For better or for worse, the Westboro Baptist church does make headlines and there is no end in sight. Thus, it's incumbent upon folks in the press to ask some questions about how this congregation operates. (We've been doing that a lot more of than usual this week.)
And William Levesque at the St. Petersburg Times asks a good one: "How does hate group fund national protests?"
The group, composed largely of Phelps-Roper's extended family, claims to have participated in 43,000 protests in the last 19 years without accepting any outside donations.
Church members say they pay the costs themselves. As Phelps-Roper, a church leader, notes: "Who the hell is going to give us anything?"
Public records, interviews and past news coverage reveal a tax-exempt church that appears to have no significant income other than the donations of its 85 members, and the occasional cash generated by the litigation their protests spawn.
The group, which espouses a fire-and-brimstone Calvinist theology embracing a vengeful God, said it spends about $200,000 annually on protests. The Hillsborough trip, Phelps-Roper said, will cost $2,000.
"It's difficult to figure out how Shirley can raise 10 or 11 children and simultaneously travel the country a great part of the year," said attorney Sean Summers, who has battled Westboro in court. "It seems nearly impossible."
The article has some lengthy analysis about whether or not the church makes a substantial amount from it's legal settlements. The father of a fallen Marine was recently ordered to pay the church $16,510 in legal fees after he sued the church for protesting his son's funeral. (Bobby looked at the coverage of that story for GR earlier this week.) Most of the church's family members are related and it turns out there's a family law firm that does much of the church's legal work:
The U.S. Northern Command, monitoring protests at military bases, issued an advisory about Westboro in 2005 saying church funding came from litigation.
"This group does employ passive-aggressive techniques intended to provoke a hostile response or offensive reaction from others," Northern Command wrote. "This group will then file a civil action in an effort to reach a settlement in order to fund future activities."
On the other hand, the article notes that even church critics have a hard time believing that the church makes too much money through legal settlements. However, here is one more interesting detail about the church that might help explain where the money comes from:
The church now requires members to pay it 30 percent of income, rather than the traditional 10 percent tithe, he said.
An attorney who has sued the family says this is a scam -- members of the church give their money to the church tax-free and the church returns it to them. In any event, that's an interesting detail. One way to judge the validity of that claim would be to look at the church's theological, biblical justification for this very unusual 30 percent "tithe."
Alas, the reporter did not ask that question and I wish he would have. But overall it's an interesting story even if it proves hard to get definitive answers about this, ahem, unique religious institution. The reporter makes a pretty good effort.
Exit question: The article describes the church as having a "a fire-and-brimstone Calvinist theology." The church itself says it subscribes to Calvinist and Primitive Baptist principles, though other Primitive Baptists are quick to disown the church and I doubt Calvinists are thrilled to be mentioned in the same sentence.
This past Monday, tmatt discussed how far outside the Baptist mainstream the church is, and I'm wondering if it's fair to describe the church in a drive-by reference as Calvinist without more qualification. What do you think?