from the hate message they're spreading and the opposition that it stirs up among most sane people in the world. But he's in need of redemption and Christ loves him, whether or not he's able to apprehend that.

I walk back across the street and try to talk to one of the women, who looks like she's barely 17, but she purses her lips and shakes her head. It's clear I won't get anything from her. I circle around, tape recorder in hand, and see an animated female passerby arguing with another WBC woman. They're arguing about the Bible, and the conversation's clearly not going anywhere - the WBC woman tells the passerby that she has the Bible wrong. The passerby later tells me that she considers herself a servant of God as well, and is upset that people like the WBC followers might be tainting the reputation of believers. I go up to the woman she'd been arguing with, whose name is Katherine Hockenberger. She's measured and polite.

Katherine Hockenberger

YN: What do you think of (Jon Trott) across the street?

KH: I think he is very misguided. The lord has blinded his eyes. He can stand over there all he wants to and all he does is bring more attention to our message because everybody that sees him wants to know why he's saying that. So they read these signs and they receive the word of God.

(By this time, passing cars are honking and they're clearly not doing so in support of WBC; drivers and passengers are pointing third fingers out of their car windows.)

YN: So do you think you have a lot of support in a city like Chicago?

KH: Oh, of course not. The whole round world has rejected the word of God and therefore rejects the Lord's servants. So there's no support anywhere we go. The Lord Jesus Christ said, "The emissaries of evil will hate you." So. We love it. All we're here to do is make sure that every single person, when they meet their maker, is without excuse. They can't tell the Lord God on Judgment Day that they didn't know because we've been here, we've been telling you.

YN: How long have you been doing this? You seem quite young.

KH: We've been doing this for 18 years.

YN: No, I mean you personally.

KH: I've been doing it since I was 8 years old.

YN: Did your parents bring you into the church?

KH: Yes. I've been going to the Westboro Baptist Church my entire life with my parents. We started doing this in Topeka in 1991. There was a local park there where people would meet to have sex. The government wouldn't do anything about it, so we started putting up signs to warn people. It pretty much just grew from there. It grew pretty rapidly because it was very apparent to us that the people in the city, the churches in particular started making an issue of what we were doing because they were saying that it wasn't right to tell people that it's essentially not okay to have sex in a park. Two men? It was perfectly fine for them to go have sex in the bathrooms or in the bushes or whatever. So they brought God into it, saying that God loves everybody. Of course, God doesn't love everybody. The scriptures are very clear about that. And so we responded, and the Lord has guided us and given us a wonderful ministry, and we've gone forth into this entire nation. We've gone into other countries. The world receives our message now, through our website.

YN: How are you funded?

KH: We work. Just like everybody else. I go to work and I use the money to support myself and my family and to travel to Chicago or wherever we need to be.

YN: So the ministry doesn't cover any of your expenses?

KH: No. No one pays our way. I bought a plane ticket. The other people bought plane tickets. We get into the car and we go about our business.

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Pardon my turn of phrase but:

For the curious about the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5.

As for Phred and Co. all I have to say is:

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart. - Proverbs 11:29
(not bad for a Buddhist, eh?)

Great interview, Yasmin.

Thanks, Greg. Not bad, at all!

I found Hockenberger's story about the genesis (no pun intended) of WBC really interesting. I hadn't been aware that the Church had actually started in response to men having sex in parks. I always thought it emerged from a more general fundamentalism. Interesting that it originated in such a specific gay issue (though, as we know, not all men who have sex with men in parks are gay).

Speaking of which, you and others might be interested in this piece I wrote a while back ago about public sex, titled Private Parts and Public Sex:


It's funny that the issue they started with was an issue that even many queers nowadays will condemn (though I hope they won't picket against it).

Maybe if they stuck with just that issue, certain prominent members of the gay and lesbian population would be marching with them today?

Yikes, yes. I actually think that would be the case. In all honesty, given where the movement is lurching these days, I've sometimes wondered why conservatives/the Right and prominent gays and lesbians aren't bigger allies. I think they are, and after the dust on marriage settles we'll see more of a flattening out of the issues.

The Fred Phelps Expose is still online....


Something I wish someone would ask people at the WBC that I have never heard asked of them is, 'is your church involved in missions other than your protests.' If they start talking about baking bread, cut them off....

It seems a real shame that someone would take a little girl at the age of 8, and let her go to a place that brainwashes her into some sort of misguided messenger of hate who spends her free time as an adult standing on street corners making an ass of herself.

A real shame.

Gerri Ladene | December 22, 2008 4:37 AM

Great reporting Yasmin!

Hmmmm, the indoctrination process! I thought it would be interesting if Institutionalized Superstition were forbid by law to drag young children into their process of indoctrination. What would happen to it if people were not forced by their parents and allowed to make up their own minds, say after they turned 18, to enter into the superstitious cult their parents are in? How would you look at religion if you had not been forced to be part of it? Would they chose it if they weren't brainwashed by some Con-man who found a calling of making easy money by perpetrating a deception?

Maybe there should be some thought given to this process of patriarchal Idol worship and its negative effect on society when used repeatedly to promote violent discrimination. It really does have a long dark history of this behavior! Even now, many of these same superstitious people are forcing their children to attend schools explicitly for that very purpose and lacking a school they are taking their children out of public schools and Home-Schooling them. Home Schooling is the new trend among the superstitious Reich! You know the ones, totally phobic bigots who get off on hatred instead of love like Fred Phelps Jr..

Your right diddlygrl, it is a shame!

I'm still curious about the sermon on the mount reference. Where in that is a condemnation of homosexuality?

There are quite a few condemnations in there, but this one seems relevant:

21"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother[b]will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,[c]' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

23"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

25"Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.[d]

Undoubtably he meant Matt 5:17-20, as the Westboro crowd are wont to apply Levitican Law to gays and lesbians. It reads:

17 "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

But even that gets you called least in the kingdom of heaven, so go figure. I guess man needs to feel better even in heaven than those he looks down upon here on earth. Eh....

Like Michael Whelan SM said, "For the fundamentalist, life is a monologue, not a dialogue."

You managed to get the Phelps folks into a dialogue. That's miraculous, and it might be the thing that heals folks who hate like that.

I'm so tempted to add "after I beat them senseless."

Thank you for your effort and your reporting.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | December 22, 2008 5:36 PM

Yasmin, the story of Lot--widely cited by homophobes to prove God's displeasure with homosexuality--has been interpreted by most modern Bible scholars to be a parable against treating strangers badly, not against homosexuality.

Furthermore, by modern standards the whole story is shocking for many reasons. In it, Lot offers hospitality to two strangers (actually angels in disguise) who show up at his house. An unruly mob later surrounds his home, asking that the two strangers be sent out so that they "may know them," translated to mean "rape them." Lot seeks to bargain with the mob by offering his two virgin daughters to them to do with as they wish instead, if only the mob will leave the strangers alone. The mob refuses, they are then struck blind by God who tells Lot and his family to flee and not look back.

Later, after the cities of Sodom and G'morah are destroyed and Lot and the two daughters have been wandering in the desert (Lot's wife--the girls' mother--has been turned into a pillar of salt for disobeying God and looking back), the two daughters plot together on how they can preserve the human race, as they believe they are the only people left alive. Their solution? Get their father really drunk, then take turns to go in and have sex with him.

Yep, what a great parable to condemn homosexuality, eh?

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | December 23, 2008 1:31 AM

There's even a parallel story elsewhere in the OT, city destruction and all, only it's a story about het, not same-sex, rape. Otherwise it's virtually identical to the Sodom & Gomorrah story. Of course, no one much talks about that one, much less that it's parallel. So much more fun to point fingers at someone else, I suppose.

Thanks Rev, Gerri, and Alex, for your comments. And Brynn - ah, reading your post brought back all those scripture class memories. Thanks -- I think ?? :-) My, the Bible filled with some interesting tales.