USA - I'd Rather See Rowan Williams Meet The Phelps Family
Louis Theroux's new encounter with the 'God hates fags' church wasn't illuminating – let's see the archbishop challenge them
Did you see Louis Theroux's latest encounter with the horrible Phelps family of Topeka, Kansas on BBC2 on Sunday? They are the members – almost the sole members – of the Westboro Baptist church, who take their own form of self-righteous fundamentalism to the outer streams of unreason by touring the US picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and gloating over their deaths, which they see as God's just punishment on a sinful nation, in particular, because of its accommodation of gay people. Their banners carry scabrous, sniggery messages about God hating fags and – according to the evidence of Theroux's programme – nasty stuff about Muslims, Jews and Catholics, too.
I watched, not least because I once interviewed a Phelps outside the Episcopal church's general convention in Minneapolis in 2003, shortly before it approved the election of Gene Robinson, the gay bishop of New Hampshire. Abigail, one of the Phelps daughters, who appears to have evaded Theroux's scrutiny, was standing on an American flag and insisting that 9/11 had been a good day because it showed the US the error of its gay-loving ways – not, obviously, that it had taken much notice either of His Mighty Wrath, or indeed the Phelps family's warnings. "It's extremely lovin' and very charitable," she retorted as I suggested her message was not exactly full of Christian charity. "What I am showing here is the highest form of love." As I beat a bemused retreat, she called cheerily after me: "Have a good day!"
Sunday's programme was Theroux's second encounter with the Phelps family, after he made a previous documentary four years ago. I wonder why he bothered. It is extremely hard to give a non-critical account of their activities and he had depicted them in all their blustering unloveliness – so much so that in preparation for his return, those he had interviewed before prepared new banners suggesting he would roast in hell. Yet they welcomed him cheerily enough, invited him in and went through the same motions of explaining their theology as they had before, mostly with grins on their faces. For his part, Theroux performed his usual act of bemused naivety.
Very little new was disclosed, apart from the fact that several family members had been cast into outer darkness for questioning their creed and Grandpappy Fred Phelps's controlling tendency. Theroux conceded that he could not challenge their beliefs because he did not know any theology and was an unbeliever.
In fact, such theology as it is possible to discern behind the Phelpses' bluster in the documentary is in extreme form a mix of Calvinism and Premillennialism, larding biblical literalism (without that nonsense about love or helping the poor, obviously) and the mishmash of End Days philosophy originally propounded by the gloomy 19th-century English preacher John Nelson Darby. The antichrist is naturally identified as Barack Obama in this eschatological story.
To a greater or lesser extent this is a template, parts of which would fit many American fundamentalist preachers. In an entrepreneurial religious culture where churches compete for market share, publicity has to be their schtick and their forte, just as it has for their predecessors in a long, unlovely line stretching back more than 300 years: you can take in Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Billy Sunday, Darby himself, all the way to Lorenzo Dow and Cotton Mather.
It has been a common message: the need to repent, the closeness to perdition, the proximity of the devil, the importance of the elect, the wickedness and perversion of outsiders, the contempt for other religions and the imperative for unquestioning obedience and the avoidance of backsliding. Where the Phelpses have taken matters to an extreme is merely in their utter, all-encompassing, obsession with homosexuality and their compulsion by their actions to repel rather than convert. Plenty of other sects have similar theologies but they prefer a less confrontational approach.
Despite their perverse attitude to proselytising, it is impossible not to conclude that the Phelpsites love publicity of any description. Theroux has given it to them in spades – many sects, convinced of their own invincible rectitude, can only dream of two hours of largely unchallenged primetime television. No wonder they welcome him. If there is a next time, he ought to take a theologian with him who might penetrate their carapace of biblical certainty and challenge them on their own ground. Perhaps Rowan Williams could take it on – he enjoys an intellectual challenge and few would be more so. It would make a more interesting spectacle – but, of course, they'd slam the door in the archbishop's face. It would be worth doing – such people need to be challenged: ignoring them only makes them more certain of their own inerrant righteousness, as we have all found this last week with the awful example of the Florida "pastor" Terry Jones.