The death of Fred Phelps today marks a turning point of some kind, I am sure.  I don’t wish to overplay his significance, or be complicit inImage his self-promotion, and I certainly disagreed with both his practices and his theology.

Nonetheless, Phelps’s “Westboro Baptist Church,”  which appeared from the outside to be less “church” and more “advocacy organization,” achieved a great deal in terms of publicity.  It would have been more effective, perhaps, if the rhetoric had not been so strained.  The tenuous connection between progress on gay rights and deaths in war made so little intuitive sense to the general public mind.

There is an element of the Phelps phenomenon that interests me as a student of media and religion. That is the curious challenge his efforts posed to journalism.  Was it a “church?”  Was it “politics?”  “What was it?”  The fact that it claimed to be a “church” certainly afforded it a zone of legal protection (and advocacy by even the ACLU from time to time), but it also seemed to give it a similar zone of deference from some in journalism.   When it occurred, this deference was rooted in a long-standing convention whereby journalism chooses not to investigate religions on the basis of their truth claims.  Journalists who would not be shy about looking under the skirts of corporate power have become weak in the knees when it comes to religion, time and again.

Was this good professional practice in the case of Fred Phelps?  Surely not.  Why not include in every story about Westboro a note that it was a marginal expression of a marginal faith, that it represented so few people that it was hardly worth legitimating?

To do so would have meant engaging in a kind of evaluation that journalism rarely does when it comes to the religion beat.  As a result, Westboro got a kind of “pass” from the press. It will be interesting to see whether the post mortems on Phelps involve any self-reflection on these issues.

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