There's no doubt about it. The Rev. Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., is a Baptist -- because he says so. Then again, so is Bill Clinton. So is Al Gore Jr., now that you mention it. Ditto for the Rev. Bill Moyers, Dr. Harvey Cox and the Rev. Jesse Jackson (last time I checked).
What's the point? Well, one of the big stories of the week was that a federal jury in Baltimore delivered a $10.9 million verdict against Phelps and his Westboro congregation, due to its ugly protests at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who died in Iraq.
It's a story that everyone, or almost everyone, wishes would go away. It's the dark side of free speech and it's hard to know where to draw the line. Can ACT UP crash a Mass? How far could protesters go at a funeral for, let's say, Vice President Dick Cheney if he died with the Iraq war still raging? Is a soldier a "public figure" if he died in a war? So many ugly, ugly questions.
Veteran Julia Duin of The Washington Times found an interesting angle on all of this, the one I was hinting at with my references to Phelps, Clinton, et al.
How would you like to be a Baptist minister in Kansas right now? How would you like to have the same brand name on your church sign as the Westboro crew? Duin wrote this, focusing on the efforts of other Baptists to disavow Phelps and his church:
Although the 75-member church led by the Rev. Fred Phelps uses the name "Baptist," it is an independent congregation not affiliated with any known Baptist convention or association.
"It's a little bit frustrating," said a ministry official at First Baptist Church of Topeka, who asked that his name not be used.
"People want to know why Baptists allow it," the First Baptist official said. "Every church is locally autonomous, and anybody can call themselves 'Baptist' if they want to." Speaking of the Westboro congregation, he said, "Their views don't reflect anything at all of our church."
One of Westboro Baptist Church's most vociferous opponents has been the Southern Baptist Convention, chiefly because Mr. Phelps was ordained an SBC minister in 1947 at age 17. It is not clear when he left the denomination, but Westboro was founded in 1955 as an independent church.
So what does the word "Baptist" mean, in the first place? I grew up in the home of a Southern Baptist pastor and executive and, you know what, I don't think I have ever heard anyone agree on a common definition. Here is one online take:
A member of an evangelical Protestant church of congregational polity, following the reformed tradition in worship, and believing in individual freedom, in the separation of church and state, and in baptism of voluntary, conscious believers.
Ah, but the Baptists predate the "evangelical" movement. And is that "reformed" or "Reformed"? And are Baptists united in a common definition of the "separation of church and state"? Clearly not.
So you have to start stacking up the adjectives. Duin notes:
Westboro describes itself on its Web site as an "old school or primitive Baptist" congregation. Primitive Baptists are a decentralized denomination scattered across the country. A call to their Arkansas headquarters got no response.
Mr. Phelps describes himself on the same site as a "five-point Calvinist who urges all people to carefully study and discern what are the signs of the times." The church also says it is a "TULIP Baptist church," referring to the acronym TULIP for the five points of Calvinist thought: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.
As you would imagine, that draws yowls from Calvinists. It isn't fair to pin Phelps on them, either.
So what should the totally free-church Baptists do to shut down a free-church Baptist without violating all the principles of what it means to be a free-church Baptist?
Just asking. It's a sad story and, alas, a good news story.