Matthew Keys, an independent journalist based in California who writes for The Blot Magazine, has written a piece on Westboro Baptist Church that goes above and beyond the usual “here’s what the haters are doing this week” rubber-necking.
Westboro is a conundrum to write about. As Keys says, “It’s hard to cover a hate group when you know their secret weapon: Attention.” Articles about Westboro have that shocker factor. They get clicks. But they make you feel like a whore for writing them.
For a while I have wondered at how this group does what it does and why. I have always written it off to the same kind of reasoning that allows those degenerates in Iraq to behead journalists, throw acid on little girls, and stone women. I figured that my writing about these folks would serve to hasten their demise. And there may still be a school of thought for that.
But Keys’ article for The Blot, entitled “To Defeat Westboro Baptist Church, Just Don’t Look”, made something else clear to me: there is a profit motive behind what Westboro does.
Profit? Hey, what could be more American than that? That puts them right in the same league as Kevin Trudeau and his sham books that finally landed him in prison. It makes them more like Bernie Madoff, and less like ISIS. Right?
Except we have to remember that these people are causing pain for mothers of dead children. They are using a time of grief as an infomercial for their business. It is bottom-feeding at its worst.
So, how is it that Westboro profits from its picketing activities and hate speech? Keys explains that by looking back at the earliest picketing activity of Fred Phelps and his followers.
Phelps had been an attorney, as were all his kids. But Phelps was known in Topeka to be a hate monger, preaching against gays and spewing the same kind of vile speech that his group has become famous for. So Phelps’ practice went downhill, as did that of his family members. Eventually he was disbarred, but continued to practice.
Once, when Phelps and his crew picketed a park that he believed was frequented by gays, he found himself the center of press attention in the area.
Keys explains further:
"The attention started having a detrimental effect on the law firm that bore the Phelps’ surname. His children, all attorneys, began having trouble finding clients to represent. To make ends meet, members of the Phelps family started filing lawsuits as the Westboro Baptist Church against the City of Topeka for failing to provide adequate protection at rallies. In 1995, the Phelps sued the state of Kansas for passing an anti-picketing law that they claimed infringed on their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
"Well-versed in the area of civil law, the Phelps family represented their own church in nearly all of the suits. In a handful of cases, they were awarded thousands of dollars in judgments and settlements; the cash was funneled back into the church for picketing.”
The Phelps family now had a cash cow in the form of a tax-free religious entity. All they needed to do was show up somewhere that their presence would make a big stink, wave their signs around a bit, and wait to have their “rights infringed upon”. Then, they’d sue.
The Phelps clan started looking for opportunities, and they found them in the form of the funeral of Matthew Sheppard, then the performances of The Laramie Project that followed. Later, they used the occasion of the 9/11 attacks and the following wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as auspices for further protests and picketing, with the full intent of enraging people to the point of violating their rights and exposing them to lawsuit retribution.
Of course, Westboro knows you “can’t get blood from a turnip”. Grieving families or enraged locals may not have any money to take. But cities and municipalities do. So Westboro dispatches a few members into a town and they wait to be accosted. When they are, either physically or by way of laws limiting their picketing activity, they sue the city.
This pattern and structure explains everything that decent people hate about Westboro and its activities. This even includes their ubiquitous signs.
Former church member Libby Phelps-Alvarez wrote:
“The words on the signs … are not necessarily written to make people feel bad, but more for the shock factor. Short sound bites grab people’s attention and spark interest.”
The signs, the faxes and tweets announcing Westboro’s intent to protest, the talk show vitriol, and all the other disgust-inducing tactics are all plotted with a purpose: to enrage people.
Does that mean that every member of Westboro is an insincere profiteer and the joke is on all of us?
Not necessarily. As Phelps-Alvarez also said, "I really believed, to my very core, that gay people were destroying not only America, but the entire world. And that it was my job to let the world know just that.”
Apparently, Fred Phelps believed that to his very core, as well. But he also found a way to make it pay. In some senses, that parallels him with a Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. These men no doubt believe what they preach. But they also know how to get rich saying it.
For Osteen and Warren to make their millions, they needs lots of people behind them, megachurches, books, TV shows, and radio. In Phelps’ case, this works in a Bizarro-World way that only requires the 75 people in his church, paltry social media outreach, and a fax machine.
But the magic ingredient for Westboro is you. It is your hate, your attention, the possibility that you or someone like you will violate their rights when they get in your face at a funeral.
So Keys reveals how to stop Westboro. His solution is to stop paying attention to them entirely. It is a novel approach, and it might work. At the very least, the world should see the group and its founder for what it is: a hum-bug wizard with a little, old man behind the curtain pulling levers and hoping for a payout.
What if Westboro Baptist threw a picket and no one came?
— WBCSays (@FalseReligions) September 7, 2014