Twisted stereotypes follow two recent tragedies
Religion Today, October 30, 1998
Television and newspaper stories are portraying Christians in twisted stereotypes after two recent tragedies, Christian ministries say. The events are the murder of a homosexual student in Wyoming and the shooting of an abortion doctor in New York.
Denominations and parachurch groups were quick to condemn the violence. “There should be zero toleration in a civilized society for people who commit such acts of senseless violence,” Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coaliton said after the killing of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard this month. “A young man was brutally murdered. Our hearts and prayers go out to the Shepard family,” said Carmen Pate, president of the conservative policy group Concerned Women for America.
Comments from fringe
Some media focused on comments from fringe groups. Troy Perry of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a predominantly homosexual denomination, received wide press coverage. He criticized an advertising campaign intended to convince homosexuals that God can help them change their lifestyle, saying it “gives fuel to the fires of intolerance in our society.” The campaign is sponsored by a number of conservative Christian groups.
Newspapers focused on the actions of Fred Phelps, whom Jerry Falwell calls “a first-class nut.” Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., led a dozen protesters who picketed Shepherd’s funeral carrying signs such as “God hates fags.” Most picketers were members of Phelps’ family, the Associated Press reported. They also have picketed the funerals of Sonny Bono because his daughter Chastity is a lesbian activist; President Clinton’s mother because, Phelps says, she raised a son who supports homosexuals; and numerous people who died of AIDS.
“I found it almost impossible to believe that human beings could be so brutal and vicious to a hurting family,” Falwell said. Phelps plans to picket Falwell next month in Lynchburg, Va., where he is a pastor and chancellor of Liberty University. Robert Knight of the Family Research Council, a conservative public-policy group, said he telephoned Phelps to implore him to call off the picketing because “it misconstrues the message of Christ, which was one of love.”
Shooting is condemned
Pro-life groups condemned the Oct. 23 fatal shooting of Amherst, N.Y., abortion doctor Barnett Slepian, who was standing in his kitchen when a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle ripped through his back. The FBI, U.S. marshals, and other federal agencies are working with state, local, and Canadian police to track down the killer, suspected in four similar attacks. Funeral services were held Oct. 26.
Several news reports about Slepian’s death discussed a web site that supports abortion-related violence. ABC News reported that Slepian had warned in a 1994 letter to the editor of the Buffalo News that protesters who picketed his home and office could provoke a renegade activist to violence. Non-violent protesters had picketed Slepian’s home wearing large “Slepian Kills Children” buttons and displaying at the entrance to his neighborhood a six-foot banner with the same quotation.
Slepian feared that violence would occur. “Please don’t feign surprise, dismay, or certainly not innocence when a more volatile and less-restrained member of the group decides to react to their inflammatory rhetoric by shooting an abortion provider. They all share the blame,” Slepian said in his letter to the News.
The killing of Slepian is “exactly what the right-to-life movement has been against for years,” said Sally Winn and Stephen Ertelt, directors of Women and Children First, a pro-life group. “Vigilante acts of violence such as this are reprehensible because no one’s right to life should ever be denied by another person.” The group extended its “deepest condolences” to Slepian’s family.