Fred Phelps’s Humor Deficit

Westboro Baptist Church members outside Garfield High School in Seattle

Westboro Baptist Church members outside Garfield High School in Seattle

June 16, 2009. Seattle was visited over the last three days by members of Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. These are the good Christian folks who stage protests at the funerals of American soldiers, claiming that they have died as God’s punishment for our country’s tolerance of homosexuality. Their Web site is aptly titled www.godhatesfags.com, but they are equal opportunity haters. Jews, Catholics, President Obama, blacks, and Unitarians all get the treatment. In Seattle this week, they appeared in front of Mt. Zion Baptist Church (whose congregation is predominantly African-American), St. James Cathedral (Roman Catholic), several synagogues, a Unitarian church, and Garfield High School, which has a gay and lesbian student organization. Counter-protesters massed at several of these events.

At Garfield High, I was struck by the complete lack of humor in their signage. They don’t tease. They don’t parody. They don’t engage in word play. They are devoid of wit. Forget about irony, mimicry, double-entendres, or even those lowest forms of humor, mockery and sarcasm. They just don’t do humor. “America is doomed,” “God hates fags,” and “You’re going to Hell” are all we get, and none of it seems the least bit calculated to make us smile or to win hearts and minds. We might at least expect a little entertainment in return for showing up. Instead, we get crude insults unleavened by cleverness, nuance, or originality. They want us to know God is not kidding around. Eternal damnation is no laughing matter, and the good Lord didn’t instruct Jonah to soft-pedal his warnings to the people of Ninevah. 

The only scenarios of doom that sell well in Seattle are those offered by the likes of Al Gore. Here, warnings of God’s impending wrath are about as scary as a circus sideshow. Don’t the folks from Westboro Baptist Church realize how pointless it is to work this city, or are they simply sucking up futility in exchange for three glorious hate-filled days in one of the nation’s most beautiful cities? Maybe that’s not such a bad deal. Unlike business visitors, they’re not force-fed PowerPoint presentations in windowless conference centers. They can do the Lord’s will on the streets of this city’s charming neighborhoods. And what better time of year to get out of Kansas, which can be Hellish in June, and head for the Northwest, which can be Heavenly?

Their signage could definitely use the help of a queer eye, but most of all, they need to lighten up. “You’re going to Hell!” is terminally dyspeptic. A little levity or a more positive spin might make the message more palatable. I would suggest downplaying the Hell imagery with something like, “Visualize Heaven without gaiety,” or “You can only go ‘straight’ to Heaven!”  How about a drawing of Heaven’s gate hung with a sign, ‘Sissies not welcome!'” OK, OK, it’ll never work, and it’s not going to happen. Fundamentalism is basically antithetical to humor, and it has no Bill Mahers or Jon Stewarts to call on for help.

My initial reaction at seeing them on the street–“They can’t be serious!”–quickly flips to “Why are they so serious?” And then comes the disturbing realization, sending chills down my levity, that they really and truly believe they are the modern Jonahs and that we are the Ninevites. The deadly seriousness of their signage tells us they’re not here for the weather or for the sight-seeing. They may see this as an opportunity to make courtesy calls on Seattle’s own neo-Nazi groups, of which there are two, or our local affiliate of Watchmen on the Walls, an anti-gay group based in Latvia. There could be some synergy here. Fortunately, all these groups, together with the Westboro Baptist Church, are on the Southern Poverty Center’s HateWatch list (www.splcenter.org).

And on the opposite side of the street are Garfield High’s students and a collection of queers, Jews, Catholics, Obama supporters, and other ordinary folks united in their revulsion toward the Phelps family (Yes, according to reports, all the Phelps protesters at Garfield were related to him!). For signage, we have, “God hates figs,” “You need a citation,” and “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

It’s unlikely they understood any of our signage. It’s doubtful they even knew about Jesus cursing the fig tree (Biblical literacy among fundamentalists is much lower than one might expect), and they may not have caught the double meaning of “citation” or recognized the quotation from “The Wizard of Oz,” a cult classic for gays. It was probably all just over their heads.

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