Nashville, Tennessee -- Fred Phelps, the Topeka, Kan., pastor who has been protesting at the funerals of U.S. troops slain in Iraq, engages in “hate-filled activities” and is not a Southern Baptist, SBC President Bobby Welch said Aug. 29 in a statement.
Phelps and his followers from Westboro Baptist Church -- notorious for their “God hates fags” posters -- have staged protests at soldiers’ funerals in several states. The group reasons that roadside bombs killing American troops in Iraq are God’s retribution against America for a small bomb that caused approximately $1,800 damage outside the Topeka home of one of Phelps’ daughters in 1995. The group also emphasizes that it opposes the U.S. military for allowing homosexuals to serve. The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy prevents homosexuals from serving openly but also prohibits the military from asking soldiers about their sexual preference.
Westboro Baptist is an independent church not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Welch, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., said Phelps and his followers “have gone far beyond reason in their efforts to use funerals of our fallen war heroes from Iraq to spotlight themselves.
“Southern Baptists have consistently condemned and officially distanced themselves from Phelps’ hate-filled activities," Welch said.
“It is incorrigible that any person for any reason would take such devastating advantage of broken hearted children, spouses, and parents, at a funeral of their loved one, to draw attention to themselves. Such an ignorant and uncaring disregard for people’s deep feelings will undoubtedly cut into raw nerves that will produce unpredictable negative results.”
Welch added that the SBC does not have “any connection whatsoever with Fred Phelps and his Westboro Church in Kansas,” noting that Phelps has picketed Southern Baptists “on numerous occasions.”
In contrast to Phelps, Southern Baptists hold a commitment “to bring Jesus’ love, hope, life and salvation to all,” Welch said.
Westboro Baptist is made up of 100-200 congregants meeting in the basement of Phelps’ home, which sits in a large fenced compound occupied by nine of his thirteen children and their spouses. Approximately 75-100 of the church’s members are related to Phelps by blood or marriage, according to research done by the Topeka Capital-Journal in 1994.
"Thank God for IEDs killing American soldiers in strange lands every day,” reads the group’s website. “WBC rejoices every time the Lord God in His vengeance kills or maims an American soldier with an Improvised Explosive Device (IED)."
The website continues, “This nation bombed and raided the Westboro Baptist Church, and now the Holy God that Inhabits Eternity is repaying those heinous acts with His retaliatory wrath,” adding, “WBC will picket the funerals of these Godless, fag army American soldiers when their pieces return home. WBC will also picket their landing spot, in Dover, Delaware early and often.”
The website features a list of people the group claims are in hell, a count of American soldiers killed in Iraq, the use of derogatory terms for homosexuals and a photograph of caskets draped with American flags along with the caption, “This is the picture that America deserves.”
Two Southern Baptist military chaplains denounced Phelps’ picketing of military funerals.
Barrett Craig, a Navy chaplain candidate and master of divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., noted that the fallen soldiers died to protect the very freedom of speech that Phelps exercises.
"Men and women of the armed forces have every right to be outraged at men like Fred Phelps for his unbiblical, irrational and hateful statements and actions against our country’s fallen comrades,” Craig said. “However, myself having served four years as a Marine and two years in the Navy chaplaincy, it never ceases to amaze me to hear young soldiers fighting on the front lines, fully aware of men like Mr. Phelps, say, ‘I fight for those types of men, to secure their freedom and allow them the opportunity to exercise their freedom of speech.’”
Jim Fisher, an Air Force chaplain and Ph.D. candidate at Southern Seminary, said Christians must minister to families of slain soldiers rather than take advantage of them as Phelps has done.
“Times of bereavement provide the privilege of ministering to those who have experienced loss by walking with them in their pain,” Fisher said. “Such ministry models the person-to-person concern of Christ Jesus. These bridges of opportunity must be crossed, not closed.”
Southern Baptist leaders have denounced Phelps’ "God hates fags" message multiple times.
In 2003 Phil Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press, "Southern Baptists ought to take it as a badge of honor that he would boycott [us]. The gay and lesbian community needs to realize the difference in attitude and ministry between Southern Baptists and people like Mr. Phelps."
Roberts called Phelps' views on homosexuals "heretical."
Also in 2003, Terry Fox, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Wichita, Kan., preached a sermon in which he denounced Phelps' ministry.
"I have a conviction ... that the lifestyle of homosexuality is a lifestyle unacceptable to God," Fox said. "But I also have a conviction that somebody that is involved in homosexuality can turn away from that and come back to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ."
Phelps and his followers have picketed the SBC building in Nashville at least twice in recent years.
In 1999 messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that didn't mention Phelps by name but did say: "[W]e publicly denounce and deplore all violent attacks upon homosexuals, and that we express our abhorrence of the teaching that God hates any person on account of an immoral lifestyle." The resolution passed months after Phelps' church picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the homosexual college student murdered in Wyoming.