The controversy, by now, is familiar. It follows the stage play The Laramie Project wherever it goes, in incendiary press releases, invariably from Topeka, Kan., to the local media.
Two weeks ago it was Durham's turn.
"WBC to picket the fag-infested Durham School of the Arts and The Laramie Project fag propaganda play," read the heading, on stationary bearing the name Westboro Baptist Church.
Beneath these words, of all things, there was a one-paragraph theater review:
"The Laramie Project is a tacky bit of banal melodrama—cheap, unaffecting, drearily predictable—without artistic merit or redeeming social value. Its purpose is to promote sodomy by playing on the sick, maudlin emotions of degenerate America and thereby recruit kids to the gay lifestyle—and in the process to make greedy Judy Shepard and Moises Kaufman rich. Matt Shepard has been in Hell now 6 years—with eternity left to go on his sentence. All else about Matt is trivial and irrelevant."
I was silent as the impact of the words soaked in.
I went to the front page of the Web site listed at the top of the flier: www.godhatesfags.com. After clicking on the yellow "Warning! Gospel Preaching Ahead" sign at the top of the introductory screen, I saw a main page with two columns.
Under the heading on the left, "Love Crusades," there was a clickable link: "WBC to celebrate Pope John Paul II's first full month in Hell." Meanwhile, the top link under the "Featured" column on the right read "Deal with it you idolatrous morons: The Pope is in Hell!" Items in the lengthy column underneath it assured me that "God Hates Sweden!" and demanded all nations immediately outlaw homosexuality and impose the death penalty.
Beneath, in a column titled "Memorials," were the numbers: Matthew Shepard, in Hell for 2,395 days; Diane Whipple, there for 1,551 days.
The words were so caustic.
And so familiar.
During 11 years writing about the live arts, I have occasionally poked fun at my full fair share of the foibles and quirks I fell heir to while growing up in the South.
In all that time, one thing was never a laughing matter: the ultra-fundamentalist churches which ringed the countryside around my hometown, and their beliefs that constituted the first religious experiences of my life.
Like most children, I had no control over the faith I was first exposed to. And like all children in that faith, I was zealously taught there was only one truth in a world full of error—and weren't we the lucky ones to have it all.
Not that all was harmony and peace in these zones of absolute verity. From first memory to the time I walked away from that tradition of faith, my family had attended four different churches, three of which had split away from former congregations. Our pane of crystal-clear religion was brittle, and kept shattering into smaller pieces, with increasingly sharp edges.
Our faith—the faith—became something of an ever-shrinking ledge. Too soon, the tenderness of the feltboard theater Bible lessons we saw in Sunday school gave way to nearly total paranoia in the pulpit.
The world of Nature, the senses—and all other cultures and faiths—was the world of error. In it lurked a literal Devil: Satan, or ha'Satan, a being of specific attributes. Just beyond that world, a lake of fire was reserved for all "unsaved." Hell was hot and real, and our small souls hung above it by a thread—a message that made an indelible impression on an already conscientious 6-year-old.
Eternal vigilance—and a unique form of holy terror—was the price of our "salvation."
We were constantly advised to re-certify that salvation, and see if Sin had crept into even the most innocent of thoughts. We were trained on some level to remain constantly insecure.
The stakes were never less than absolute. Everyone we met was either Heaven-bound or sent from Hell: take your pick. If a teacher slipped on any particular he or she was branded a false prophet. We knew true prophets always spoke the truth—and they vocally denounced the rest of the world.
We certainly didn't like a lot of people. When I was 10 years old, our church denounced the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and railed against desegregation of the schools.
Looking back, there were a number of parallels between our white little church and the fascist state. There was a leader of some charisma, who was the final interpreter of scripture—and, therefore, reality. That scripture was the only perfect word of God, of course: the King James Bible of 1611—but mysteriously minus the Apocrypha it had originally been published with. Our leader was beyond question: People were shunned or expelled if they wanted to seriously debate any conclusion he had reached on matters Biblical or in the world.
External cultures and values kept encroaching on our little holy place. In the early years, movies were of the Devil. Then rock music, dancing and most TV were proscribed. Finally, as I came of age, the public schools constituted such a menace that the faithful had to construct their own. For their children's souls' protection.
That was when I left this particular interpretation of Christianity; during the ninth grade, with no support at first from my family. I did so when I realized I couldn't justify its fear—or its meanness—any longer.
By the time I did, I could recognize its rhetoric of overweening xenophobia and rabid anger at a distance.
Years later, there it was again before me, in a press release from Westboro Baptist Church.
I resolved then to interview the Rev. Fred Phelps, that church's leader. There were a few questions I had never had the chance to ask the leaders of the church where I grew up.
The questions were fair. And if the reverend made his case, I—and my immortal soul—would have to live with it. After a few days revisiting the old home faith, I called him up and arranged an interview. Here are the highlights from our conversation.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: On your Web site I see that Westboro Baptist Church is "celebrating Pope John Paul II's first full month in Hell." Sir, why would any Christian want to celebrate the damnation of any soul?
FRED PHELPS: Because it is a manifestation of those glorious attributes of God Almighty that He Himself exalts above all his Name; the attributes of the Almighty. Where did you get, for example, the notion that God is love? ... You got the notion that that's one of the attributes of the Almighty by revelation—that is to say, the scriptures.
Now, once you've entered that domain, you are bound by every rule of logic known to man to accept authoritatively those other manifestations of his attributes; that is, his justice, his vengeance, his wrath. His justice is vindicated when these arrogant, pompous, God-rejecting, persecuting human beings go to Hell.
You spend a lot of time talking about false prophets, false teachers on your Web site. How do you determine who a false prophet is?
Well it's real easy. The formula's set out in Matthew 7: "By their fruits ye shall know them." The things that drip from their lips are their fruits ... It says beware of false prophets that come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they're ravening wolves.
I've got it before me. Verse 17: "You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles? Even so, every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit...."
Quite a little dissertation on it.
Makes it easy as pie to recognize them.
I'm sure a number of readers are asking themselves, "Well, is this person drawing people to Christ or is he repelling people from him, pushing people away?"
I'm repelling them. I tell you plainly, I'm repelling them.
Tell me more.
That's my job. It's to harden their hearts.
Your job is to harden their hearts, sir?
Absolutely. And all you have to do is read Isaiah 6 ... That's the message, and the Lord Jesus Christ quoting from that in John 12 ratifies it all for us beyond any cavil. The Lord told Isaiah to go and harden their hearts, and in Hebrews 11, Noah condemned this world with his preaching. He didn't win anybody.
Here's the passage—Verse 9: "And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed."
So you are all about hardening their hearts.
And why is that, sir?
Because the Lord Jesus gave the pattern and that's his marching orders.
Sir, is that his only marching order? Is that his most important marching order?
Yeah, that's the totality of his marching order. The sheep are going to hear his voice and come to him, and they will come to him behind that kind of preaching. And that's what I tell these fags: I don't think you can repent, because by definition you're proud of your sin and it's an axiomatic matter of fact you can't repent of something you're proud of.
But I say, if you have any hope at all, it's behind this that I'm preaching to you, and not what these kissy-poo preachers are telling you, that God loves you. He hates you. And He's sending you to Hell. And there's nothing you can do about it but have a nice day.
The conversation continued more or less pleasantly—even though he snarled at me over the fine print, buried in Phelps' FAQ page, that disclaimered his front page toteboards detailing Shepard's and Whipple's days of eternal torment: "We cannot know for certain that any individual person is in Hell (or Heaven). Only God knows that."
But things changed when I asked him to describe the attributes of the fundamentalist Devil, ha'Satan. Suddenly, Phelps seemed much less in control of the conversation:
Phelps: He's a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. In Revelation 12 he's said to be the deceiver of the world, and the accuser of the elect....
His name translates, as I understand, to "the accuser" and "the adversary."
Yes. ... He brings forward these weighty arguments and he's got all of the details of the sinfulness of the best of the people who ever lived, and makes accusation. It is a heavy subject.
And he doesn't want these folks finding salvation or redemption.
Well, I suppose so. Not a very interesting subject. Sounds like you've got some agenda you're working on there. (Laughs.)
Well, the only observation I have is this one, sir, and I'll go straight to it: There are so many accusations on your Web site, sir.
At that point, Phelps went ballistic. He called my argument "ridiculous," even though he cut me off before I could actually begin it from my observation. He claimed I was equating all preaching with Satan's accusations, which I wasn't. For just under three minutes he misinterpreted what would have been my final question, and would not let me speak. After calling me "demon-possessed" and saying "Shame on you" repeatedly, the Rev. Phelps hung up on me.
What was the question I was about ask? This:
Of course, accusations can be raised by the righteous and unrighteous alike. But when so many accusations are combined with a desire, in your own words, to harden hearts and repel people from God, I have to ask: In the terms of your own religion, Rev. Phelps, how is this not ha'Satanic activity?
But perhaps he heard it anyway.
What emerged from our interview was a seeming contradiction in spiritual terms: a preacher who devoutly prays that the sinners he preaches to won't accept his message or his gospel. He wants his worldly congregation repelled, not "saved."
The stance certainly explains his modus operandi: preaching the gospel as he believes it—but only in the most hateful and alienating terms. All the better, if the goal is to make sure his listeners never actually learn.
Which is why it seemed more than usually important to determine what others got from The Laramie Project, either because or in spite of the Rev. Phelps. Ironically, the number of students acting in the show equaled the number of protesters who came to Durham: 10 apiece. Phelps wasn't one of them; he didn't travel to Durham. I spoke with the students Monday afternoon.
"I felt our play was like a news report or story, trying to get the real story out there," said John Douglas. "Hearing all different types of people saying what they believe, candidly, is like I think the best therapy any society could have."
"We went into the play thinking, 'We're spreading tolerance,'" noted assistant director Elizabeth French, "but by the end of the play, we realized we should really be moving beyond tolerance now. Tolerance is pretty ... benign. We should be moving past that."
Meanwhile, Eliza Bagg was pondering the difficulty of love: "If we're talking about 'Love one another,' we have to do it across the board and love everyone. Even people who have views that we don't like."
"Laramie Project is a show that you wish didn't have to be done," said Max Kaufman. "We wish that there was no need to write a piece like this in the first place. But we've gained so much. It's best described from one of the lines of the play: 'Good is coming out of evil.'"
On Saturday night, the actors held hands and walked out to see the demonstrators before the show. "It wasn't an act of defiance," said Eliza, "but just approaching them. It was a courageous moment."
For an instant there was silence. Then the counterprotesters cheered the cast.
The fundamentalists "looked scared," said John Douglas. "It wasn't like we were attacking them or anything. We were just looking at them. And I think that made them extremely uncomfortable."
"If we'd responded to their hate, it would have been bad," said Carmen Ivey. "Since we didn't do that, they didn't know what to do."
Ryan Deal reached this conclusion: "We took their power away. Their power comes from people looking and yelling at them, and when that's gone, they have nothing. They have their stupid signs."
Important lessons learned all around.
Byron Woods is dance and theater critic for the Independent Weekly.