The Phelpses’ Logic (and Ours)

First published at on February 4, 2008

No one was surprised when the Phelpses announced plans to protest Heath Ledger’s memorial services. Known for their “God Hates Fags” message and their obnoxious funeral pickets—they now demonstrate against fallen American soldiers for defending our “doomed, fag-loving nation”—the Phelpses are nothing if not attention whores. What’s surprising is how much the Phelpses can tell us about ourselves.

Let’s admit it: deranged people, like car wrecks, are fascinating to watch. While everyone would be better off ignoring the Phelpses, doing so is hard sometimes. (I feel the same way about Britney, Paris, and Lindsay—my willpower against media “junk food” is only so strong.) So it was that I recently found myself listening to Shirley Phelps-Roper—daughter of Fred, who founded the infamous Westboro Baptist Church—when she appeared on a Washington D.C. radio station.

Phelps-Roper condemned Ledger for Brokeback Mountain, in which he plays a cowboy who falls in love with another man. Ledger is in hell because he mocked God’s law, she claimed, and “if you follow his example, you will go to hell with him.”

Predictably, the show’s callers attacked Phelps-Roper; sadly, they often made little sense. One insisted that, according to the bible, God doesn’t judge anyone. Say what? Phelps-Roper’s reading of the bible may be selective, but apparently, so is everyone else’s: it doesn’t take much searching to find a judgmental, even wrathful God in the bible.

The show’s host then attacked Phelps-Roper for her picket signs, which often thank God for disasters: “Thank God for 9/11.” “Thank God for maimed soldiers.” “Thank God for Hurricane Katrina.” and so on. Phelps-Roper had a ready comeback:

“Exactly. You better thank him for all of his judgments because the scripture says that God is known by the judgment that he executes in this Earth, so you thank him for everything.”

This answer is interesting, and not as bizarre as it might first appear. Theologians have long pondered the problem of evil—if God is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful, why does he allow evil in the world?—and some quite respectable ones have concluded that evil doesn’t really exist. From our limited human perspective, things may look bad, but that’s just because our minds are too feeble to comprehend God’s design: ultimately, everything is just as God planned it.

The problem is that, pushed to its limits, this position quickly yields practical contradictions. By this logic, we ought to thank God for Heath Ledger’s death; but by the same logic, we ought to thank God for Brokeback Mountain’s box-office success. We ought to thank God for Hurricane Katrina; yet we ought also to thank him for sparing the (delightfully debaucherous) French Quarter. We ought to thank God for AIDS, yet also for protease inhibitors. If God should be thanked for everything, then God should be thanked for EVERYTHING.

Yet somehow I don’t expect to see the Phelpses with signs thanking God for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, or the passage of ENDA, or the increasing acceptance of GLBT people. If I were on a radio program with Shirley Phelps-Roper, I’d want to ask her “Why not?” If all of God’s judgments are “perfect,” why not these?

My guess is that she’d answer that these events result from human free will rather than divine will. But then how do we distinguish them from 9/11? Was it God’s will for Islamic extremists to fly planes into buildings? If so, do they escape hell, since they were only doing God’s will? If not, then why are we thanking God, rather than blaming the extremists?

I wouldn’t expect a satisfying answer to these questions, but that’s not because Phelps-Roper is deranged (which she is) or stupid (which she isn’t, as far as I can tell). It’s because centuries of philosophical theology have failed to produce satisfying answers to the problem of evil. Instead, we pick and choose: even though God is supposed to be responsible for everything, we thank him for the things we like and call the rest a mystery. In this respect Phelps-Roper resembles most biblical believers: she just happens to “like” rather different things than sane folks do.

A talented and likable actor dies in his prime. The Phelpses thank God, while mainstream believers declare God’s will a mystery. Had the paramedics saved him, mainstream believers would thank God while the Phelpses declared God’s will a mystery. In either case, divine providence remains unquestioned. Heads, God wins. Tails, God wins.

If there’s a mystery here, it’s why believers seem to have lower expectations of God than they do of local weather forecasters. That, and why a loving God lets the Phelpses continue to spew hate in his name.