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May 25, 2009 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Shirley’s words

There are times in life when you just need to go home and listen to something happy—some trashy twee pop from England most likely. I don’t know, the Small Faces? I’m sitting at my desk in one of those moods right now.

It’s all my own stupid fault, I suppose. After all, I suggested this. I remember texting Jackson and saying something along the lines of: “Wouldn’t it be fun to interview someone from the Westboro Baptist Church?” It was on the way back from the beach if I remember it rightly. He said yes. So I found myself in the offices of Salient at 10am on my birthday, mentally getting ready to phone one of the more widely reviled people in the world.

Shirley Phelps-Roper of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) certainly has a reputation on a scale that far exceeds the size of the church she represents. The WBC numbers only around sixty, something Shirley attributes partially to the people being expelled from the church for being “rebels”.

That’s a word she’s quite fond of and she used it many a time in our conversation. You don’t follow God’s word? You’re a rebel, easy as that. For a lot of religious groups, those who do not follow the tenets of the religion might be apostates, or heretics, whatever. But Shirley likes “rebel”, and quite rightly so. For the WBC, religion and God’s word are everything, so there is no need to use a religiously charged word to signify someone who does not follow the religion. There simply is no barrier between the temporal and the spiritual, and so a word like rebel suddenly becomes completely appropriate to describe what many would consider solely a spiritual matter.

Found on many of her picketing posters are phrases like “God hates fags”—and even her use of the word ‘faggot’ carries with it a lengthy rationale. She told the story of how one of her eleven children once used the word to her, and her immediate reaction was to tell the child off. He looked up at her and asked: “But why can’t I?” Shirley explained how she started to think of the etymology of the word—a bundle of kindling. To Shirley, this was perfect—they were bundles of kindling which God would use to stoke the fires of hell and, she admitted candidly, it also fits better on a sign.

Of course, the word also commands a lot of controversy. You don’t start chucking round the word ‘fag’ in public unless you want some people paying you some attention. This though, is exactly what Shirley wants, and in a way you have to respect this. If someone truly believes they have the one and only path to God, what sort of person are they if they don’t shout it from the rooftops, try to let as many people as possible hear? She truly believes to the core of her being that everything she does is just to try to bring the word to us, the “rebels”. Possibly this is more noble than those who sit back in their religious belief, content to believe the rest of us will burn whilst they live out their lives concerned only with their own ticket through the pearly gates. Not Shirley, though. There is not an interview opportunity she wouldn’t take to get another chance to spread the word, she said.

Which is not to say I agree with her message. Rather, I find much of it simply reprehensible. But she is always quick to back up what she says with a passage from the Bible. This fails to convince me, and likely many of you in our largely atheist state. But again, one must respect her conviction. She has made the decision—carries the fervour—to live her life by a near two-thousand-year-old book, a decision that is common to a little over two billion worldwide. They aren’t real Christians though, Shirley contends. You can’t just say, Oh, God didn’t really mean it when he said this. “NO” she exclaims, many times throughout our talk. “NO”, often in a mocking, affected accent. She uses the example of the sixth commandment (potentially the fifth, depending on what translation of the bible you use—they like to mix it up a bit), thou shalt not commit murder. “Is that literally true?” she asks me. And I’m loath to say no. It does, after all, seem pretty black and white. Why then, she asks, do people feel they can interpret the word of God when so much of it is written down in black and white?

It was about then that I remembered I was supposed to be the one asking the questions.

However, asking questions of Shirley Phelps-Roper is no small feat. Her sentence structure and way of answering anything is formulaic—she begins fairly reasonably, then as she thinks more and more she gets more and more worked up, her volume raising and her enunciation becoming more and more stressed. Then all of a sudden it is over. But don’t even think of interrupting before she is finished what she wanted to say.

At the core of what makes Shirley the way she is, for me, is her total inability to accept that some may truly believe differently to her. She firmly holds the belief that everyone else, deep inside, knows that she is right about God, and we are all lying to ourselves. So many times I asked, each time creating an ever more absurd hypothetical—culminating in a child brought up Muslim, who has never heard of Christianity in its life. But again, “NO. They know that their prophet is a paedophile,” she explained. “The word of God is written on the hearts of all men,” she insisted. It was this that was a step too far for me to truly understand.

We all believe ourselves to be right about many things, but it takes a supreme arrogance and condescension to believe that anyone who disagrees does so knowing themselves to be wrong. The world of Shirley Phelps-Roper is one of absolutes, but this extends even into the hearts of those who disagree. “There’s one God, there’s one salvation, there’s one baptism, there’s one heaven, you understand? … I think they’re consciously lying to themselves.” We sin consciously when we stray from her path. Unlike her, I celebrate in a world of grey—just because I am right about everything, doesn’t mean you are knowingly wrong if you disagree—and hey, every so often you might catch me out.

Hypothetically speaking, what if you were wrong about everything? Would you regret the things you have done, the methods that you used? This was the only question where the answer Shirley gave didn’t even come close to satisfying the question. On everything else she was capable of being direct, but not on this. All she could say was that the world’s best hope was for her to be wrong—but nothing on whether she would regret the offence and the pain that she caused people. Frankly that doesn’t surprise me; for someone who believes herself to be something of a philanthropist, only looking out for what is good for us, why would they want to deal with the cognitive dissonance created by having to consider the chance that she had caused all this anguish for nothing.

It’s worth remembering that the vitriol of Phelps-Roper is nothing compared to the reaction she inspires in those who hate her message. My personal favourite was “I would love to catch her beheading… I would laugh like a drain.” The worst Shirley ever says is how God will punish us, how much God hates us. I’ve never heard of her wanting to see some individual killed. That’s kind of small potatoes compared to the wider issues she is concerned with.

To be fair, she did revel in the September Eleventh attacks, saying they were a message from God. Though when asked if any “real Christian” died in 9/11, she immediately dismissed the idea with “No, of course not. That would be to call God a liar.”

I guess when I reflect on that conversation now, I have to dissent from the most widely held view of Shirley Phelps-Roper. I won’t hate her and I refuse to. Throughout my hour on the phone with her she was consistently civil to me, and we even shared a few laughs at times; like when she complimented my accent, comparing me to someone on House, which, incidentally, I don’t watch.

Allow me just a moment to get onto my soapbox and lecture. I respect Shirley Phelps-Roper. She skirts the arbitrariness of so many religions. She has a holy text, and that’s it. No more, no less. No interpretation. God says this. End of story. She doesn’t physically harm anyone. She doesn’t spit on people in the street, as she has been spat on in the past. And I guess there is that tiny, microscopic chance that she is right, that despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, that Noah’s ark really occurred, that evolution is a lie. And if so, I guess I’ll be burning in hell.

But the chances are so slim that it doesn’t worry me at all. I won’t be the cynic she is and say that she is just after attention, or that she knows herself to be wrong, or anything to that effect. Rather, I believe that she truly believes in everything she says—just that on the weight of evidence, she’s also wrong.

Maybe when I die, this interview will be remembered by one of Shirley’s children or grandchildren who will find my funeral and picket it to tell the world of the damage I did with this article—where for a moment I had a podium and I didn’t use it to spread the word. But you know what? I would defend their right to do that. Shirley spoke of how she protested distant from the funerals, how all she brought was words. Frankly, she is right.

All she does have to offer is words.

Listen to the full interview here (15 MB WMA file).


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Comments (9)

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  1. Guy Armstrong says:

    Interesting article dude. “We all believe ourselves to be right about many things, but it takes a supreme arrogance and condescension to believe that anyone who disagrees does so knowing themselves to be wrong” nailed it. Sounds like you had fun interviewing her.

  2. Jackson Wood says:

    You can listen to it if you want!

  3. Alyx says:

    Awesome article. So many people who interview or write about the WBC and Shirley in particular just use their opportunity to trash her or make her seem ridiculous and to try and convert her to their own way of thinking.. which is hypocritical at best.

    I’m keen to listen to the interview.

  4. Daniel J Miles says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys. Glad you found it interesting.

  5. Seriously says:

    The following link might be of interest to people who liked this article.

  6. Cartlidge says:

    “to live her life by a near two-thousand-year-old book, a decision that is common to a little over two billion worldwide.”


  7. Debbie K says:

    I am surprised! The woman is wrong, thunderingly, breath-takingly wrong, but that doesn’t stop the interviewer from being a condescending prat, who clearly thinks that all the *clever* people are atheists… Wrong, my friend. Among that 2 billion you slightingly dismiss are people who are very much more intelligent than Shirley and than you!
    One of the worst things about her is the way she makes reasonable Christians (that is, most Christians) look bad.

  8. Hank Scorpio says:

    Wrong, my friend. Among that 2 billion you slightingly dismiss are people who are very much more intelligent than Shirley and than you!

    guess we can pack up our bags and go home ‘cos this ho’s got it all pinned down

  9. Daniel J Miles says:

    Hi there Debbie

    I’m glad you find me condescending, as, to be fair, that’s precisely how I’d like to come off to somehow who chooses to comment with an ad-hominem rather than actually discussing an issue.

    I have many close Christian friends who are very reasonable people, and in that sense I agree with you, that the majority of Christians are reasonable. However, I’d also argue that they aren’t real Christians at all, as they choose arbitrarily which parts of their holy book to treat as the literal truth and which aren’t.

    I also have to agree with your declaration that among the 2 billion Christians in the world are many more intelligent than myself – I don’t doubt that. I daresay there are more in the rest of the five odd billion as well.

    You might get a better idea of my views on religion from this –

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