Read this fine RNS feature about changes at Westboro Baptist (oh wait, it's an opinion piece)

Here we go again.

What we have here is a Religion News Service think piece that I sincerely wish was a hard news story. 

In other words, it's a first-person essay that is clearly labeled "opinion," yet it deals with a topic that worthy of serious hard-news reporting. Here's the headline: "They’re still here: The curious evolution of Westboro Baptist Church."

The key, of course, is that the author is an academic in religious studies -- Hillel Gray of the Jewish Studies department at Miami University of Ohio -- instead of an RNS reporter or freelance writer.

Maybe that's the answer to this puzzle. Maybe Gray had the time to do this feature and no one else did. I would imagine that it was much less expensive to pay a freelance stipend to a professor than it would have been to send a reporter. There's that Internet-era equation, again: Opinion is cheap. Information is expensive.

What's interesting, in this case, is that Gray provided lots of new information and it's about a group that is certainly newsworthy -- especially if the "God Hates Fags" flock has made major changes in its mission, following the death of the Rev. Fred Phelps in 2014.

Like what? Once you get past the academic overture (Gray has studied this topic since 2010) readers are told that the Westboro flock is still out there, even if reporters are ignoring them. They remain hyperactive on the Internet and continue doing public protesting -- with some of their famous signs and many new ones. There's even a Donald Trump angle in this essay. 

But the faces have changed and so have the signs. That's the news angle that's worthy of hard-news coverage:

In the last few years, membership has even broadened beyond the Phelps clan. ... Perhaps the most unexpected “new” member is Katherine Phelps, a daughter of Fred Phelps Sr. who had been estranged for decades.
The face of the church has changed as well. For the past four years Westboro has been led by a council of elders, a handful of married men who preach in rotation, and media relations have shifted to Steve Drain, who joined the church in 2001.
This new blood has had an impact. There is a gentler tone, at least internally, members say. The church has even started proselytizing. ... There has also been a subtle shift in Westboro Baptist’s messaging. Many new signs inject ideas about Jesus and love, clarify doctrine, diversify the sins to be protested and invoke more positive language. Likely in response to past criticism that their protests were not biblical, the new signs always include a biblical citation. Church members have also reduced the visibility of their famously succinct insults.
Make no mistake, Westboro Baptists’ anti-gay message is as blunt and offensive as ever, and the new signs seem designed not to move toward the mainstream, but to more fully reflect the church’s Calvinist theology, which appears unchanged.

Ah, but is "God Hates Pride" and "God Hates Your Idols" as newsworthy as "God Hates Fags"? Actually, I know lots of people who would like to march behind a "God Hates Your Idols" sign -- perhaps they would even take one to a  Trump rally.

This is where Gray -- as an academic -- plunges into information that many reporters would not include, even though it would be good if they did. We are talking Bible stuff, of course.

Given the pithily outrageous slogans of the past (“God hates you”), the new posters are almost ironically detailed. Many counteract Arminianism -- the suggestion that everyone, not only an elect, can be saved and that all of us have some responsibility for our salvation. “Christ died for some sinners saved by grace, Tim 1:14,15,” reads one. “Most people go to hell, Mt. 7:13,” and “Few people go to heaven, Mt. 7:14.”
Others look strangely like self-help: “Thanksgiving should be a continual frame of mind, friends!” On examination, however, the gratitude message comes from the Westboro Baptists’ increased attention to different facets of God: “Thank God for everything, Col. 3:15, 1 Thes. 5:18” and “God’s word endureth forever, Ps. 119:160 1 Pe. 1:25” are not uncommon sentiments. Jesus is recognized in their pickets now -- “Christ our salvation,” “Christ our righteousness,” they read -- where only a punitive God used to reign.

The word "love," for example, has been woven into the new Westboro mix. 

Whoa, and speaking of Trump.

Nor is homosexuality the sole obsession it once was. Divorce, remarriage and same-sex marriage are all branded as sins, as is adultery: “Adulterer in chief, Mt. 19:19 Mk. 6:18,” reads one pasted with an image of President Trump. “Racism is a sin, Ac. 17:26 Jas. 2:9,” preaches another.
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So here is a sign that some of those familiar Westboro protesters used during a demonstration this spring at the White House. 

This image was rather easy to find online -- if a journalist knows enough about recent changes at Westboro Baptist to look for it. Given the current atmosphere in American newsrooms, I'm amazed this one didn't end up on CNN or MSNBC.

But that's the big question, isn't it? Is Westboro Baptist still news, after it's big 2011 win at the U.S. Supreme Court and then the death of its infamous leader?

Gray ends with this summary: 

We can only wonder if the gradual reworking of the messaging might point to a day when outsiders think of the church’s members not as irredeemable sociopaths, but as sectarian Christians already in conversation with the broader society.

Is this a story? I appreciate that RNS let this academic dig into this topic. Perhaps some journalists can write updates, as well. Just saying.

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