A counterculture is a subculture that rejects the major values, norms, and practices of the larger society, replacing them with a new set of cultural patterns (Thomas); the Westboro Baptist Church is an example of a counterculture due to its rejection of societal norms such as respect for the dead and acceptance of others, especially LGBT people, Jewish people, other Christian people, and African-Americans and black people in general. Their messages of extreme hatred for minorities, Jewish people, and those who do not share the same beliefs as them as well as their extremely aggressive use of media attention to further their hateful agenda, show that they are rebelling against norms, major values, and practices of the larger society, namely respect for others and an inclusive, caring attitude towards minorities. By using media attention and publicity, they are actively and aggressively trying to spread their hateful message and make others feel the same way they do about minorities, other religions, and the LGBT community. In the BBC documentary “The Most Hated Family in America”, one of the leaders of the group said that the Westboro Baptist Church was not in the process of attempting to convert sinners or grow their church, and that their real purpose was to provoke people and spread the hatred of God, to make people sympathize with the hatred that the Westboro Baptist Church shows. This leader then proceeds to talk about how the church’s goal is to plant the seeds of God’s hatred in the hearts and minds of others (O’Connor).
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Pastor Fred Phelps, after dropping out of West Point and graduating with a ministerial degree from Jones College, began serving as Westboro Baptist Church’s pastor in 1955, and he and his family are the leaders of the church and its actions (Westboro Baptist Church). In 1967 the Westboro Baptist Church became not-for-profit. The group became fairly active in picketing, releasing statements regarding homosexuality and other things they viewed as sins, and anti-semitism in the 1990s onward. The majority of the Church’s membership is constituted of its founder Fred Phelp’s family. The first time the church truly gained media attention was in 1998, when Westboro picketed the funeral of a gay murder victim named Matthew Shephard. The group had signs saying “God hates fags”, among other extremely derogatory statements (Anti-Defamation League). The group also attempted to build a granite monument to Shephard, with his name and an anti-gay bible verse on it; their request to build this monument in a public park was denied (Southern Poverty Law Center). The group truly came into the public spotlight in 2005, when they began to actively picket and protest deceased soldier’s funerals, toting signs saying “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Thank God for IEDs”, which brought them national attention from the media (Anti-Defamation League). In March 2006, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funeral of Matthew Snyder, who had served in Iraq. Albert Snyder, Matthew’s father, sued the Westboro Baptist Church for defamation, invasion of privacy, and emotional distress. The case eventually came before the Supreme Court of the United States in 2010 (Southern Poverty Law Center). The Supreme Court of the United States held that the Westboro Baptist Church was within their First Amendment rights while protesting and picketing funerals, and that their hateful speech was protected by their First Amendment rights as well (Snyder v. Phelps ET AL. ). Westboro Baptist Church remains active to this day, and according to their website they have conducted 59,091 pickets as of this writing (Westboro Baptist Church). The group has also been banned from certain countries after threatening to picket funerals, namely the United Kingdom and Canada (Southern Poverty Law Center). The group is significant in the fact that they receive large amounts of media attention and that they are known for protecting their right to free speech in court, and the group actively challenges laws protecting the United States flag from desecration (Anti-Defamation League). Their ideology is an extremist Christian view that manifests itself as hatred towards basically all groups save the Westboro Baptist Church; focusing on minority groups and military.
The sociological perspective is defined as being able to look beyond commonly held beliefs to see the bigger picture and the true meanings behind human actions (Thomas 4-5). A major driver of the Westboro Baptist Church is the fact that almost all of its key members are related, and that the children raised in the church are essentially brainwashed into thinking that they are right and all other groups or opinions are wrong. The group seems to simply spew hatred, but they truly believe that by spreading hateful ideas they are spreading the word of God to everyone (TED). The sociological imagination is defined as being able to see the connection between the larger world and one’s personal life (Thomas 4-5 ). This group has affected the world by spreading hateful ideas, and act as a force that the greater culture rallies against, due to the Westboro Baptist Church’s disregard of mores like respecting the dead, the United States flag, and soldiers. Legally, this group is significant for proving on the Supreme Court level that their picketing is legal and protected by the first Amendment (Snyder v. Phelps ET AL. ), along with their challenging of laws that protect the flag from desecration, and the group raises questions about the limits of first Amendment rights.
Ethnocentrism is defined as viewing one’s own culture or group as superior to another culture or group (Thomas 35), and by viewing American culture as superior it is easy to see why the Westboro Baptist Church is seen as a counterculture. The American people value diversity, it is often stressed in our society that it is “good to be different” or that “everyone is unique”; the Westboro Baptist Church rebels against this value in diversity, stating that other groups are inherently inferior as designed by God, and that these inferior groups deserve to die and burn in hell (Westboro Baptist Church). American culture also values the flag, which Westboro Baptist Church is known for desecrating and overturning laws protecting the flag. Most of all American culture values veterans, active duty soldiers, and the deceased, which Westboro Baptist Church actively pickets with signs reading “Thank God for IEDs” among other travesties (Westboro Baptist Church), showing that they are rebelling against major mores that are valued by American culture. The groups’s supremacist attitude, along with their hatred of homosexuals, the Jewish, and blacks, define them as a counterculture which rebels against the mores regarding diversity and freedom for all. Their hatred for soldiers and even the practice of funerals only serves to further prove they are a counterculture; by picketing funerals of soldiers the group is rebelling against major values and mores of society (Anti-Defamation League).
Cultural relativism is defined as judging a culture by their own standards rather than imposing another culture’s standards on a culture (Thomas 36). By applying cultural relativism to the Westboro Baptist Church, it is easy to see that the groups’s member believe they are justified, and that what they are doing may be hateful, but it is hateful because God wants the group to spread hate. The group views itself as the only real religion that God will recognize, and views all other groups, even fellow Christians, as sinners destined for hell. The group feels that it is justified in its hatred of homosexuality because homosexuality is seen as a sin in the bible (Westboro Baptist Church). The group pickets funerals because they believe that funerals are where people will be most receptive to their ideas, and the group pickets soldier’s funerals more often because they believe that the military is sinful and that the military is protecting the rights of homosexuals (Westboro Baptist Church). The group is so invested in what they believe to be God’s divine mission for them that they do not care if they receive hate in return, and they believe that they are justified in disregarding major values, practices, and norms of society.
Personally, as someone who was raised with a Protestant church background, as well as someone possessing black, Jewish, veteran, Catholic, and homosexual family members, I abhor and reject the practices of the Westboro Church; I see their actions as extremely disrespectful and devoid of anything that God would support, as the bible speaks more about inclusivity and loving sinners than spreading hatred. Although by taking a culturally relative view of the group’s actions, I believe they are too extreme in showing that homosexuality is a sin, and as someone who no longer identifies as Christian I believe that people should be allowed to love who they want regardless of gender. I am not by any means a theologian or an ardent Christian, but I still believe that the Westboro Baptist Church’s extremist views, although protected by the first Amendment, are to be abhorred. I also strongly believe that the dead, especially those who died in active duty, should be held to the highest levels of respect and honor, and I believe that the greater American culture is in concurrence with me in this belief. Westboro Baptist Church is important to the world because it has a global impact and brings issues regarding free speech and how far extension of free speech goes, and I hope that in the future the Westboro Baptist Church will never come to represent the majority opinion of Americans, because their hatred of others is disgusting. I believe that taking a certain degree of ethnocentrism is necessary when dealing with the Westboro Baptist Church because their ideals are so hateful that they can bring out hatred in others, and ethnocentrism acts as a barrier to stop their hatred from spreading. To conclude, Westboro Baptist Church’s extremist Christian views are so opposite to the major mores of American society that it makes them a counterculture, and the Westboro Baptist Church is an extremely hateful group that hopefully will not stand the test of time.
“The Most Hated Family in America”. Dir. Geoffrey O’Connor. Perf. Louis Theroux. 2007. Documentary.
Anti-Defamation League. Westboro Baptist Church. n.d. Archived Website. 10 March 2017.
Snyder v. Phelps ET AL. . No. 09-751. Supreme Court of the United States. 6 October 2010. Court Case.
Southern Poverty Law Center. SPL Center. n.d. Website. 7 March 2017.
TED. I Grew Up in the Westboro Baptist Church. This is why I left. February 2017. Video.
Thomas, W Laverne. “Sociology- The Study of Human Relationships.” Austin: Holt,Rinehart, Winston, 2003. 39, 4-5, 35, 36. Textbook.
Westboro Baptist Church. God Hates Fags. n.d. Website. 10 March 2017.
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