News comes wafting over the pond that the Reverend Fred Phelps, authoritarian patriarch of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (‘the most hated family in America’), has finally kicked the bucket aged 84.
Both Phelps and the Kansan-based cult he moulded over decades are best known for their fanatical hatred of homosexuality, although they also pour bile over Jews, Catholics, liberals, anyone to the left of Glenn Beck, and Barack Obama, who they’ve decided is the Antichrist.
While he could’ve made a lot more money as an anchor on Fox News, Reverend Phelps preferred to spend his time picketing the funerals of people he didn’t like. As evinced by his conduct during a long, hate-fuelled existence in the material realm, Fred Phelps disliked practically everyone – not just individuals who just happened to find members of the same rather than the opposite gender sexually attractive, but people who vocally supported gay rights, people who didn’t vocally condemn gay rights, homophobes who weren’t hard-core enough, and, in a particularly impressive feat of logical gymnastics, American soldiers, because they fought for a government that tolerated people being gay.
Thanks to the late reverend, thousands of grieving families across Midwest America had their loved one’s final journey crashed by placard-wielding zealots chanting ‘GOD HATES FAGS’ – scenes memorably captured on film by shuffling beanpole-cum-awkward documentary-maker Louis Theroux.
Indisputably, Fred Phelps was a repulsive extremist, representative of only the tiniest fraction of the world’s Christian believers. Unfortunately, though, it’s only the extent of his burning hate that marks him out as unusual. Many practising Christians – and, to be fair, more than a few non-believers – remain staunchly homophobic.
The quickest way an atheist can incur a god-botherer’s wrath is to tell them they’re not very Christian. Whether Jesus existed at all, existed in the way his followers think he did, or was entirely made up by savvy proto-priests who wanted a nice life in the Dark Ages doesn’t really matter. Jesus the character, the straggly-haired hippy bloke who appears in the Bible stories, has a very clear life philosophy – one that generally seems to involve being as selfless, tolerant and compassionate a human being as you can be.
We’re told he made friends with lepers and prostitutes. If you could transplant the same character to a modern setting, it follows that he’d be buddying up with the most marginalised people in today’s society – vilified benefit claimants, scared, vulnerable women going through abortions, the kind of people the Right actively despises.
Gay people, thankfully, aren’t quite as marginalised as they once were in most Western societies. But imagine the following situation. Jesus beams down to earth one day and encounters two groups. Members of Group A want to peacefully live their lives with the freedom to shag, love and marry whoever they choose. Group B incites hatred, sometimes even violence, against members of Group A simply because it objects to their sex lives. Unless you’ve been brainwashed by centuries of rich conservative people bending his message into something amenable to rich conservative people, it’s fairly clear which side the Messiah would be on.
At school, we had a slightly unhinged, evangelically Christian English teacher. She’s perhaps not the best person to cite in support of our argument, since she was loudly anti-gay and memorably ridiculed the idea that ‘we all used to be monkeys’. But she was also staunchly left-wing, honouring her Glaswegian roots, and would frequently rant about the conservatism of her fellow believers.
She distinguished between being ‘Christian’ and being ‘religious’. ‘Religious’ people went to church, read the Bible, but ultimately were selfish and unkind – the sort of callous economic libertarians who called themselves Christian and voted Tory in their droves.
Being ‘Christian’, in her book, meant actually engaging with Christ’s core values – and dismissing the Jesus-contradicting right-wing dogma of so many self-proclaimed believers. It would’ve been nice if she practised what she preached enough to get over the Church’s absurd fixation with homosexuality, of course. But at very least, she leaves us with a handy way of splitting those who use religion as a license for heartlessness and endless bigotry from those who genuinely try and follow the Big J’s example.
Star Trek actor, gay rights activist and social media messiah George Takei recently joked that Christian dogmatists should be forced to follow all Biblical rules in a kind of twisted reality TV show. The point, presumably, was that they would spectacularly fail to do so. It’s extremely hard to do everything the Bible commands. Every day, thousands of the most die-hard Christians do things the Good Book forbids just as much as, if not a lot more than, being homosexual.
A couple of statements in Leviticus and Romans might be unambiguously anti-gay. But the Bible also prohibits eating shellfish, wearing clothes that mix wool and linen, trimming your beard, picking up fallen grapes and, in a rather embarrassing theological impasse for the world’s billion-plus Catholics, drinking alcohol in church.
Viewers of any Takei-sponsored Big Brother for Christian extremists would quickly come to realise something – that religious people choose which Biblical stipulations to follow and which they can ignore. And if it’s possible for zealots to overlook the bit that says you shouldn’t eat fat or have a tattoo – or, worst of all as far as the Bible is concerned, get divorced – then it’s equally possible for them to ignore its backward anti-gay messages too. ‘Because the Bible says so’ ceases to be a coherent theological defence for being intolerant. Bigotry is a choice.
Shagging of the heterosexual variety is always a good place to start if you’re looking for instances of religious cherry-picking. Homophobic hard-core Christians are often rather more pragmatic about their own sex lives – especially, we’ve noticed with sordid amusement, young and horny hard-core Christians.
Once, we knew a young couple. Relationship Participant A was an incongruous mix of hippy and UKIP-voting evangelical die-hard. Relationship Participant B was the daughter of staunchly left-wing parents, brought up to be tolerant and sceptical but now pretending she was more religious than she actually was to please Mr A. A was a card-carrying homophobe – he refused to go to the civil partnership ceremony of one of B’s closest friends on moral grounds. But, funnily enough, he was less stringent about ‘no sex before marriage’. In fact, they shagged like rabbits, to the extent where the prospect of even a few sexless days apart was seen as an unbearable wrench.
Consenting adults should shag each other silly as far as we’re concerned, as often as they like, as experimentally as they like (or as infrequently and conventionally), regardless of what anyone of any particular religious persuasion will think of them. Our Christ-cuddling couple were clearly enlightened enough not to let God get in the way of them enjoying the most normal, natural thing in the world. And yet Mr A was still unable to tolerate the fact that some people like to enjoy the most normal, natural thing in the world in a slightly different way.
Obviously, the best route forward would be to just ignore the Bible completely – to get over the annoyingly persistent human need to be told what’s right and wrong by ‘gods’ and priests and messiahs. But for better or worse, billions of people believe. As things stand, it’s up to the planet’s compassionate, ‘Christian’ Christians to determine where the religious establishment’s prejudicial dogma gets in the way of their faith’s overriding messages – which, if implemented in the right way, could provide a lovely basis upon which to build a far more equitable, humane, sustainable civilisation in a way that would even please we socialist infidels.
And now for some stonkingly heartfelt left-wing Christianity, conveyed via the medium of song by superbly-named blues rock hurricane Walter Trout.