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When Congregation-Based Activism Is…Complicated

Though most conservative Christian organizations, denominations, and congregations have abandoned explicitly homophobic rhetoric in their arguments against gay rights in their effort to craft a politically viable position, others have increased the volume (and, through social media, the audience) of their anti-gay teachings. For this reason, and because they often provoke a backlash from welcoming congregations, explicitly anti-LGBT congregations deserve our special attention.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists ten Protestant congregations among its LGBT hate groups, but in many others each week, anti-gay messages are explicitly preached. For example, Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, is not currently on the SPLC’s list but made headlines this winter with pastor Steven L. Anderson’s call to kill people with AIDs, while Church of God in Christ pastor Earl Carter called gay men “sissies” (among far nastier comments) at the denomination’s most recent Convocation. My own ethnographic work with perhaps the most active anti-LGBT congregation—Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas, led for decades by Fred Phelps (d. 2014)—has allowed me to see how anti-gay activism affects those within the congregation, those outside the congregation, and those inside but coming out.

Anti-gay congregation-based activism occurs regularly and it is broadcast widely, invoking outrage and encouragement. Such activism also works within congregations, making congregational life demanding and difficult to leave.

Each time that members publicly condemn homosexuality through their picketing, door knocking and public protests, they further invest their identity in the congregation and isolate themselves from the mainstream; when the public response is to harass and berate church members, church members’ view of the world as wicked is confirmed.

For example, WBC regularly pickets area gay pride events. At one that I observed—a gay pride parade in Lawrence, Kansas—a young picketer, about 13 years old, walked alongside the parade, holding a sign expressing derogatory comments about gay men. Quickly, two college students left the parade to block her way down the sidewalk. Standing in front of her, they screamed in her face, calling her names and mocking her family and congregation. Whatever their intention, the result was that she left the experience physically shaken—but certainly not shaken in her belief that gay men hate God.

If leaving the church is the first step to hell, life inside the church can curiously be either secure or stifling.

Running an active anti-LGBT campaign requires a high level of organization, and such groups are often tightly-knit, demanding significant sacrifice and providing clear-cut guidelines for righteous living. At WBC, time is organized around congregational life, from daily pickets to weekly Sunday services. Those who fail to participate with sufficient enthusiasm may be judged to be lacking in zeal. Deviance is curtailed with the threat of sanctions—here on earth, through shunning, and in the afterlife through damnation.

As one former WBC congregant, now an atheist, shared in an interview, he no longer believes in heaven but continues to have a visceral fear of hell. Indeed, nearly all of those who I have interviewed after their departure described an intense fear that God would kill them for leaving the congregation. Those who leave may be threatened with loss of property and family relationships; nearly all ex-WBC members say that missing their family members is the hardest part of leaving.

In some cases, they may rightly fear the world they would exit into—a world that they themselves have already condemned, full of people they have hurt. In online settings, ex-members may find themselves the victims of hateful rhetoric, including death threats and taunts aimed to induce suicide. For people who are at a fragile social stage and who may have little support close at hand, such words may be more than they can handle.

In other cases, though, the world is encouraging. For example, upon exiting the congregation Meagan and Grace Phelps-Roper undertook a listening tour, visiting communities they had previously picketed to take responsibility for their actions. Overwhelmingly, they have found themselves the beneficiaries of grace.

Such stories point to the complexity of the exit experience. Our disappointment and frustration with that complexity may point to our own desire for happy de-conversion narratives, stories that satisfy our hope that leaving a hate group means clearly renouncing hate.

Tracing these stories takes time — time for individuals to develop, execute, and make sense of these significant changes in their lives.

But for those of us who immerse themselves in such an unfolding, it is time well-spent. In my own work, ethnographic field research, with its long duration, patience, wide scope, thick description, openness, and sensitivity to specific people and situations, became not merely a social scientific method but a (not quite but almost spiritual) discipline.

Rebecca Barrett-Fox
About the Author
Dr. Rebecca Barrett-Fox is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University. Her research interests are in religion, sexuality and family, politics and the law, social movements, conservatism, and hate groups. She has conducted major research projects on Westboro Baptist Church (the subject of her dissertation at the University of Kansas) and Christian financial planning.