Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Most Hated Family in America (BBC, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Bill Moyers’ Journal I ran the film Charles had downloaded immediately after it, the 2007 BBC documentary The Most Hated Family in America, directed by Geoffrey O’Connor with Louis Theroux doing an on-camera commentary in a sort of bemused British version of Michael Moore, about the Westboro Baptist Church of the Reverend Fred Phelps, Jr. and his bizarre activities picketing funerals, Jewish synagogues (“Jew churches,” his minions call them with a sneer before saying that the reason they’re targeting the Jews is “they killed Christ” — to which one slumps in one’s chair and thinks, “Oh, no, not that again”), Swedish establishments (apparently someone in Sweden denounced Rev. Phelps and as a result he put the entire country under his interdict — O’Connor and Theroux politely don’t mention that Phelps announced that the 2004 tsunami that wiped out much of Thailand’s tourist industry was God’s revenge against … Sweden, supposedly because many Swedes go to Thailand as sex tourists), the U.S. military and just about anyone who runs afoul of his curiously skewed interpretation of the Bible.

Rev. Phelps is right about one thing — the Bible clearly and unmistakably calls for the death penalty for [male] homosexuals — despite the attempts of Gay and pro-Gay Christians and Jews to explain that away by giving it some sort of “context” that denies the plain and bloodthirsty language of Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (That’s why it remains a deep-seated mystery to me why any self-respecting Queer can still believe in Christianity, Judaism or Islam.) Where Phelps goes wrong, even by the standards of the radical religious Right (which is why even the late Jerry Falwell denounced him as a dangerous nut), is his broad-brush application of the term “fag” to just about everybody: not just men who lie with men and women who lie with women but men who lie with women they’re not legally married to and/or for purposes other than procreation (when Louis Theroux for some reason admitted to the Phelpses that he was living with a female partner and had had a child with her without benefit of clergy, that was it: they totally discounted everything he had to say about anything after that, and in an “interview” for which Phelps had allocated all of five minutes Phelps called him one of the stupidest men he’d ever met and a few other even less kind things.

What I hadn’t realized about the Phelpses before I saw this — I was aware that virtually all the members of Phelps’ congregation are Phelpses, either by blood or by marriage — mostly by blood; his daughters married and had kids but his granddaughters don’t seem all that interested in doing so, largely because (like the earliest Christians) they believe the End Times are going to come in their lifetimes and therefore perpetuating the human species is a non-issue for them — but what I hadn’t known is how anti-American, in the literal sense, they are. Along with “God Hates Fags” (which, as I mentioned above, is a word they define even more broadly, if such a thing is possible, than the John Birch Society defined “Communist”) and the celebrity dishonor roll (that includes people like Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana — and since Theroux is British the inclusion of Di as someone whose death “split Hell wide open,” to use a metaphor of which the Phelpses are unduly fond, seemed to strike him personally), they also carry signs reading, “Thank God for 9/11” and “Thank God for IED’s,” and the reason they target the funerals of U.S. servicemembers who were killed in Iraq is that they believe President Bush was trapped into starting that war by Satan and he’s only serving the devil’s purposes — as are the people actually doing the fighting.

What’s fascinating about the Phelpsians is their utter contempt for the rest of the world, their absolute (self-)righteousness and conviction that they and they alone are going to heaven while the rest of us are bound for hell, and — which seems to set them apart from most of the Christian Right — their absolute, unconcealed delight in that prospect. Louis Theroux noticed one of the Phelps granddaughters giggling when she said that the servicemember whose funeral they were picketing would wind up in hell, and their joy at pronouncing damnation on everyone else isn’t tempered by the least bit of sorrow for their unconverted souls. At the end one of the Phelpses (they tend to blend together after a while, partly because most of them are female — out of the members we see, only Fred Phelps himself and Steve Drain, who came to the Phelps church as a Queer-friendly Libertarian to do a documentary film on them and ended up converted, becoming one of the few people in Phelps’s operation who is not a blood Phelps, are male — not even the people who married into the clan seem to be in evidence in this movie — and one suspects the only reason the Phelpses put up with Theroux’ openly mocking attitude for as long as they did was they were hoping lightning would strike twice and they would convert him) is calling what they’re doing a “courtesy” — that they’re informing people that the wrath of God’s judgments are going to send them all to hell, there’s nothing they can do to stop this (unlike most religions — even most cults — they don’t offer the poor benighted souls in the outside world much of a chance for redemption).

The other thing that amazed me about the Phelpses is that they’re a perfect example of both ends meeting in the middle on the opposite sides of the circle; after all, it’s become accepted dogma on the Left that Bush was hoodwinked into starting the Iraq war by Dick Cheney and the devotees of the Project for a New American Century, who got him to abandon the kinder, gentler, reluctantly interventionist (if not downright noninterventionist!) foreign policy he’d promised during the 2000 Presidential campaign and instead to seize on 9/11 as a pretext for pre-emptive war, torture, indefinite detention of citizens and aliens alike, and an overall “our way or the highway” attitude towards the rest of the world, coupled with the U.S. maintaining a military budget larger than that of every other country in the world combined to make sure that no country or combination of countries could ever threaten the U.S. on the battlefield again. For all the looniness of their readings of Scripture (when I told Charles that I thought the one thing Phelps got right was the clear, unmistakable condemnation and death sentence for homosexuality in the Bible, he said, “The Bible also says, ‘God is love’” — to which I can only reply, “Yeah, but the Bible sure puts a lot of asterisks on that one”), the Phelpses sound an awful lot like my friends on the Left when they’re condemning America’s foreign policy and predicting its downfall as a nation, even if we tend to believe the downfall will come from secular rather than supernatural causes — particularly the unsustainability of our current course both economically (the current issue of the Atlantic has an article I’ll probably want to read because it’s about China, America’s biggest creditor, and the conditions they’re going to start setting on us in return for funding all the bailouts by continuing to buy U.S. Treasury bills) and environmentally (both in terms of the exhaustion of resources in general and fossil fuels in particular, and also the potential secular/scientific apocalypse of global warming).

Not only did I find myself feeling oddly sorry for the Phelpsians (and fearing that the laws being passed to keep them away from military funerals will be used to hamstring anti-war protests as well!), I also found them uncomfortably close to me in terms of our very different but equally strongly held beliefs that humanity is at a crossroads and our current ways of living and managing the earth are not sustainable.