- God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right by Rebecca Barrett-Fox
God Hates is the first full-length study of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for its protests, most infamously at military funerals, in which members remind a wayward America of God's wrath with signs reading "GOD HATES FAGS" and "THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS." Sociologist Rebecca Barrett-Fox takes her subject seriously, and while not a simple or pure work of ethnography as claimed on the dustjacket, her extensive study of the group and familiarity with them is dyed into the fabric of the book. God Hates provides not just an excellent overview and history of the church, but also endeavors to place it within a wider religious and political context.
The first three chapters of the book focus on the history, theology, and actions of the Westboro Baptist Church respectively. The opening chapter provides the biography of its founder, Fred Phelps, the formation of the Westboro Baptist Church, and the structure of the church and religious life within it. The reader can see how Phelps' antagonistic legal background and local disputes between the church and Topeka, Kansas authorities over homosexual activity in a public park nearly three decades ago could develop into the current group of international notoriety. Much of what makes the church seem so incomprehensible to outsiders is rooted in its "hyper-Calvinist" doctrinal concerns, including double predestination and total depravity. Therefore, the author's work in the second chapter to untangle and explain the theology of Westboro Baptist Church is especially helpful. While the protests and placards of the church allow the public to assume a fervency that precludes common sense, the third chapter highlights just how deliberate and media savvy the church has been in delivering its message to the public. Its members have adopted new forms of technology—from fax machines to the internet—and they go into protests clearly aware of how the media will cover them and unintentionally help them spread their message.
If Barrett-Fox makes the apparent strangeness of the Westboro Baptist Church more familiar in the first three chapters of her book, the fourth and fifth chapters render the familiar opposition to the church strange. It is in this section where the author does some of her most intriguing and fruitful work. Revulsion to the Westboro Baptist Church is nearly universal. It is noteworthy that even fellow Primitive Baptists make efforts to publicly stand apart from the group and their pickets. But as Barret-Fox notes, although nobody "claims kin" to the Westboro Baptist Church, many of those who try to distance themselves from the group are clearly related to them. As the author details in her fourth chapter, the Religious Right and the Westboro Baptist Church not only share many of the same political goals and theological [End Page 131] reasoning on gay rights, gay marriage, and LGBT members in the military, but the offensive delivery of the church allows its mainstream "cobelligerents in antigay activism" (the title of her fourth chapter) to appear more palatable and reasonable to the public in comparison.
The final chapter focuses on the Westboro Baptist Church's protests at military funerals—sites where the solemnity of mourning merges with the symbolic power of the armed forces, the family, and the nation. For most Americans, military funerals are inviolable, a fact that Shirley Phelps-Roper notes when describing the power of these pickets: "We found their idol" (164). The most infamous practice of the church is also the one that most separates it from their allies in the Religious Right. These protests also strain the tolerance of those who would otherwise believe in unimpeded free speech. The contested boundaries of free speech thus put the Westboro Baptist Church in the position of relying on the rights given to them by the same America whose damnation they applaud.
Many of the presumptions made about the Westboro Baptist Church are overturned in God Hates. Despite views that the...