Southern Baptist leaders disassociate SBC from Phelps' anti-'fag' message & methods

by Tammi Ledbetter, posted Monday, May 17, 1999 (20 years ago)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--The Southern Baptist Convention has become a target of anti-homosexual agitator Fred Phelps for failing to condemn churches Phelps identifies as "openly and notoriously promoting the modern militant homosexual movement" in America.

Phelps pastors Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., which is not aligned with a denomination, and stages public protests throughout the country against individuals, churches and corporations he perceives as supportive of homosexuality either through their actions or inaction.

Phelps has announced plans to be in Atlanta June 15-16 during the SBC’s annual meeting. His protest is promoted through a website at godhatesfags.com as well as circulation of a fax to various media entities.

Among the alleged activities Phelps has listed as prompting his picketing:

-- same-sex marriages performed by Wake Forest Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.

-- a speaking appearance by poet Maya Angelou at Baptist-related William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo.

-- support for homosexuals at Broadway Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.

-- memberships of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in local Southern Baptist congregations.

"These are but a few of the hundreds of instances demonstrating by clear and convincing evidence that the Southern Baptist Convention is gay," Phelps’ media flyer reads. "Those contributing to the SBC are guilty of gross sin and promoting sodomy. Westboro Baptist Church will picket this mixed multitude of motley mercenaries at the Georgia Dome June 15-16 in solemn religious protest." Phelps calls on the SBC to repent of yielding to the flesh, citing Isaiah 40:3-8 as the basis for his prophetic role.

First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Emory University and local relatives of Martin Luther King also have been targeted by Phelps for picketing.

Bill Merrell, vice president for convention relations with the SBC Executive Committee, has tried to correct faulty information Phelps is distributing, informing him that Southern Baptists denounce homosexual practice as sinful and that Southern Baptists affirm Holy Scripture which declares homosexuality to be an abomination before God.

Merrell also reminded Phelps, however, that the Apostle Paul spoke of changed homosexuals who were part of the church in Corinth, "who through the saving gospel of Jesus Christ had been forgiven and made whole."

Still, Phelps persists in attacking Southern Baptists as a whole for failing to denounce Broadway Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., and Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., for their tolerance of homosexuals as members of their churches.

While first explaining that Southern Baptist churches are autonomous, Merrell has told Phelps SBC bylaws declare that a church which affirms or endorses homosexual practice is, by those acts, demonstrating it is not in friendly cooperation with the convention. "I told him that the convention has, in fact, refused the membership of churches which fall into this category."

Phelps makes his case with caustic language and crude placards. On his Internet site, he defends the use of the term "fag" in speaking of homosexuals, calling it "a Bible word" that "gets their attention and preaches the rock-solid truth."

As for Southern Baptists, Phelps claims they have created an atmosphere in which people believe "this soul-damning lie that God loves everybody." As a result, homosexuals continue in their sin, believing they are acceptable to God, Phelps reasons.

SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land described Phelps’ views "a blasphemous contradiction of Christ's message of redeeming love as supremely revealed in the person and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ."

Land added, "These twisted, sub-biblical perversions of the Christian faith are particularly dangerous in an increasingly biblically illiterate society that has only a cursory and decreasing knowledge of the Bible's content and teachings."

Land noted, "God does not hate anybody and God would never countenance the use of a demeaning and derogatory word like 'fag' to describe a human being for whom his Son died. God loathes and detests homosexuality, but God loves the homosexual."

Other Southern Baptist targets have included the SBC Building in Nashville, Tenn., and two Arkansas churches, Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock and First Baptist Church in Springdale.

Phelps attacks Immanuel for failing to discipline its most famous member, President Bill Clinton, whom he calls the "pervert-in-chief."

Phelps added First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark., to his hit list last fall because of pastor Ronnie Floyd's earlier leadership in the SBC as chairman of the Executive Committee.

Phelps timed his protest against what he called "heretic Ronnie Floyd's sodomite Springdale Baptist Church" to coincide with picketing Clinton's presence at the opening of a nearby regional airport. He attacked Floyd as "an SBC official with authority to act" who "stands mute -- denying Christ."

Sometimes the connection is stretched even further. When Richard Owen Roberts spoke at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., a handful of protesters arrived to protest a conference on spiritual awakening, calling in hypocritical as long as the SBC had not dealt with nearby Broadway Baptist Church more aggressively.

Protester Elizabeth Phelps said the group was commissioned by God as well as Westboro Baptist to preach to Southern Baptists for being "weak and limpy" on the issue of homosexuality.

A year earlier, Phelps threatened to picket the inauguration of Mark Coppenger as seminary president, using similar reasoning. Their faxed news releases included a caricature of the new president as a beast with "666" blazoned on his forehead. After being told of Coppenger's strong stance against homosexuality, the protesters did not picket the service.

While many of the targets of Phelps' protest have clearly stated their conviction that homosexuality is sinful behavior, he usually remains unsatisfied with their rebuttal.

The SBC’s Merrell stated, "It is a lack of integrity, not a lack of knowledge" on the part of Phelps. "His group appears to have an agenda which is not affected by the truth," Merrell said, calling that "a serious breach of Christian ethics."

Southern Baptist pastors living in the vicinity of Phelps' unaffiliated church are hesitant to oppose him publicly, knowing that any objections will make them the focus of his next protest.

A local resident challenged Phelps' assertions through a since-closed website, maintaining that Phelps' protests have a distinctly political tone "disguised in and wrapped in pseudo-biblical terminology."

"Anyone who disagrees with him or challenges him regardless of sexual preference is a 'fag,' 'bull dyke,' 'whore' and/or 'bastard' on billboard-sized signs painted with bright neon letters and all referenced by biblical characters and verses."

Phelps' opposition to homosexuals has led Phelps to the funerals of well-known individuals like Matthew Shephard, the 21-year old Wyoming student who was brutally murdered last year. With placards that proclaim "God hates fags," "AIDS cures fags" and "No Tears for Queers," Phelps and his followers make themselves visible during such events, even displaying graphic illustrations of acts of sodomy.

Such activity attracts the national media with coverage on network newscasts of ABC, CBS and FOX, on "20/20" and even “Ricki Lake," as well as reports by the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.

"When people go to funerals, they have thoughts of mortality, heaven, hell, and eternity on their minds," according to material on Phelps’ Westboro Baptist website. "It's the perfect time to warn them of things to come."

The local media has grown weary of Phelps' faxed releases which feature crudely drawn caricatures of his targets. Although the Kansas City Star has covered Phelps' activity involving Broadway Baptist, receiving a fax from him does not guarantee that a reporter will be assigned to the frequent protests.

Much of the membership of Westboro Baptist Church is made up of family members related to Phelps. The church is situated within a city block, with family members residing in all but one of the adjoining houses. A 12-foot-high privacy fence surrounds the compound.

Phelps defends what some regard as a message of hate, saying on his website, "For every one verse about God's mercy, love, and compassion, there are two verses about His vengeance, hatred, and wrath. The maudlin, kissy-pooh, feel-good, touchy-feely preachers of today's society are damning this nation and this world to hell. They are telling you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear."

Homosexual activists have capitalized on Phelps' rhetoric by identifying him as a part of the religious right. His tactics have been criticized by the Family Research Council as playing into the hands of the media "to crudely caricature Christians."

But Phelps sees the religious right as modern-day Pharisees, calling them lukewarm cowards. "They spend more time harassing people who are preaching the gospel than anything else, just like the Pharisees did to Jesus," Phelps said on his website. "They are second in evil only to the modern-day Saducees," he added, referring to "bleeding heart liberals."

If Phelps shows up at the SBC in Atlanta, he will be treated kindly, Bill Merrell says. "And we'll refute his groundless accusations. We have an obligation to set the record straight."

“Fred Phelps Is Not One of Us,” declares a story in Jerry Falwell’s National Liberty Journal in May.

Falwell wrote, “While we fully oppose the acceptance of abhorrent sexual behavior, we must also reach out with compassion to these individuals who are lost in their sin. Rev. Phelps has apparently forgotten that we are all sinners in need of redemption in Jesus Christ.”

The National Liberty Journal stated, “We implore members of the media who cover topics relating to religion and sexuality not to portray Phelps as a voice for America’s Christian community. He does not speak for us, and he does not speak for any branch of Christianity.”


Art Toalston contributed to this report.

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