It is hard to find a sympathetic response to Fred Phelps’s death. Since the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church died last week, most of the commentaries that I have encountered—both online and in personal conversations—express relief and gratitude. Relief that his homophobia and protests will no longer demand public attention. Gratitude that the movement for marriage equality can continue on its productive pace and that veterans’ funerals are less likely to be picketed. Some commentaries take the moral high ground and call for dignified silence. Others insist that God loves even Fred Phelps. Each of these responses includes a degree of puzzlement, too, and not just at Phelps’s angry zeal. The puzzlement comes in response to the link that he made in his mind between America’s acceptance of homosexuality and the death of US soldiers on battlefields all over the world. What absurd mind could link these two phenomena?
But this move—positing a causal relationship between our more permissive stance on homosexuality and the harm that our soldiers suffer in war—is based on premises of political theology that have deep roots in American theology. Phelps was an oddity in today’s landscape of Christian political thought. But the principles of his political theology would have fit in perfectly in other eras of American Christianity. His death provides an occasion to revisit these principles and reflect on their diminishing appeal. Politically conservative Christianity in America no longer finds these principles tenable and has gone on to embrace other trends in political thought. What Phelps’s death shows is the distance between older forms of American political theology and the more common civic tendencies of today’s conservative Christians. As Fred Phelps dies, it is not clear which tradition politically conservative Christianity is conserving.
There are several basic premises that undergirded Phelps’s political thought. One is that we “Americans” are bound to God in a covenantal relationship. To say this is to claim that there is a binding agreement between God and the American people. This agreement gives us our identity and promises us salvation. Keeping the covenant confirms our identity as God’s chosen people, and this identity in turn binds God to bless and save us. Phelps thought the content of this covenant was plain to see in the Christian Bible, and that the most urgent requirement regarding our conduct was proper (meaning, for him, “not gay”) sexuality. Phelps’s confidence and certainty about this detail of the covenant were certainly unjustified, as many Christians adhere to a covenantal theology but do not agree that biblical texts require condemnation of homosexuality. Like most other commentaries on Phelps that I have encountered online and in personal conversation since his death, I find his condemnation of homosexuality to be hateful and intolerant. But for now, I want to think about the principles of his political theology in the historical sweep of American Christianity, rather than the specifics of his moral vision.
A second basic premise of Phelps’s thought is that, in addition to being bound to God by a covenant, we are also bound to each other by this agreement. According to this principle, our observance of the covenant puts us right not only with God, but also with each other. Indeed, we all have a responsibility to each other to adhere to the moral and religious precepts of God’s covenant. According to this logic, my covenantal responsibility extends both upward to God, and outward to my neighbor. A Christian who holds to this view would follow the covenant partly for the sake of his or her neighbor. He or she would also insist that other neighbors do the same.
A third premise builds on these first two: keeping the covenant (or failing to do so) brings outward blessing (or wrath) not only on an individual, but on an entire group of people. In Phelps’s case, the entire group of people bound by covenant to God and neighbor was nothing less than the entire citizenry of the United States. Obviously, Phelps believed that we as a nation were so egregiously failing to adhere to the covenant that God’s wrath was being poured out upon us all, together, in the form of military injuries and deaths on foreign battlefields. This conclusion struck many—myself included—as deeply objectionable.
And yet, the three premises on which the conclusion was based were once rather common. The earliest evangelicals in the Massachusetts Bay Colony largely accepted these premises. For the New England Puritans, it was clear that God called them to live according to biblical covenant, bound to God and neighbor(s), and subject to outward blessing or wrath as their conduct warranted. In his classic essay, “Errand into the Wilderness,” Perry Miller summarized the hopeful side of John Winthrop’s political theology in part by writing, “prosperity would be bestowed not as a consequence of labor but as a sign of [God’s] approval upon the mission itself. For once in the history of humanity (with all its sins), there would be a society so dedicated to a holy cause that success would prove innocent and triumph not raise up sinful pride or arrogant dissension” (6). If the hopeful side, expectant of outward blessings, was present in Winthrop’s colony, the anxious side, fearful of God’s anger, was never far off. Miller explains that, “in the 1660’s and 1670’s, all the jeremiads…are castigations of the people for having defaulted on precisely these articles. They recite the long list of afflictions an angry God has rained down upon them, surely enough to prove how dismally they had deserted the covenant: crop failures, epidemics, grasshoppers, caterpillars, torrid summers, arctic winters, Indian wars, hurricanes, shipwrecks, accidents, and (most grievous of all) unsatisfactory children” (6). Notice the way in which military defeat at the hands of Native Americans is imagined as an outward manifestation of God’s wrath following moral decline. Fred Phelps would have been at home in such a society. The resonance of his political theology with that of the Puritans may not make it any more appealing, but it does show that Phelps’s thought has historical pedigree in America.
Where does that tradition stand today? As much as the premises of his political thought might have fit in with 17th century New England Puritanism, Phelps was most certainly an odd man out in the contemporary landscape of American political theology. Do many American Christians believe that God killed our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan because we are increasingly tolerant of homosexuality? I do not think they do. It is no longer common to think of God distributing punishment for our sin in such ways. More to the point, it is no longer common for American Christians to think of themselves as bound to their neighbors in horizontal extensions of covenant. Even if God does issue punishment for sin in these outward ways, I would never incur such punishment for my neighbor’s wrongdoings. That idea is truly foreign in today’s political discourse, I suspect because of the emerging influence of the Tea Party. The Tea Party’s emergence is consistent with the alliance between political conservatism and American evangelicalism which began in the 1970s and continued through the Reagan and Bush years. But the Tea Party movement introduces a more comprehensive vision of individualism. Where evangelicalism previously merely underwrote economic individualism, now the ethos of individualism has infiltrated its political theology, as well. As libertarianism grows in stature and force, and the older models of covenantal political theology become broadly discredited, many Christians seem to find that the path of least resistance is a wholesale acceptance of libertarianism. Such an acceptance moves them swiftly and decisively away from the visions of Winthrop and Phelps, toward a political philosophy that imagines the primary unit of political action as the individual (rather than the covenantal community), and restricts the state’s proper role to such functions as the protection of private property, the enforcement of contracts, and the defense of national borders. In accepting the basic premises of libertarian thought on these questions, American Christians necessarily must depart from earlier covenantal ideas of political life, as exemplified in the Puritans and the life and work of Fred Phelps.
This transition has been, to put it mildly, rather awkward. The discord is noticeable most clearly in debates about sexuality. More “traditional” evangelicals are having a difficult time accepting the marriage equality movement. But the premises of libertarian thought must lead to such acceptance. Certainly the state has no business regulating the sexual activity of consenting adults, according to libertarian political thought. But the conflict does not simply simmer within debates about sexuality; it burns over questions about the relationship between individual and God, the relationship between the individual and the community, and the proper role of the state. The plight of the so-called “Teavangelical” is intellectual inconsistency to the point of incoherence. The premises of covenantal evangelicalism simply cannot accommodate the solitary individual and restricted state of libertarian thought. When Catholic thought is added to the mix, as in the case of Rick Santorum, the incoherence is magnified.
In today’s America, politically conservative Christians face a major challenge. As Fred Phelps dies, it is not clear that they have a tradition to conserve.