Catholics throughout the world are anxiously awaiting the selection of a new pope and debating vigorously whether their church needs to alter its approach to an array of sensitive subjects that have caused painful rifts among its faithful.
Meanwhile, a much smaller and lesser-known religious organization is facing its own crisis, one most Americans will instinctively applaud. The tiny Westboro Baptist Church is nationally notorious for its practice of picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in combat. Its members carry placards that say God is punishing our country because too many of us tolerate, to one degree or another, homosexuality. Their posters have read “God Hates Fags” and “AIDS Cures Gays.”
And Vermonters will remember that a delegation from the Kansas church came to Montpelier to protest when the Legislature was debating the bill that established the right of gays and lesbians to form legally recognized civil unions so their legal status was similar to that of married couples.
Well, the church that promotes hatred finally has a problem: Two granddaughters of the church’s founder, Fred Phelps, have very publicly left the church and their family and now they’re openly discussing the blatant intolerance so constantly promoted by Phelps and his followers.
Most fair-minded Americans, regardless of their particular faith (or lack of it), will surely believe that it’s about time.
Recently, The Huffington Post reported, Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper toured the Museum of Intolerance in Los Angeles, and almost as soon as they entered the building they spotted a photo of their own family.
Having been excommunicated by that family, the sisters have begun thinking for themselves rather than accepting without question the doctrine of hatred preached in their family’s church. They have also begun meeting people who have a wide array of religious beliefs and shedding the cruel stereotypes that had defined the world to them.
“We were taught that what we were doing was the only thing that would help people,” Megan Phelps-Roper told a reporter. “Because, from their perspective, everything bad that happens in the world is because people don’t obey God. When people don’t do what he says, then horrible things happen: school shootings, tornadoes and hurricanes. So if I really care about people, I’m going to be out there with a sign.”
But her caring took her in a different direction: “Looking back, I knew that it was hurtful emotionally for people, but I thought that if it caused somebody to believe and to obey God, then their lives would be so much better.”
The church’s teachings actually go further than that: “You’re taught that everyone outside the church is evil,” Grace Phelps-Roper said, adding there was nothing they could do to change the teachings of their church “because if we disagreed, we would get in trouble.”
The young women said that “the culture of conflict bred an us-against-them identity among the church members” and that identity was reinforced by their belief “that Jesus said that ‘If you follow me, the world is going to hate you.’”
“There’s so much that we didn’t know about the way people believe and how they live,” Megan Phelps-Roper told a reporter. “And we thought we did. We thought we knew. And we did not have a clue.”
This country proudly guarantees the freedom of religion, but any church that preaches hate rather than love is one that, in time, will surely bring about its own demise. In this case, the process has begun — from within — and these young women deserve applause.
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