Westboro Baptist Church

Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

The late Lyle E. Schaller was always popular with journalists because he had the rare ability to dig deep into statistics and demographics, while speaking in direct-quote friendly language. But it was always hard to know what to call him. He was an expert on church-growth trends. But he was also a United Methodist. Wait for it.

Schaller used to laugh whenever he was called a “United Methodist church-growth expert,” in part because of that flock’s serious decline in membership over the past quarter-century or more. If he was a church-growth pro, why didn’t his own denomination listen to him? It was something like being an expert on Baptist liturgy, Episcopal evangelism or Eastern Orthodox praise bands.

But when Schaller talked about the future, lots of people listened. Check out this material from a column I wrote about him entitled, “United Methodists: Breaking up is hard to do.

One side is convinced the United Methodist Church has cancer. The other disagrees and rejects calls for surgery. It's hard to find a safe, happy compromise when the issue is a cancer diagnosis. …

So it raised eyebrows when United Methodism's best-known expert on church growth and decay called for open discussions of strategies to split or radically restructure the national church. Research indicates that United Methodists are increasingly polarized around issues of scripture, salvation, sexuality, money, politics, multiculturalism, church government, worship and even the identity of God, said the Rev. Lyle E. Schaller of Naperville, Ill.

Many people are in denial, while their … church continues to age and decline, he said, in the Circuit Rider magazine for United Methodist clergy. Others know what's happening, yet remain passive.

Sports fans, That. Was. In. 1998.

Schaller told me that he was basing his diagnosis on the open doctrinal warfare that began two decades earlier, in the late 1970s. He was very familiar with a prophetic study that emerged from Duke Divinity School in the mid-1980s, entitled “The Seven Churches of Methodism."

Do I need to say that Schaller’s words are highly relevant in light of the acid-bath drama in yesterday’s final hours at that special United Methodist conference in St. Louis (GetReligion posts here and then here)?

But this is old news, really. Activists on both sides of this struggle have been doing the math (see my 2004 column on that topic) for four decades.

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Read this fine RNS feature about changes at Westboro Baptist (oh wait, it's an opinion piece)

Read this fine RNS feature about changes at Westboro Baptist (oh wait, it's an opinion piece)

Here we go again.

What we have here is a Religion News Service think piece that I sincerely wish was a hard news story. 

In other words, it's a first-person essay that is clearly labeled "opinion," yet it deals with a topic that worthy of serious hard-news reporting. Here's the headline: "They’re still here: The curious evolution of Westboro Baptist Church."

The key, of course, is that the author is an academic in religious studies -- Hillel Gray of the Jewish Studies department at Miami University of Ohio -- instead of an RNS reporter or freelance writer.

Maybe that's the answer to this puzzle. Maybe Gray had the time to do this feature and no one else did. I would imagine that it was much less expensive to pay a freelance stipend to a professor than it would have been to send a reporter. There's that Internet-era equation, again: Opinion is cheap. Information is expensive.

What's interesting, in this case, is that Gray provided lots of new information and it's about a group that is certainly newsworthy -- especially if the "God Hates Fags" flock has made major changes in its mission, following the death of the Rev. Fred Phelps in 2014.

Like what? Once you get past the academic overture (Gray has studied this topic since 2010) readers are told that the Westboro flock is still out there, even if reporters are ignoring them. They remain hyperactive on the Internet and continue doing public protesting -- with some of their famous signs and many new ones. There's even a Donald Trump angle in this essay. 

But the faces have changed and so have the signs. That's the news angle that's worthy of hard-news coverage:

In the last few years, membership has even broadened beyond the Phelps clan. ... Perhaps the most unexpected “new” member is Katherine Phelps, a daughter of Fred Phelps Sr. who had been estranged for decades.


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Essay on CNN.com asks: Should journalists who go undercover doing research be worried?

Essay on CNN.com asks: Should journalists who go undercover doing research be worried?

Yes, this is a post about legal issues linked to the Planned Parenthood videos. But that is not where I want to start.

If you followed the twisting legal arguments surrounding the Westboro Baptist Church protests -- especially the horrible demonstrations at the funerals of military veterans -- you know that most of the headlines focused on freedom of speech.

However, journalists had a lot at stake in this fight, too (whether they felt comfortable about that or not). Why is that? Here is how I described the crucial press-freedom issue in a post -- "Why journalists love Westboro Baptist" -- back in 2010. I asked readers to glance at the coverage of Westboro's arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court and:

Then answer these questions. In addition to telling the story of the grieving family, which is essential, does the report in your local news source tell you (a) that the protests were moved to another location that was not in view of the church at which the funeral was held and that mourners did not need to pass the demonstration? Then, (b) does it note that the grieving father's only viewing of these hateful, hellish demonstrations took place when he viewed news media reports or read materials posted on the church's website? Those facts are at the heart of this case, when you are looking at the legal arguments from a secular, legal, even journalistic point of view. This is why so many mainstream news organizations are backing the church.

In other words, when push came to shove journalists had to defend their own right to cover these hateful demonstrations. People who thought of themselves as "liberals" kept shooting at Westboro and hitting the First Amendment, instead. As a statement at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press put it, in 2011:

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The New Yorker does amazing profile of former Westboro Church rising star

The New Yorker does amazing profile of former Westboro Church rising star

It’s been three years ago this month that the bad girl of the Westboro Church crowd deserted the group with her sister. This month, the New Yorker came out with a huge piece on how and why she left. The lead photo shows Megan Phelps-Roper posed in something with black straps with a tiny nose ring in one nostril. Obviously something’s changed big time.

We've reported on Westboro before, sometimes in the context of whether to cover their bizarre antics. One doesn’t decide to leave such a famous group – and one’s own family -- lightly, especially when you’ve been picketing the funerals of AIDS victims since age 5 and giving interviews since age 11. And lo and behold, we find that it was Twitter, of all things, that eased Phelps-Roper out the door.

From the middle of the story:

Phelps-Roper first considered leaving the church on July 4, 2012. She and (her sister) Grace were in the basement of another Westboro family’s house, painting the walls. The song “Just One,” by the indie folk group Blind Pilot—a band that C.G. had recommended—played on the stereo. The lyrics seemed to reflect her dilemma perfectly: “And will I break and will I bow / if I cannot let it go?” Then came the chorus: “I can’t believe we get just one.” She suddenly thought, What if Westboro had been wrong about everything? What if she was spending her one life hurting people, picking fights with the entire world, for nothing? “It was, like, just the fact that I thought about it, I had to leave right then,” she said. “I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin.”  …

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Can we let Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist rest in peace?

There’s no such thing as bad publicity — at least that’s how the saying goes. I beg to differ when it comes to the late Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church and promoting your business.

From my home state today comes this front-page story in The Oklahoman. Take a moment to read it so we’re all on the same billboard, er … page.

Now then, let’s talk about what constitutes newsworthiness and how that differs from creating news.

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Do skewed churches deserve skewed coverage?

Funny, isn’t it? So many people recoiled in horror at the judgmentalism of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Now that he’s dead and gone — but the church is still here to kick around — a lot of journalists seemingly can’t spew insults fast enough. One of the thickest volleys of darts flew from the International Business Times, which listed tweets of the rich and famous — and judgmental. Some vented spite on a fire-and-brimstone level. “If there is a hell, then he is there,” TV host Andy Cohen tweeted.

And Roseanne Barr used the occasion to damn all faith: “Fred Phelps liberated millions of ppl from slavery to religion by exposing its heart of darkness.”

Yes, these are lively direct quotes. But IBT’s Maria Vultaggio wasn’t content to quote. No, she had to try a little skewing herself:

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Say what!? A Phelps story even Joe Friday would approve

See “‘Fred Phelps has been excommunicated’ and other gossip” and “Do journalists need to crank up the Phelps vitriol? Really?” Those excellent posts by Jim Davis and Terry Mattingly highlight the media’s sins in reporting on the dire health situation of Phelps, founder of the famous — for all the wrong reasons — Westboro Baptist Church.

So journalists, please just quote people. That. Will. Be. Wild. Enough.

How wild is this? I’m going to praise a reporter for using a technique straight out of Journalism 101 to report the Phelps story.

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Do journalists need to crank up the Phelps vitriol? Really?

At this point, it’s pretty clear that coverage of the demise of the Rev. Fred Phelps is going to test the limits of what mainstream journalists are willing and able to print in hard-news stories in mainstream newspapers. As our own Jim Davis noted yesterday, the editors at The New York Daily News approved a clever, but rather column-esque, lede on their basic news story on the reports (originating from estranged son Nathan Phelps) that the anti-gay patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church was on his death bed, after being kicked out of his own congregation for reasons that have not yet been documented. For those catching up on that story, the lede stated: “No one’s going to protest against this guy’s death.”

I think that what they really meant to say was that “no one’s going” to mourn “this guy’s death,” as opposed to saying that no one is going to protest at the Phelps funeral, whenever that event takes place.

Actually, if the key elements of some of these stories hold up, I would say that there is a pretty good chance that members of the Westboro Baptist Church are going to protest at his funeral. Also, I would be stunned if no one on the cultural left, or from the cultural middle, or the normal cultural right, showed up at his funeral with signs of various kinds, either obnoxious or graceful or all points in between. No one expects Phelps to go quietly into that good night (see this USA Today report as a sign of things to come).

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'Fred Phelps has been excommunicated' and other gossip

OK, folks. We need to keep news over here and gossip over there. First, we have multiple stories that Fred Phelps — of Westboro Baptist Church fame, of “God Hates Fags” fame, of picketing veterans’ funerals fame — is “on the edge of death”.

Now he was supposedly kicked out of the Topeka-based church for advocating “kinder treatment of fellow church members.”

And what are the sources for this “news”? Facebook postings by Nate Phelps, an estranged son, who left the church 37 years ago. Here’s what he says, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal:

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