After gay student Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in October 1998, a tall man in a white cowboy hat descended up on the Wyoming funeral waving fluorescent signs of Shepard's face amid blood-red flames and chanting the mantra "Matt is in hell."
Few Christians would advocate the virulent phrases—such as "God hates fags"—that pour from Fred Phelps, the infamous antihomosexual protester and pastor. But the rest of the country often confuses Phelps's Day-Glo signs, lifted high by a man wearing a giant name tag that reads "Pastor, Westboro Baptist Church," with mainstream Christian thought and politics.
Phelps's high-profile publicity stunts act as fodder for homosexual-rights activists to portray Christians as dangerous, crazy, hateful, and irrelevant. Every news clip of Phelps helps to blur the line between disagreeing with a nonbiblical agenda and advocating a fiery intolerance for people Jesus died to save. "Leaders like [Phelps] pose a twofold danger to the church," says Daniel Angus, a representative for the media-monitoring group Faith in Touch. "They supply the Left with an arsenal of detestable religious examples to discredit credible people of faith, and they present a false gospel that plays upon legalistic Christians' fears of moral compromise."
DISCREDITING THE CHURCH: Phelps's outrageous antics have attracted broad media attention, casting him in the undeserved role of spokesperson for conservative Christian viewpoints. His angry sound bites make him an easy antagonist for reporters searching for a "balanced" story.
In March, some journalists eagerly showcased Phelps picketing outside the Chicago church of Gregory Dell, the United Methodist minister who was found guilty of violating church law for conducting ...