This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of SPIN. Fred Phelps died March 20, 2014.
Is there anything more punk rock than the Westboro Baptist Church's "God Hates the World" video? I'm being serious. I've never seen the anarchic spirit, the DIY ethos, or the hardcore antisocial stance in more robust action than in this braying, backwoods mini-opera, a parody of USA for Africa's "We Are the World." I must have watched it a dozen times before YouTube took it down. Thanks, YouTube. I finally find a song I can do my ab crunches to, and you deny me. Time to break out the crisis pants. Again.
The Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church (or the WBC, as my break-dancing crew calls it) is run by 77-year-old pastor Fred Phelps, and it has a simple message straight from the Bible: Earth is about to be roasted as cosmic payback for all of our homosexual-toleratin' ways. Apparently, being able to create the entire universe in six days — six days! — doesn't mean you can't be an angry, gay-panicked jock. God doesn't like the way we've been eyeing him at the bar, and he's about to follow us out into the parking lot and curb-stomp us for the half-mast hard-on we've given him.
Phelps has wisely made sure to get on the Lord's non-shit list. According to his infinite wisdom, God's cooking up a crispy platter of Doomsday, and he's about to kick it up an apoca-notch. Bam!
And how do you show a fragile-as-peanut-brittle omnipotent being you truly, truly love him? The same way you show your favorite band, comedian, or sports team your loyalty — by actively, and publicly, hating their rivals. In this case, God's rivals are everyone else in American except the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. U.S. soldiers in Iraq? Had it coming for defending our gay-enabling country. The victims of 9/11? Ditto. Same with the Katrina victims. Mr. Rogers? That cardigan-wearing fag hag is getting a broken-glass handjob in Hades as I type this.
And in true punk style, the WBC members take their cause to the streets. Specifically military funerals. There's a good chance, when you're burying your uninformed loved one and trying to honor his or her sacrifice, the WBC will be across the road, holding up signs in rainbow colors scrawled with homilies like GOD HATES FAGS, GOD SENT THE IEDS, GOD HATES YOUR TEARS, and GOD IS YOUR ENEMY. Of course, their god isn't all about hatred — there are also signs that say, GOD LOVES DEAD SOLDIERS.
But as is so often the case with envelope-pushing visionaries, the squares just don't get it.
And Fred Phelps is a talent hyphenate. A South Park-style animated video about 9/11, called "Smell the Brimstone," shows screaming gays falling from the burning towers to the strains of "America the Beautiful" ("O, wicked land of sodomites / Your World Trade Center's gone") and has the kind of aggro-artistry that NYU film students blow entire trust funds endeavoring to capture. So where's his Video Vanguard award?
But his most recent opus, "God Hates the World," is in a loftier class. Gathering about two dozen members of his family and congregation in a studio to savage the 1985 pabulum classic (which, let's face it, is what got God hating us in the first place), this bare-bones chunk of righteous cinema verité mimics USA for Africa's "check your ego at the door" mass chorus, while featuring non sequitur incantations such as "You'll eat your kids!" And when you've got those lines being sung in a Judy Collins falsetto? Is it any wonder I'm such a Phelps phanatic?
But the appreciation goes deeper than that. Besides the hothouse-raised hate-vixens, the folksy righteousness, and the handheld energy of the video, it's the ballsy attitude. Even the most rage-fueled fringe groups, even the most extreme, venom-spitting religions and creeds all have one chink in their armor and it's what binds them in their inevitable weakness and self-canceling hypocrisy: They need joiners. They need new members. They want to convert you, to make you see the error of your ways, and get you to come into the fold. Yes, the government is lying to you, and God's going to cast you into hell — but is there any way you could buy a T-shirt, or maybe tithe some of your paycheck so we can keep this campaign of hate going?
Not the WBC. No entreaties here. They've got a message for all Americans: There's nothing you can do to stop your fate. You are doomed. Period. This is not a debate. This is not a dialogue. They're not here with good news or a lifeline for you to grab. They've come a-caroling to assure you they plan to laugh their asses off while you're being dragged into the depths by cackling demons. That's like a punk band playing one hour before their fans show up, and then standing onstage and taunting them with stories of the amazing shows they've just missed. Not even Crass would be so...crass.
GG Allin showed us punk in a handful of poo. Fred Phelps thinks the entire planet is one giant, fetid mass of excrement, and he wants to throw it in God's face, so that God, in return, will destroy Earth. Now that's idealism.
Ball's in your court, Fugazi.