Good people do terrible things (further thoughts re: Fred Phelps)

As I was writing the previous post, I kept wondering if I was being overly harsh in comparing mainstream conservative Christians to Fred Phelps – who is, after all, universally disliked, unbelievably odious, and, in my opinion, downright evil.  The man is by all accounts a controlling, angry, and extremely abusive husband and father, who has brainwashed his family into thinking he is practically God, and who believes some very strange and dangerous things (the documentary Fall From Grace gives a pretty chilling picture of Phelps and the WBC – also on Netflix streaming.  If you’re beginning to think that everything I watch is on Netflix instant watch, you’re not too far off).

Obviously not all conservative Christians are like Phelps in these respects – and I’d venture to say most are not.  Most have good intentions – like most people in general.  Many conservative Christians I know are loving parents and spouses, good neighbors, great friends.  So I’ve been pondering whether the comparison was hyperbolic, or unkind, and pondering how it would come across to the people in my life – friends, family, all of whom I love, many of whom are lovely people whom I trust and respect – who are conservative Christians.

When I criticize conservative Christians and their beliefs, I’m not claiming that they are all or mostly evil people, nor do I believe that.  That goes for any major demographic, really.  But I hesitated to add a bunch of disclaimers about how Christians can be nice people to my previous post, because I didn’t want to water down the power of my point.

On further thought, I think this is actually quite an important point to address.  In way it’s the central point: good people can, despite good intentions and sincere beliefs, despite doing much good in most other aspects of their lives, believe and say things that have horrible, awful implications.  They can do terrible things that have devastating effects on others without intending to.  Hardly anyone is mostly or all bad, much less consciously or deliberately evil; most people, I believe, are just trying to do their best to live decent lives.  Most people don’t set out to do evil.  Yet hardly any of us manages to avoid doing or enabling evil in one way or another.

Fred Phelps hates gay people.  He makes no secret of that. While there are mainstream conservative Christians in this country who share his overt, conscious hatred of gay people, not all do.  Probably most don’t.  Many truly believe they are being loving by telling LGB people their orientations or lifestyles are wrong, by opposing marriage equality, etc..  But people don’t have to be conscious of hatred (or fear, contempt, self-loathing, and any number of other emotions that can fuel homophobia) for their beliefs about and actions towards LGB people to be hateful.

When I say conservative Christian beliefs on homosexuality are no different from Fred Phelps’, I’m not talking about the conscious intention behind those teachings.  I’m talking about their implications.  Their practical, real-world effects.

This is how oppression works.  Systemic oppression cannot be sustained without the complicity of otherwise good people – through beliefs, actions, and inaction.  And it cannot be sustained without the myths about human nature and behavior we buy into as a culture.  We pretend that only bad people do evil things, and that it’s really easy to spot such people – as if there were some obvious marker distinguishing evil people from good.  We desperately want to believe these things, because the reality that we’re all capable of doing and enabling evil is frightening, and requires that we scrutinize ourselves more closely than we’d like.

We all want to believe we’re good people who do good things, myself included; that’s understandable.  But the idea that “those people” over there are the real bad people, and we’re all good, is an incredibly dangerous one.  It’s what allows systemic injustice and inequity to survive and flourish.

This is what Christians who are puzzled and offended by accusations of homophobia and comparisons to people like Fred Phelps need to understand.  Sure, it’s a good thing that you don’t picket funerals or scream at people about how they’ll suffer an eternity of torment in hell.  But in the grand scheme of things, your beliefs about LGB people aren’t made any less harmful or hateful by the fact that they don’t act on them the way Westboro Baptist does.  Your beliefs still fuel homophobic speech and behavior, and enable and support wide-scale denial of rights to LGB people.  This is why claims that you “love the sinner and hate the sin” ring hollow.  The implications and effects of your beliefs are not loving.

And really, this is what anyone called out for enabling oppression of any kind needs to understand.  Being called out is not a comment on who you are.  It’s not a comment on your intentions.  It’s a comment on what you said, and what you did.  We’re all capable of doing and saying things that support and even promote oppression without intending to do so, and without being evil.  It’s unjust and enabling of oppression to demand that people evaluate us based on what we intend and not on the actual, tangible effects of what we do.

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Fred Phelps and conservative Christians: Not so different

I recently watched The Education of Shelby Knox, a documentary about a high school girl of the same name from Lubbock, Texas, raised in a very Republican and conservative Southern Baptist family.  (Definitely recommended, and it’s on Netflix instant watch.)  The film tracks Knox’s unlikely evolution into a youth activist for comprehensive sex education in high schools and LGB rights.  It was pretty interesting to watch another young woman work through some of the same questions that forced me to reconsider the beliefs I was raised with, and end up in more or less the same place (Knox is now a feminist organizer and blogger).

In one of the key moments in the film, Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church comes to Lubbock to “protest” student attempts to form a gay-straight alliance in the local high school.  Out of the myriad hateful comments and signs there, I was particularly struck by a young woman smiling widely, carrying a sign with a picture of Matthew Shepard, whic read: “Matt: 5 years in hell.”

I’ve heard a lot of conservative Christians claim that Fred Phelps doesn’t speak for them, that they don’t agree with him, that his church preaches a God of hate, while “true” Christianity – their version of Christianity – preaches a God of “love.”  And ok, there are some differences in belief, but these distinctions aren’t terribly impressive, unless one believes that cookies should be handed out for not yelling at people who are mourning their dead.

In it’s essence, what “mainstream” conservative Christians believe about LGB people is no different from what Fred Phelps believes about them.  I don’t know (or at least, I don’t think I know) anyone from my old fundamentalist life who would walk around with a sign stating that a brutally murdered gay man is in hell, much less openly gloat about it.  But apart from a very small handful of people, everyone I know from my former churches certainly believes that Matthew Shepard is in hell, along with anyone who died while living a “homosexual lifestyle.”  The fact that they don’t walk around with signs declaring this doesn’t make their beliefs any less hateful.

I grew up around these folks.  Many of the Christians I knew were willing to state openly their beliefs that homosexuality should be a capital crime, that LGB people are child molesters or rapists given the opportunity, or that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality.  This wasn’t so long ago.  Not everyone I grew up around believed such things, and I think it’s probably the case that such beliefs are on the decline in fundamentalist evangelicalism.  However, I have no doubt that many in these circles still think similar things today, in private (they’re homophobic, not clueless).  These beliefs have never been explicitly retracted or condemned in any of the communities I was part of.

A few isolated people – even some relatively prominent ones – have “repented” of being ignorant and fearful of LGB people, of being deceitful in their representation of them, and have even admitted to sinning in how they responded to the emergence of AIDS.  And many prominent evangelical pastors today are downright skittish when it comes to the once ubiquitous rhetoric of “perversion” and divine punishment, favoring instead phrases like “sexual confusion” and “struggling with same sex attraction,” and talking about how homosexuals need “compassion” and “truth spoken in love” from Christians.  They’re kind enough to teach that it isn’t a sin to be attracted to members of the same sex – just so long as you remain celibate for life or pray away the gay.

Considering how explicitly violent and vindictive conservative Christian rhetoric on homosexuality was not ten years ago, these are pretty significant changes, happening at breakneck speed.  But they shouldn’t be mistaken for changes in core beliefs or outlook.  They’re adaptive changes, made in response to rapidly changing attitudes towards LGB people in “secular” society.  Conservative Christianity is nothing if not flexible.  Fifty years ago pastors in Al Mohler’s position today were railing against racial integration; a hundred years ago it was women getting the vote.  Curiously enough, folks back then also believed that the supposedly inerrant Bible clearly supported their reactionary views.  Nowadays they pretend as though they were always opposed to segregation and always cool with female suffrage, all while citing the same Bible to prop up their homophobia.  They’re incredibly good at erasing and rewriting their sordid history, and covering up nasty realities with a respectable face.

The only difference between WBC and its conservative Christian detractors is that the Phelpses publicly and loudly proclaim their belief that all LGB people will burn in hell, while the rest of the religious right recognizes that it’s no longer socially acceptable to air such beliefs in public, or in polite company.  Given the cover of anonymity, or the privacy afforded by spaces where they are surrounded by like-minded Christians, folks on the religious right are much more candid. I was reminded of this as I was browsing through Jesus Needs New PR’s year end review and came across this comment on a post about Oral Robert’s gay grandson:

I do not believe that GBLT people are going to Heaven, sorry. I am not going to go up to a homosexual and scream and yell in their face that they are wrong. Jesus repeatedly loved the sinner, but hated the sin. If we as a church could show love to the GLBT community, maybe they would give a thought to turning from their ways. If God destroyed Sodom for what they were doing, what makes you think homosexuality is ok?

Which is better, yelling and picketing with a message that God will condemn every LGB person to torture in hell for choosing to be our authentic selves, or holding that belief in private, while claiming that you and your God “love” LGB people in spite of who they are and whom they love?   The latter is no more loving, no more rational.   It’s cynical self-preservation, conforming to accepted social norms in order to maintain the appearance of respectability.  So please, conservative Christians, stop insisting that you’re any less anti-gay than Fred Phelps.  You’re not.