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Westboro Baptist hates America

The Rev. Billy Graham is a Baptist and so is Bill Clinton.

The Rev. Rick "Purpose Driven Life" Warren is a Baptist and so is the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The Rev. Bob Jones III of Greenville, S.C., is a Baptist and so is the Rev. Al Sharpton, Jr., of New York. The Rev. Bill Moyers is a Baptist, or used to be, and that's also true for the Rev. Pat Robertson.

There are all kinds of Baptists, so saying people are "Baptists" may do little to clarify what they actually believe.

But two things are clear. The first is that the Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., is a Baptist. The second is that millions of other Baptists wish Phelps and his infamous flock would stop calling themselves "Baptists."

"It does make you cringe when you read about Phelps and Westboro, because you rarely see anyone stress that these people have no connections to Southern Baptists or to American Baptists or to anybody else," said Greg Warner, editor of the Associated Baptist Press, one of two news agencies that cover Baptist life.

"This is just some of the baggage that comes with being Baptist. It goes with the territory."

Phelps and his followers make keep making headlines because of their protests at military funerals, featuring signs with shocking slogans -- such as "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." The church has about 60 members, most of them related to Phelps, and teaches that God is punishing America because of this culture's growing acceptance of homosexuality. A jury in Baltimore recently handed down a $10.9 million verdict against Westboro because of its ugly protests at the March 2006 funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who died in Iraq.

At its website -- -- the church offers this history: "Established in 1955 by Pastor Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas still exists today as an Old School (or, Primitive) Baptist Church. ... We adhere to the teachings of the Bible, preach against all form of sin (e.g., fornication, adultery, sodomy), and insist that the doctrines of grace be taught publicly to all men. These doctrines of grace were well summed up by John Calvin in his 5 points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Although these doctrines are almost universally hated today, they were once loved and believed."

The church does not, however, appear to be part of the National Primitive Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. Then again, it isn't linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Churches, the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., the Conservative Baptist Association of America, the American Baptist Association (Landmark Baptists), the Regular Baptist Churches, Reformed Baptist Churches, Free Will Baptist Churches, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Evangelical Life and Soul Saving Assembly of the U.S.A., the Independent, Fundamental Baptist Churches or any other known Baptist group.

Obviously, it's hard for Baptists to agree on a common definition of what "Baptist" means. One online definition states: "A member of an evangelical Protestant church of congregational polity, following the reformed tradition in worship and believing in individual freedom, in the separation of church and state, and in baptism of voluntary, conscious believers."

However, various streams of Baptist life predate the birth of the modern "evangelical" movement. And would Baptists agree they are "reformed" churches or "Reformed," as in rooted in Calvinist teachings? Do Baptists today share a common understanding of the "separation of church and state"? Of course not.

All Baptists would, however, stress a congregational approach to church government and the autonomy of each local congregation. This means that it's all but impossible for any Baptist flock to tell another flock what to do -- unless they're part of a larger voluntarily association or convention.

"Just about anyone can get themselves ordained and then say that they've started a church," said Will Hall, head of the 16.4-million-member Southern Baptist Convention's official Baptist Press news agency.

But in the case of Westboro Baptist, he said, it isn't even enough "to call them an independent Baptist church, because they're not typical of the many independent Baptist churches and missionary Baptist churches out there across America. This is a tiny church that's out there all by itself and that's the way they want it."

Where does the Baptist buck stop?

The clergy sexual abuse statistics were staggering.

Local reports from angry, hurt and humiliated laypeople were too horrifying to ignore.

So the assembled church leaders decided that they had to say something, they had to call for some kind of action because they were facing a nasty moral crisis.

"We encourage those religious bodies dealing with the tragedy of clergy abuse in their efforts to rid their ranks of predatory ministers," said their June 12 resolution. "We call on civil authorities to punish to the fullest extent of the law sexual abuse among clergy and counselors. ...

"We call on our churches to discipline those guilty of any sexual abuse ... as well as to cooperate with civil authorities in the prosecution of those cases."

Thus, the "messengers" to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention acknowledged that America's largest non-Catholic flock has been hit by waves of clergy sexual abuse affecting untold numbers of women, men, teen-agers and children. The resolution, which passed with little opposition, called for "ministers of the gospel -- whether they are pastors, counselors, educators, missionaries, chaplains or others -- to be above reproach morally, both within the body of Christ and in the larger community."

The intent of this is clear. Yet the statement also demonstrates why it will be hard for freewheeling and autonomous Protestant congregations to attack clergy sexual abuse.

While news media have repeatedly focused on abuse among Catholics, Protestant insiders have also long known that many of their own clergy -- especially youth workers and pastors who do counseling -- were breaking the laws of God and man.

"The incidence of sexual abuse by clergy has reached 'horrific proportions,' " according to a 2000 report to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It noted that studies conducted in the 1980s found that about 12 percent of ministers had "engaged in sexual intercourse with members" and nearly 40 percent had "acknowledged sexually inappropriate behavior."

Sadly, this report added: "Recent surveys by religious journals and research institutes support these figures. The disturbing aspect of all research is that the rate of incidence for clergy exceeds the client-professional rate for both physicians and psychologists."

Where does the buck stop, when sexual abuse hits Protestant pulpits? The Southern Baptist resolution calls on local churches to discipline sex offenders. Yet the most powerful person in modern Protestantism is a successful pastor whose preaching and people skills keep packing people into the pews. Can his own church board truly investigate and discipline that pastor?

Once that question is asked, others quickly follow.

If the board of deacons in a Southern Baptist congregation faced an in-house sex scandal and wanted help, where could it turn? It could seek help from its competition, the circle of churches in its local association. Or it could appeal to its state convention. In some states, "conservative" and "moderate" churches would need to choose between competing conventions linked to these rival Baptist camps. Or could a church appeal for help from the boards and agencies of the 16-million-member national convention?

Everything depends on that local church and everything is voluntary. One more question: What Baptist leader would dare face the liability issues involved in guiding such a process?

"Just think of all the places where this process could go off the rails," said historian Timothy Weber, dean of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary near Chicago. "One church would have to take the initiative to voluntarily report the information on a bad pastor. Then another church would have to voluntarily go through the process of asking for information so that they can screen a pastor that it is thinking about hiring."

Some state conventions might have the staff and know how to create a data bank of information of clergy sexual abuse. But for Baptist leaders to do so, they would risk clashing with their tradition's total commitment to the freedom and the autonomy of the local congregation.

"The fact is," said Weber, "there is no Baptist clearing house for this information -- anywhere. There is no one keeper of the files, nobody out there who has the power to intervene when something goes wrong and people start pointing fingers. There is no there, out there."