Wednesday, October 06, 2010

"Fall from Grace": the anti-gay campaign of Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS

Very recently, the Supreme Court heard a First Amendment case where a family of a servicemember who had died in Iraq sued the Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS for a vigorous protest at the military funeral in Westminster, MD. The basis of Phelps’s protest is that the US military has homosexuals in it (a ridiculous extension of the “don’t ask don’t tell” debate) and that the entire country is being punished by God – through radical Islam and 9/11 – for accepting homosexuality. Phelps and his nepotism-based church is the most vitriolic anti-gay group in the country, exceeding even Paul Cameron in the 1980s.

The 2007 film documenting all this, now available from “Red Envelope Films” for DVD and instant play on Netflix, is “Fall from Grace”, directed by K. Ryan Jones (72 minutes). I’m not sure if it has had any theatrical runs as at Landmark. But the fanaticism of the church far exceeds that shown in the film “Jesus Camp” a couple years ago.

The church is located in a residential area of Topeka, KS, but the film spends some time at a protest at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where I went to graduate school and earned my MA in Mathematics in 1968. The film also shows a clip of a gay pride parade on Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence, where KU is located (25 miles east of Topeka, 40 miles from Kansas City). Lawrence is a rather typical college town, a smaller version of State College, perhaps, a funky and liberal place in a very conservative Midwestern farm state.  Phelps actually calls KU a "nice place" (before it was "contaminated").

The film says the church was founded 50 years ago, but went into the anti-gay mode in the early 1990s, around the time Clinton took office. It doesn't cover its relationship, or lack thereof, with any Baptist convention.  But about ten years ago Phelps was attracting a lot of attention, particularly from ABC reporter John Stossel.

The film does provide a biography of Rev. Fred Phelps, and consists mostly of interviews with the family members (including two of the fifteen children who left the family, by phone), and various other pastors, law enforcement and local officials who must walk the line on how they handle this matter. In the end, one pastor makes the point, “the opposite of love is fear, and fear leads to hate”. But that says that fear comes between love and hate.

I believe that Phelps might be viewed (by psychiatrists) as having a narcissistic personality disorder, or of selling his own sense of pain. Most of his rants (in the film, at least) are pretty directly reformulations of passages in the Bible. But it sounds as though he is playing into a mindset of pure authoritarianism, leading to totalitarianism. He wants to see a world where everyone has to play the “game of life” through a set of rigid rules, with absolutely no exceptions. The rules in his case come from the Bible (he thinks), just as the rules for the Taliban (rather similar) come from the Koran (they think). But there are secular versions of this mindset, ranging from Nazism in the 1930s to Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in China in the 1960s, where everyone had to take turns becoming a peasant. To me, it all looks the same. One person says "he is addicted to hate."

No doubt, the film is filled with the “fa_” word, often on colorful posters (ironically rainbow-like) carried by Phelps group. When I lived in Minneapolis, Phelps’s group visited All Gods Children Metropolitan Community Church once, and we were told to stay away from them, at least on the other side of the street, to avoid any risk of litigation.

The film has also aired on Showtime.

The website for the film is here.

Pictures: Mine, from a 2006 trip (not from film). The sign is blatant.

See also review of the play "The Laramie Project" Nov. 14, 2010 on the drama blog. HBO and Good Machine have a film version of this play in 2002, and MTV has "Anatomy of a Hate Crime" (dir. Tim Hunter, Max Ember) in 1998, and NBC had a TV-made "The Matthew Shepard Story" also in 2002.

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