Baptists in W.Va. Question Actions of Notorious Westboro Church

One Official Believes Group Resembles Cult As Members Follow Their Leader, Phelps, Religiously

Baptist church leaders in West Virginia say the Westboro Baptist Church group that has protested the funerals of American soldiers and West Virginia miners is Baptist in name only.

“I think it’s more of a cult myself,” said Terry Harper, executive director for the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists. “It’s an absolute misnomer to say God hates any people.”

The group calling itself the Westboro Baptist Church was started by disbarred lawyer Fred Phelps in Topeka, Kan., in the late 1960s.

The group has gained notoriety in recent months by traveling the country to picket funerals, gay pride events and other churches. They carry signs with phrases like, “God hates America.”

Group members came to West Virginia last month to protest a memorial service for the miners who died at the Sago Mine. They claimed the miners died because of America’s acceptance of homosexuality.

There were verbal exchanges between the protesters and people who came to mourn, but police officers kept the groups separated.

Harper said the Westboro group isn’t a Baptist church by his definition.

But there’s not much anyone can do about the group giving Baptists a bad name.

The independence inherent to the Baptist faith gives groups like Westboro free reign to call themselves Baptist, Harper said.

Baptist churches do not have a central governing authority, resulting in a wide range of beliefs from one Baptist church to another.

Westboro Baptist Church
The Westboro Baptist Church is a hate group masquerading as a Christian church. Led by Fred Phelps, members of this church target homosexuals with messages of hate.

The group’s extremist views and despicable behavior mark it as a cult of Christianity

But Harper said the fringe group doesn’t seem to embrace two touchstones of the faith: redemption and grace.

“I think it’s just a convenient handle to pick up if you want legitimacy,” Harper said. “There’s nothing we can do about it. There’s a thousand brands of Baptist out there and (Phelps is) one of them.”

The group seems to Harper to be a cult because church members seem to follow Phelps unquestionably.

“I don’t think they’re a real church,” Harper said. “I think most folks in Baptist circles do not regard this as a legitimate, true church.”

Pastor William Oosterman heads the Citywide Baptist Church in Ottawa, Canada. The church there was called Westboro Baptist Church for 75 years, but members have changed the name to avoid confusion about any association with Phelps’ group.

When Westboro members came to Canada a few years ago to protest parliament’s passage of gay marriage legislation, they burned the country’s flag on the steps of the high court, Oosterman said.

On a subsequent Sunday, Phelps’ flock protested Oosterman’s church, as is often one of the group’s side projects when they come to a town to protest something else.

All of this caused a minor ruckus, Oosterman said, and he e- mailed Westboro members asking them to change the name of their church.

The end result: “They didn’t change their name, so we thought it would be a good idea to change ours.”

He added, “It didn’t take them long to condemn me, because we challenged them.”

Citywide is one of about 500 “middle-of-the-road” churches affiliated with the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada. If one good thing has come out of the unfortunate naming issue, it’s that the church’s Web site gets thousands of hits every month, Oosterman said.

“They should drop ‘Baptist’ and ‘church’ and any association with the Christian faith,” Oosterman said. “If you take the Bible and pull out a few statements and ignore the rest, you’re not reflecting the Christian faith. A group that focuses on one part and ignores the rest is a cult.”

Pastor Dennis Johnson of the Charleston Baptist Temple says the group from Kansas has the right to call itself Baptist, though he doesn’t believe in what that church teaches.

“It’s an independent Baptist church, and in that sense it’s legitimate,” Johnson said. “Baptist principles support a local congregation determining its own faith and practice of worship.

“They’re free to believe what they’re believing.”

However: “Their conduct I find to be really troubling,” Johnson said. “For me at least, it doesn’t reflect a Christ-like attitude and lifestyle.”

Baptists usually don’t resort to name-calling or an accusatory approach to proselytizing, like Westboro members often do, Johnson said.

“They wouldn’t be so nasty,” Johnson said of the Baptist majority. “Even though they may share the same conclusions, they just wouldn’t behave that way.”

Leaders of Baptist churches in other parts of West Virginia agree.

“It’s repulsive to me and to our church,” said the Rev. J. Thomas Steele of Moundsville Baptist Church. “We don’t approve of anything they’re doing.”

Phelps seems to have done nothing more than start his own church and stamp it with the Baptist name, Steele said.

“Obviously, he’s got a lot of hatred,” Steele said of Phelps. “He has probably got some emotional or mental problems.”

The Westboro group’s latest plans include protests at the funeral of Coretta Scott King, the late widow of Martin Luther King, and a gay pride event at West Virginia University in April.

While they’re in the area, they say, they are going to drop down to the Sago Baptist Church to picket there on a Sunday.

The behavior has prompted West Virginia lawmakers to introduce a bill restricting how closely groups like Westboro can get to a funeral when protesting. Five other states, including Westboro’s home state, Kansas, are considering similar laws.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Charleston Daily Mail, USA
Feb. 8, 2006
Justin D. Anderson

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday February 9, 2006.
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