Recently,  Fred Phelps, the founder of a particularly nasty form of Christian cult, known for picketing the funerals of gay people , died.  In the last couple of days I have seen reactions from various liberal Christian friends on e.g. Facebook, and felt they needed a response. In brief, these liberals may be less nasty than Fred and his cult, but they make the same errors of understanding that he made. Fred’s anti-gay stance is not nice, but it is legitimized in the Bible and theologically just as justified as the more liberal stance.  Both Fred and liberals make the mistake of trying to justify their morality through the Bible. Insofar as they encourage people to do that, liberals cannot complain when instances like Fred and his cult appear, as they will continue to do. Below are some responses from religious liberals and my thoughts on them.

“Fred’s mistake was not understanding that God does not hate: only men hate.”

Fred probably thought that homosexuality was a sin, and by showing his displeasure at it, he was doing people a favour. There is plenty of theological justification for this position. You might think that God does not hate, but maybe Fred disagreed. Again, it is hard to imagine that a God that invents natural selection could be all good. The trouble with Gods is not only that they are incoherent ideas, unjustified by evidence, but that peoples’ ideas of them simply reflect their own personalities. Fred’s problem was not that he had the wrong idea of God, but that he had any idea of God, and took his morality from the Bible.

“Jesus loves me but he hates you”.

Jesus said that people who don’t believe in him will be thrown into the fire and burnt. This includes a billion Hindus, all Muslims, all humanists (incl. me), and, of all people, Jains. It includes people who lived before he lived, and people who never heard about him. He doomed us all. On this evidence Jesus must have cared very little for most people.  I don’t wish to be loved by such a person, and frankly that puts Fred Phelps in good company. But, I think Fred would have disagreed. He would have thought that he was trying to do the work of Jesus, and a little anger in this life is always justified if it frees people from eternity in hell.  Again, his position has plenty of theological justification. The problem you have when trying to argue on theological grounds is that you are simply arguing over the more correct interpretation of words written hundreds of years ago. This is hardly the basis for finding a common solution to a moral question.

“I’ll pay the plane ticket of anyone who’ll carry a banner to his funeral saying “God loves Fags””.

You may think God loves fags, but Fred disagreed. You would never persuade him to change his attitude to them by arguing about what you think God thinks. You can find justification for practically any view of God in a very long contradictory book. The only way to find common ground over attitudes to gay people is to first persuade him that what matters is not what some nonexistent deity thinks, or what is written in some holy text, but how happy people are in this life, and how we can help them to be happy. All of this requires no theological justification but simply an agreement on what can be shown to exist, and what matters for human flourishing. All of this can be objectively reasoned. Admittedly, with Fred it would be a long hard road, but there is at least the basis for objective agreement there.

In summary: al of these liberal Christian responses are just as incorrect as Fred’s theology, because they are built on the same flimsy foundations; a belief in the supernatural, faith, and an ancient holy book. As long as that is where you get your morals from, there will be no agreement over moral questions such as how to treat gay people, and you can expect more of Fred and his kind in the future. I am disturbed to see such attitudes displayed in the twenty first century, and frankly, it is hard living surrounded by people who hold such views. My own feelings on the death of this man are simply that his life was a waste, thanks to having accepted an unpleasant form of an unjustified belief. He was a yet another victim of faith, and the sooner people rid themselves of it, the better.