Let The Boat Sink by Adam Butler (April 1999)

It’s a tragic tale.

Two men, threatened by what they believed to be unwanted sexual ad vances, beat another man to death with an ax handle, placed his body on a pile of old tires, and set it on fire.

According to authorities, that’s what Steven Mullins and Charles Butler Jr. confessed to doing to Billy Jack Gaither the night of February 19, 1999 in Rockford, Alabama.

Happening so soon after the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was killed in October 1998, the slaying struck a chord throughout the entire progressive community. A local Metro politan Community church, Covenant MCC, immediately began preparations to hold a memorial service for the victim and his family. Human rights organizations released statement after statement, condemning the action and calling for legislation to include protection for gays, lesbians and bisexuals in Alabama’s hate crime laws.

But progressives weren’t the only ones who were stirring. As usual, the conservatives had a few things to say, as well.

“WBC to picket Billy Jack Gaither fag vigil,” read the press release from Westboro Baptist Church. It continues: “WBC regrets this act of lawless violence. However, as in the case of Matt Shepard in Wyoming, WBC will not allow the homosexual lobby to use this dead fag–Billy Jack Gaither–as a poster boy for sodomite propaganda to get pro-gay laws passed and to recruit other youth to their disease-ridden, soul-damning, life-destroying, nation-dooming lifestyle.”

In case you’re not familiar with Westboro Baptist Church, it is a so-called “Primitive Baptist” congregation located in Topeka, Kansas. Headed by Pastor Fred Phelps, the church represents a section so far to the Right that it is best defined as “Nazi-esque.” It has gained infamy in recent years due to its policy of picketing the funerals of known gays and lesbians with large, colorful signs that read, Aids Cures Fags, Fags Doom Nations and other equally disturbing mottoes.

Fred Phelps is a pretty interesting fellow himself. Creating a church congregation composed mostly of his immediate family, the lawyer-turned-minister has lead anti-gay pickets against public officials, restaurants, universities, and other churches. But the fun doesn’t stop there. Now that four of his 13 children have left the WBC to come forth and allege severe physical and mental abuse, claiming that they were hit dozens–if not hundreds–of times in one sitting by the good minister, it would seem that Phelps’ fight is not just against gays, but against pretty much everybody.

Arriving in Alabama the day of the memorial service, Phelps and his band of bigots showed up in full force–all eight of them. Held at bay by the four-lane highway that separated them from the church, the small group proudly displayed their glow-in-the-dark signs for all to see and remained remarkably quiet.

Inside the church, the memorial service began. Liberal ministers from all over Alabama came to speak to the 400-500 people in attendance. Not surprisingly (we were in a church, after all), almost all of them took a few minutes to explain how faith and prayer would help us overcome this tragedy.

“It is only through Christ’s love that we will get through this,” said one of the speakers, to which the audience responded with muffled agreement. Wondering what Phelps and his group were doing, I decided to take a break and go outside for a bit. A friend smiled at me as I got up to leave, perhaps recognizing the look of someone who has heard the “God will see us through” speech a few too many times.

When I got back outside, the WBC was still going strong. They couldn’t have been very happy, however, because try as they might, they hadn’t been able to start any fights or provoke anyone into yelling at them. Their daily allotment of fear and anger was going unfilled; for the most part, they were being ignored.

I then noticed an interesting contrast between two children, a boy and a girl, of which the former stood on our side of the highway and the latter stood with the WBC. “God loves all people,” read a sign the boy held up. “God hates fags,” said the girl’s.

It was a curious argument. While the signs couldn’t both be right, there are thousands of people who would argue for each position. A god who loves everybody, a god who hates some people–assuming we’re talking about Christianity, which god is God?

The more I think about it, the more I have to admit the slogan on the girl’s sign is correct. I would put it differently, of course (without the hateful slur), and I wouldn’t say it for the same reasons as the WBC.

When Christians claim God hates certain people, they do it in order to condemn those people; when I claim God hates certain people, I do it in order to condemn God.

The slogan on the boy’s sign, while it sounded nice, just simply wasn’t true. His heart was in the right place, though. Whenever we see hatred and bigotry, it’s healthy for humans to act out in the only way they know how–contradicting the claims of our enemies even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to do so.

But what we really need is perspective. On one side of the street, God loves everybody. On the other side of the street, God hates everybody. Inside the church, we’re told that the only way to move past the tragedy of Billy Jack Gaither’s death is through religion. Yet there’s little doubt that the belief “Thou shalt not lay with mankind as with womankind” (Lev. 18:22, KJV) had something to do with Gaither’s death in the first place.

While I’m well aware MCC and other gay-friendly churches claim the Bible really isn’t homophobic, I just don’t buy it. But what if they’re right, and all that stuff about homosexuality being “an abomination” really is just some kind of a mistranslation? Does that change anything? Even if the Bible was no longer homophobic, it would still be sexist. And even if we could find a way to explain away passage after passage of text advocating the subjugation of women, it would still condone slavery.

The Christian religion is a leaky boat and each time somebody plugs a hole, two more pop up somewhere else. The question is, do we want to keep repairing this mythology, or is it time for us to move on?

I’ve never quite understood why more people don’t make the transition from defending God to not believing in him. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to condemn religious people for believing what they do. And I’m certainly not trying to suggest that one can’t be religious and progressive contemporaneously. But there comes a time when the boat is sinking so rapidly, there’s just no chance of patching it. Then, I believe, is the time to jump ship and never look back.

Child-beating aside, Phelps is right. If you read the Bible in its context, it’s pretty clear that God is no friend to gays (and many other minorities). So what? People believe in God because they feel that they must. Indoctrinated since birth, the thought has never occurred to them that maybe the only thing we have in this world is each other. And would that be so bad? Sure, heaven sounds nice and all, but we all know it seems just a little too good to be true. Besides, from the looks of it, we’re all going to Hell anyway.

Put simply, religion is bad for humanity. It allows people like Fred Phelps, Jim Jones, and other so-called “holy people” to do all sorts of awful things. Not only does it give them an excuse for acting out their hatred and ignorance, but it also gives them a tool with which they can pull others into their plans. The Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, Heaven’s Gate, Jones town, the Inquisition, the Jihad, various bombings of women’s clinics and lesbian/gay nightclubs–all of these atrocities were caused by the supposed word of God and his message to us. Perhaps it’s time we stopped listening.

Perhaps it’s time we stop defending this ancient mythology and leave the god stuff to the Fred Phelpses of the world. When we stop believing in the supernatural, we disarm people like Phelps. When the threat “God hates you” doesn’t sting anymore, he”ll fade into obscurity.

It’s all right if the leaky boat can’t be patched as long as we all know how to swim.

Alabama Foundation member Adam Butler founded a university freethought group, the Birmingham Freethought Society, and is communications coordinator of the Foundation’s Alabama chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association.

Freedom From Religion Foundation