I detest Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Few religious loonies bring the hate home in a more concentrated fashion than Phelps and his not-so-merry band of homophobic nutcases. Whether it be threatening to picket the funerals of Amish girls killed in a school shooting, showing up on TV to spew hate against homosexuals and anyone who doesn’t agree with their particularly twisted brand of fundamentalist Christianity, planning pickets at the memorial for the passengers and crew of Flight 93, or praising God for the tsunami four years ago, few people can bring the religious crazy to the masses in such a flamboyantly hateful manner as Fred Phelps and his posse.

Still, sometimes Phelps comes up with something that’s actually rather funny, albeit unintentionally. (If there’s one thing about Phelps and his fellow cultists, it’s that they utterly lack a sense of humor.) And he actually made me chuckle a bit (although it may be due to schadenfreude) by wanting to include this in a Christmas display at the Washington State capitol:

A controversial Kansas church known for blaming American casualties in Iraq on nationwide tolerance for homosexuality has asked the state for permission to erect a sign stating that “Santa Claus will take you to hell.”

The sign would join a Christian Nativity set, three signs mocking atheism, and the one that started it all – the sign from the atheist group Freedom From Religion whose message that “religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds” sparked a furious nationwide debate over the nature of atheism and the boundaries between church and state.

According to the Spokesman Review, the text of the Westboro Baptist Church’s message would read:

You’d better watch out, get ready to cry,
You’d better go hide, I’m telling you why
‘cuz Santa Claus will take you to hell
He is your favorite idol
You worship at his feet
But when you stand before your God
He won’t help you take the heat
So get this fact straight:
You’re feeling God’s hate
Santa’s to blame for the economy’s fate
Santa Claus will take you to hell.

I particularly like the batshit crazy touch of blaming Santa Claus for the economy going straight into the toilet. I suppose Santa gave all those subprime mortgage-backed derivatives to every banker last Christmas, so that they could melt down before this Christmas. In any case, only the most warped mind can come up such thoughts in any context other than parody. Of course, the Westboro Baptist Church is utterly immune to parody because its every action and utterance is self-parody. The only difference between this utterance and its other actions blaming gays for various evils, picketing the funerals of our fallen soldiers, and proclaiming that “God hates America” is that this one was actually kind of amusing and (unintentionally again) teaches a lesson.

The lesson? The Constitution requires that government be secular, with the First Amendment mandating government neutrality to religion (or lack of religion). In other words, government is not allowed to endorse or favor one religion over another or belief over nonbelief. (I know, I know, it never works out that way in practice, but that’s what the First Amendment says.) Consequently, if government allows one religious display on its property (such as the Nativity scene that started this whole mess), thus giving the impression of endorsing it, if it is to be neutral to religion it must allow displays from any religion that wishes to put up a similar display congruent with its beliefs or by any group opposed to religion. The circus going on in Washington right now shows that opening up government property to any religious display leads to silliness like requests to put a Festivus tree up–or requests by hateful loonies like the Westboro Baptist Church to proclaim their hateful looniness from government property.

I think I’m with PZ on this one. A far fairer solution would be to allow no explicitly religious Christmas displays on government property. This utterly risible conflict illustrates why the separation of church and state is so critical in a free society.


  1. #1 Ramel
    December 12, 2008

    Wow, that is just crazy. The funnyest part is that the open forum was created by a christian group that wanted a nativity display.

  2. #2 I am so wise
    December 12, 2008

    If you want to have fun with them, ask them to explain why God punishes the US military for its alleged acceptance of gay members, while letting the Israelis, who allowed gays to serve since the beginning, to stomp their far more homophobic neighbors.

    Also, I’ve seen a few documentaries on the Philips clan and the problem with them all is the interviewer is some nice guy, who tries to use reason and kindness to win them over to sanity. Na, the next documentary needs Christopher Hitchens to role in there, blast their stupidity using his good scriptural knowledge, and conclude with him seducing at least one of Philips’ granddaugthers.

  3. #3 cwfong
    December 12, 2008

    But the roads to both Christmas and Hell ARE paved with good intentions.

  4. #4 Rob W
    December 12, 2008

    I’ve always loved that expression about the road to hell.

    Uh, so the road the heaven is paved with evil intentions? Or is it simply unpaved?

    Anyway, to summarize their version of a loving personal God:

    […]get ready to cry,
    You’d better go hide[…]
    your God […]
    won’t help you[…]
    You’re feeling God’s hate

    Just makes me feel all warm and happy inside.

  5. #5 Ramel
    December 12, 2008

    The road to christmas is paved with unwanted sweaters and bad christmas albums

  6. #6 idahogie
    December 12, 2008

    … and bricks of fruitcake.

  7. #7 Mu
    December 12, 2008

    Hmm, I have to make that Hogfather display…
    I think a simple solution would be to only allow displays to be erected for one business day. This quickly limits you to local groups who don’t mind showing up at 8 to set up and coming back at 5 to clean, and keeps the “national attention seekers” away. Add a $100 “security check” fee, and a $500 deposit (to ensure they come in the evening), and you very quickly have no issue at all.

  8. #8 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    December 12, 2008

    I can’t wait until they release their Peter Cotton Tail easter bunny song.

  9. #9 Happy Spirochete
    December 12, 2008

    I gotta say, at least Phelps is honest. He says that “god hates” and the his religion commands him to spread hate and fear. That’s better than Huckabee et al claiming to be bringing us the tender mercies of God’s love, only to remind us that it’s their way or the highway (to hell).

  10. #10 MJ
    December 12, 2008

    I am really surprised to see Phelps is still around.I figured with his mouth he would have gotten himself killed by now.The thing that bothers me most about him and his whore about town daughter is they push their filth on children.I agree atleast with him you know what he believes.Instead of getting God loves you but only if you change your sexuality,what you wear,listen to,eat and all of those other bad things we soul less people do.

  11. #11 Prometheus
    December 12, 2008

    Although the First Amendment has often been said to provide for “separation of church and state”, the actual wording just prohibits the government from establishing a religion or interfering in the exercise of religion:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…

    Don’t get me wrong – I like how the First Amendment is currently being interpreted. If anything, I’d like to see steps taken to ensure that interpretation remains the official one. And I’d like to see it go a tiny bit further…

    I think that the proper response from a governmental body, department or agency when asked to display religious (or quasi-religious, like Santa Claus) iconography is to “Just say no!”. Even if the government isn’t actively supporting or endorsing a particular religion (or, for that matter, religion in general), things like nativity scenes and Christmas trees give at least the appearnace of implicit endorsement to religion.

    I wonder how many people would be “offended” if the various government entities (e.g. office buildings, capitols, schools, etc.) simply refused to provide space for any religious (or quasi-religious) symbols. I can’t help thinking that most people would quietly shrug and “move on”. I suspect that the folks who object are a small but very noisy minority.

    And, if it turns out that it isn’t a minority that objects to a ban on religious symbols on public property, it’s still not a good idea for “the government” to give tacit (or even inadvertent) endorsement to a religion or even to religion in general.

    From a practical point of view, allowing a Christmas tree in the public square has already led to demands that a Menorah be included. How long before observers of Kwanzaa insist that a Kinara be included, as well? And what about when the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Wiccans and Taoists ask to have their religion represented?

    At the very least, it’s going to be hard to maneuver through government buildings once all the religions in the country get their “fair share” of the public square.

    There is another way. We could all agree that our public resources should not be used to further the religious (or quasi-religious) observances of any religion.


  12. #12 Scott
    December 12, 2008

    Fred is one of the reasons I’m embarrassed to admit being from Kansas. The lunacy of the school board is another, though at least the sane folks manage to throw the loons out every other election or so.

  13. #13 Rogue Epidemiologist
    December 12, 2008

    I think you’ve gone too far with that one. I work for local gov’t, and therefore I work in a public space (though HIPAA Sealed for your protection). I have a Xmas tree and a stocking in here. I also have an image of the Buddha.

    I think the real solution here is to take it at face value: it’s FESTIVE. It’s friggin’ Santa Claus!

    I think the War of Christmas people are a bunch of douchebags, but I’m not partial to the grinches either. I think the problem arises when everyone has to feel special. Well, to take it in a Fight Club kind of direction: You’re not special. Nobody’s special. So let everyone STFU and enjoy the twinkling lights? Why? Not because they’re representing Jeebus, but because they’re pretty. Sometimes pretty is all you need.

  14. #14 natural cynic
    December 12, 2008

    Something verrrrry interesting about the War on Christmas…
    as blogged by Max Blumenthal at thedailybeast. It was started by Peter Brimelow, author of Alien Nation in 1995. Soon after that, Brimelow moved to the National Review, but was bounced from that due to his strident anti-immigrant views. He then moved to VDare.com, home of anti-immigrants, anti-Semites and White Power. So the WoC became a plot by the Jews to emphasize Hanukkah, or has another VDareist called it “Jewish Kwanzaa”. The WoC meme spread through conservative circles until it was picked up by BillO and the Clowns at Fox. Lovely.

  15. #15 chancelikely
    December 12, 2008

    In a weird way, I kind of like the WBC.

    As long as those hateful, tightly wound, repressed, everythingphobic pricks are still spouting their hate at the top of their lungs to anyone who will listen, I feel like the Republic is still somewhat safe.

    And when Fred Phelps dies a natural death, I’ll be right in line to dance a merry jig on top of wherever they lay his corpse, but he’s kind of the canary in the coalmine. I’ll be worried when people don’t feel safe letting him go off about how God hates everyone.

  16. #16 FreeSpeaker
    December 12, 2008

    Prometheus said: “From a practical point of view, allowing a Christmas tree in the public square has already led to demands that a Menorah be included”

    This Jew will never, ever demand that. It equates Christmas, the most imporant Christian celebration, with a minor holiday of no significant importance. It is like comparing the invention of the tongue depresser with the discovering of DNA.

    I have observed that the person wanting to put up that Menorah is mostly likely Christian, so they can justify their display of Christmas, i.e. christian themes. These are the people who want the imprimatur of government approval.

    My position is quite simple. No displays of any kind on public property. Keep religion out of givernment, and government out of religion. If not, we may see religious leaders driving donkeys to Washington to ask for a bailout.

    I am a discliple of Leo Pfeffer.

  17. #17 Nomen Nescio
    December 12, 2008

    I’ve always loved that expression about the road to hell.
    Uh, so the road the heaven is paved with evil intentions? Or is it simply unpaved?

    judging by what little (very little) this atheist knows about christian theology, it seems if you ask for the road to heaven they give you a topo map and maybe a compass, and you’re expected to bring your own hiking boots.

    a badly outdated topo map, in a much too large scale, that somebody left out in the rain once. and it’s of the wrong terrain anyway. but that last may be the atheist in me talking…

  18. #18 DrCogSci
    December 13, 2008

    There is an australian show called “The Chaser” featuring some really funny, and really stupid civil disobedience stuff. Nothing like Jackass or those sorts of things, they do things like break into political summits dressed as Osama Bin Laden, anyway, they did a rather fun little interview thing with some Westboro members at one of their picketing events.


  19. #19 Samantha Vimes
    December 13, 2008

    That is funny. I wonder if another member of the Phelps clan is getting ready to escape gramps cult and join the real world. Some of them have done so in the past, and I imagine once doubt sets in, parody could be a deliberate acting-out as a sort of test before bolting.

  20. #20 Jurjen S.
    December 13, 2008

    Rogue Epidemiologist, I think that most “militant secularists” (if you will) would be perfectly tolerant of Christmas displays if they were merely taken at the festive face value. The problem is that such displays get seized on by the “America is a Christian nation” types as evidence for their assertions. “Look,” they say, “it says ‘In God We Trust’ on the currency, it says ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance, and we have Christmas displays in our government buildings!” If those people didn’t pull that crap, I’m sure AU, the ACLU etc. would be quite happy to let the Christmas decorations slide.

  21. #21 Jurjen S.
    December 13, 2008

    I might add that it it’s rather ironic that the WBC’s response to the FFR sign asserting that “religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds” is to behave in a manner that goes a long way to proving FFR’s point.

  22. #22 Joseph C.
    December 13, 2008

    And when Fred Phelps dies a natural death, I’ll be right in line to dance a merry jig on top of wherever they lay his corpse, but he’s kind of the canary in the coalmine.

    It’ll probably spell the end of WBC when gramps expires. As far as I know, there’s really nobody mean enough within the church to fill those shoes.

    I honestly feel for everyone in WBC except for Phelps. Apart from a few exceptions like Steve Drain and his family, most WBC members are born into the cult and mindfucked from a very early age. Fred’s kids in particular suffered the most extreme child abuse growing up.

  23. #23 Shay
    December 13, 2008

    The most un-reverend Mr Phelps’ activities have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with exercising complete control over his family. Joseph is correct in opining that it will be the end of WBC when Phelps dies; I just hope this nutjob doesn’t have any Jonesboro-type plan in place for that happy day.

  24. #24 MAZZ
    December 14, 2008

    I wonder how many Christians are pissed off at Phelps for proving what the Atheist sign is saying. I don’t understand how anyone can read Phelps’ sign and understand his philosophy and then turn around and denies that religion (at the very least can) produce and encourage hate and (almost always) enslaves the mind. Self-delusion is an amazing thing.

  25. #25 daedalus2u
    December 15, 2008

    There was a recent news article that made me laugh too.


    The idea that God is offended by Madonna but embraces what Pinochet did.

  26. #26 blf
    December 16, 2008

    [S]o [is] the road the heaven is paved with evil intentions? Or is it simply unpaved?

    Huh? They’re different roads?

  27. #27 Metro
    December 18, 2008

    Re. the punishment of the US army vs. the Israeli army. Phelch and his lot would claim it was because Israel has to destroy the Palestinians in order to trigger the Apocalypse. But if you recall the 2006 war, the Israelis clearly don’t win every fight.

    I’ve always felt that when making Phelps’ funereal arrangements, the family should include space for a unrinal cake.

  28. #28 Rhonda du Bois
    December 27, 2008

    The Dept of Family Services need to take the Roper’s children away from her before she gets one, if not all killed dragging them to protest. These children need to be taken away from this sick women before it’s too late and a child’s life is lost. This is child endangerment End of Story!!!!

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