It looks like you're using an Ad Blocker.
Please white-list or disable AboveTopSecret.com in your ad-blocking tool.
Some features of ATS will be disabled while you continue to use an ad-blocker.
The Westboro Baptist Church first made national headlines in 2006, picketing the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq with inflammatory signs reading You're Going to Hell and Thank God for Dead Soldiers. In December 2010, Westboro protestors descended on the North Carolina funeral of Elizabeth Edwards -- but were vastly outnumbered by counter-protestors.
Now the church -- which publicly proclaims that "God sent the shooter" in the January 8, 2011, massacre in Arizona -- plans to protest at the funeral of a federal judge killed in the rampage. Who are these people? Why do they routinely disrupt the funerals of fallen American troops? Celebrate the carnage of 9/11? Hail the pain of AIDS sufferers? What, at heart, do they believe -- and what are they like when they're not brutalizing the grief-stricken? In June 2008, hoping to understand what drives a community of faith to act in ways that, to the rest of the world, appear reckless and unspeakably cruel, photographer Anthony Karen spent a week with church members. Here, LIFE.com presents exclusive, never-seen pictures from Karen's time with the church, and his own recollections and insights into their lives and their faith outside the public eye.
Pastor Fred Phelps, the 80-year-old founder of Westboro Baptist, greets one of his grandchildren immediately following a church service. Phelps, a former civil rights attorney, has 13 children -- 11 of them lawyers -- and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The church itself, based in Topeka, Kansas, has about 70 members, almost all of whom are part of Phelps' immediate and extended family. Of the extraordinary access photographer Anthony Karen was granted to chronicle such a tight, seemingly insular community
Phelps' church, meanwhile, which is not recognized by any official Baptist convention or association, adheres to what appears to be a straightforward, grimly retributive theology: As long as Americans embrace homosexuality and religious pluralism -- i.e., accommodating Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc. -- the nation, in Westboro's view, is doomed. Until that message is received, church members will continue to celebrate divine punishment