On a beautiful coffee farm overlooking the beach in Maui, two of my best friends, John and Christopher, celebrated their love for one another surrounded by friends and family last summer. I have never met two people more madly in love with each other, and I have never been more honored to stand in a wedding as a bridesmaid.
Fred Phelps, on the other hand, would probably beg to differ. But at 11:15 p.m. last Wednesday night, the 84-year-old man died in hospice in care in Topeka, Kan., of natural causes. Thank God.
For those of you who don’t know who Phelps is, let me give you a brief biography. He’s the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka known for its virulent anti-gay protests at more than 53,000 public events. He’s also known to believe that tragic events like the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. and the brutal slaying of Matthew Shepard, a gay man, were God’s punishment for the country’s acceptance of homosexuality.
I’ve got to say, there are some crazy religious philosophies floating around out there — just ask the Creationists about the instantaneous birth of man via magic tricks. But, blaming the gays for natural disasters or school shootings makes about as much logical sense as blaming straights for obesity or global warming.
Believe me. As a proud bridesmaid in my best friends’ gay wedding last summer, no one was happier than me to hear that the bigoted old fool had finally gasped his last breath. But still, in the days since his passing, I can’t help but wonder if Phelps took an unfair share of the blame for pushing an anti-gay agenda that many other religious groups in the United States are equally guilty of pushing.
Phelps was an easy target for Americans to locate unequivocal intolerance in, and he was an easy person to hate. However, now that he’s dead, leaving the fate of the Westboro Baptist Church uncertain, what are other religious institutions with similar anti-gay sentiments going to hide their own doctrines behind? What makes the philosophies of Phelps’ cult-like church more detestable than the numerous other religious institutions that, albeit, not as loudly, have taken an active stance against homosexuality? Is it fair to say that the Westboro Baptist Church philosophies were more detrimental to the progression of gays in modern society than other religious groups in America, or are they simply just more vocal?
They may not be making a spectacle out of their intolerance with colorful banners at the grave sites of slain U.S. soldiers, but that doesn’t mean that doctrine of the Church of Latter-Day Saints is any more tolerant of homosexuality. Violate the law of chastity, and be prepared to face church discipline. You may be subject to excommunication, restricted church membership and your temple recommendations may be threatened.
They’re not picketing outside of concert halls, but the Evangelical Methodist Church does preach that homosexuality is a sin equated with adultery, murder and stealing that leads to spiritual death and eternal punishment. Or how about the Islamic stance on homosexuality? Not only is being gay a sin, but it’s also a punishable crime under Islamic law. Forms of punishment differ between the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence, but what they all agree upon is that homosexuality is worthy of a severe penalty.
If you ask me, there are religious groups that are equally responsible for stunting the progression of gay people in society. Even Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, seems to understand that discrimination based on sexual preference is outdated.
In 2013, Pope Francis told journalists, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge? The problem is not having this orientation. We must be brothers. The problem is lobbying by this orientation … This is the worse problem.”
Phelps’ controversial display of intolerant views on homosexuality as an abomination made him a notoriously detestable figure, and his passing brought a huge sigh of relief from many people who dubbed him as “the most hated man in America.” Certainly, the world is a better place without Phelps. However, he was just one man with an extremist opinion and a small following and if we as a society are taking the stance of outrage at the fierce messages of hate and discrimination of the Westboro Baptist Church, let’s make sure we are doing our part to distribute that outrage equally.
I’m talking to all you religious groups who back anti-gay doctrines. If we’re smart, we’ll not only celebrate the death of Phelps, but use his passing as an opportunity to shine a light on all the other discriminatory institutions out there who are just as guilty of intolerance and messages of hate.
Kate Hofberg is a graduate student in the College of Communication. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org