For decades Fred Phelps held an unparalleled position in the spectrum of American Christianity. Arch conservative and biblical literalist, he was a hater among haters, a bigot among bigots. Any public disaster afforded an opportunity to revel in God’s wrath. Even in the presence of anguish — whether the anguish of a family whose gay son had been murdered in Wyoming or the anguish of a family whose straight son had been killed in Afghanistan — Phelps stood resolute in his role as the Prophet Jonah, preaching divine judgment on a degenerate people.
Phelps was horrid, contentious and cruel; and as someone who spends a great deal of my life energy trying to call attention to the corrupting cruelties of biblical Christianity and the Bible itself, with its barbaric Iron Age texts, I considered him an ally.
As the face and voice behind “God hates fags,” Fred Phelps was the master of what I now call the Phelps Effect, in which a person makes his own position so repulsive that he ends up moving opinion in the opposite direction. Compassionate Christians scrambled to distance themselves from his Westboro Baptist Church, which in turn forced them to distance themselves from a broader swath of theologies and institutions that are steeped in homophobia and self-righteous judgment. Once they got the wakeup call, some young people scrambled right out the door of the Church.
In a perverse way, I miss Phelps. He could be counted on to outdo himself. He was reliably vile, and in the political theater of the Religious Right, he will be hard to replace.
Who will rise to the position he occupied, grandmaster of the Phelps Effect? Certainly not his family. One son, Nate, and two granddaughters have left Westboro and have become spokespersons for more thoughtful and compassionate causes. The remainder of his church and family members are descending rapidly into obscurity. Try as they might to sustain the legacy, they lack the edge — and the audience. With Phelps out of the picture, the field of contenders thins out.
All the same, for the marriage equality advocate seeking sympathy or the anti-theist in search of a nasty sound bite, here are five devout bigots worth watching. Each has more of a following than Phelps, to be sure, which means each also has a lot more tact. But if you’re paying attention, the bigotry is right below the stage makeup, and every so often it shines through.
1. Timothy Dolan. As president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2010-2013, Cardinal Timothy Dolan became a mainstream faith leader with access to the White House and press that most paid lobbyists can only dream of. Nonetheless, he regularly says and does things that trigger backlash against the Church because of his blindered focus on obstructing legal rights for women, queers, and child sex abuse victims. After playing several questionable roles in the priest sex abuse scandal (coverups; moving funds), Dolan successfully prevented New York victims from reforming statutes of limitations and so obtaining more time to seek redress after reaching age 18. After fighting victims' rights groups in court and the legislature, Dolan said, with a straight face, that we must oppose gay marriage because “our children deserve better.”
Dolan complains the Church has been “outmarketed” on the issue of marriage equality and bemoans that the Catholic hierarchy is “caricatured as being anti-gay.” In recent months, faced with the question of whether a woman’s Hobby Lobby boss should get to limit her family planning options, Dolan has reclaimed his position as an informed moral authority. Not. “Is the ability to buy contraceptives, that are now widely available — my Lord, all you have to do is walk into a 7-11 or any shop on any street in America and have access to them — is that right to access those and have them paid for, is that such a towering good that it would suffocate the rights of conscience?”
2. Scott Lively. If he doesn’t win the Massachusetts governor’s mansion this fall, Lively can at least console himself that he has made his mark on the world by helping to ensure that Ugandan gays get what they deserve: life in prison. When Obama expressed regret at the Ugandan law, Lively had this to say: “I think Obama may as well be a homosexual himself. He is certainly a radical homosexualist — meaning a person, whether they are homosexual or not, who is 100 percent invested in the homosexual agenda ... Anyone who is trying to break down the protections for the natural family and legitimize sexual perversion is complicit in the recruitment of children.” To Lively’s mind, marriage equality leads to pedophilia. He has accused gays of a “Marxist plot” to destroy civilization, a global “Satanic conspiracy” that needs a “revolution” of opponents to keep gays from “homosexualizing the whole world.” In his effort to fight the gay scourge, Lively once got in trouble for hiring a convicted sex offender.
3. Paul Cameron. Evangelical psychologist Paul Cameron has spent the last 20 years producing shoddy research aimed at showing that homosexuality leads to health and mental health problems and early death. And criminal tendencies. His work is disseminated by the Family Research Institute, a Colorado Springs organization he founded that is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group. In 1999, Rolling Stone reporter Robert Dreyfuss quoted Cameron as saying that homosexual sex is more pleasurable than heterosexual sex — and without active opposition it would rapidly come to predominate. In January, when the conservative Christian editor of World Magazine, Marvin Olasky, questioned the effectiveness of Uganda’s “kill the gays” bill, Cameron jumped into the fray, likening homosexuality to murder — or worse — which made the Ugandan law perfectly reasonable: “Laws against murder are harsh and unlikely to be effective (in completely stopping murder). But such laws educate as to what is ‘correct’ and serve as a disincentive to commit murder.”
4. Mark Driscoll. A Calvinist superstar with congregations in five states and a dubious moral compass, Driscoll rouses his flock of 14,000 with titillating talk and tight jeans. Driscoll has said enough weird and bigoted things to establish his anti-gay bona fides. Consider: “Masturbation can be a form of homosexuality because it is a sexual act that does not involve a woman... particularly if he’s watching himself in a mirror and being turned on by his own male body.” But it's Driscoll’s comments about females that get him the most powerful Phelps effect. When mega-church minister Ted Haggard, who was then head of the National Association of Evangelicals, got caught with meth and a male prostitute, Driscoll fingered Haggard’s wife: “It is not uncommon to meet pastors’ wives who really let themselves go; they sometimes feel that because their husband is a pastor, he is therefore trapped into fidelity, which gives them cause for laziness.”
More recently, he sent feminists and even some of his fellow fundamentalists into orbit by recounting a smug story in which he advised a woman that she should apologize to her husband for the sin of not “serving” him, and then get down on her knees and give him a blow job. By Driscoll’s account, this excellent advice caused the husband to start attending church.
5. Albert Mohler. This Southern Baptist luminary writes for “On Faith” and a variety of other media outlets. Years ago, Mohler was instrumental in booting women out of positions of authority in Southern Seminary and reversing the trend toward gender equality among Baptist believers. Today he laments that Christian conservatives have been unable similarly to halt the advance of equality for gays. Mohler simply can’t resist showcasing what the Bible actually says and then following it to the ugly conclusions that derive from the worldview of the writers. This is where it lands him: “If the modern concept of sexual orientation is to be taken as a brute fact, then the Bible simply cannot be trusted to understand what it means to be human, to reveal what God intends for us sexually, or to define sin in any coherent manner.”