Fred Phelps and his tiny, no-account, insignificant Westboro Baptist Church perfected it in the field of religious bigotry. But attracting attention when you’re a nobody to the rest of the world is now an established strategy.
It’s fueled and enabled by the mainstream media since it changed to make everything it follows provide moneymaking entertainment. There are no more money-losing news bureaus maintained for the public good. Instead, 24-hour cable news channels compete for public attention so they can deliver eyeballs to their advertisers.
They’ve made a perfect publicity manipulating enemy of ISIS and the perfect politician of a talentless businessman/entertainer named Trump. The Donald’s TV ego and its outrageousness, which he’s displaying in his joyride of a presidential race reality show, are branded in the entertainment catchphrase: “You’re fired.”
And media have created a presidential race ideal for Newt Gingrich’s advice: “If you want to sell books, run for president.” Add: if you want to become a media commentator or an overpaid blowhard on the lecture circuit for suckers, particularly religious ones.
Getting this level of attention when little else is notable in one’s life requires an extraordinary outrageousness that raises someone above the crowd. It also means that if they’re going to continue getting media attention, people regularly must ramp up the offensiveness of the outrageousness.
And like watching a train wreck, the more offensive and outrageous, the more the media can’t resist and the more the pubic won’t turn away. We tune in, repost, discuss, express surprise and unbelief, complain, get angry, and search for more.
Phelps learned early. When local news started ignoring his tiny family church’s protests, he doubled down, displayed more outrageous signs, travelled to higher-powered funerals, and targeted attacks on well-known people outside the LGBT community.
So, how many unimportant, nobody-cares-about-them, churches are out there whose leader would love to be known on a national stage? And how many of these leaders have a desperate need for more attention in their otherwise unnoteworthy routine of preaching the same old, same old to the same old, same old?
Remember how Terry Jones, pastor of a little nothing congregation he dubbed “Dove World Outreach Center” in Gainesville, Fla., became the center of worldwide attention he’d never otherwise deserve? In 2010 he announced his plans to burn Qurans on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Jones thereby found a shtick and the attention he needed to feel like a big shot. So, he followed that with similar attention-getting behavior in 2011, 2012, and 2013 because he learned how this manipulated the media to his benefit.
Now, another nobody-cares-about-him-otherwise minister suckered the media into validating him through his outrage over nothing more than the plainness of red holiday cups at Starbucks. Well, actually he’s an Arizona no-church-pastor, a self-labeled “evangelist” named Joshua Feuerstein who describes himself appropriately as a “social media personality.”
Of course this was manufactured outrage. Starbucks had never put explicitly Christian symbols on its cups while actually selling products mentioning Christmas such as its “Christmas Blend” coffee. But this made another Christian-nobody-cared-about the latest national hero in that annual right-wing and FOX outrage called the “War on Christmas.”
Right-wing religious leadership in particular draws people who are starved for attention. There are numerous reasons why they’re drawn to right-wing religion, including that it lures them in by agreeing that they’re worthless sinners.
Right-wing religious teachings are inherently abusive and thus it attracts those who’ve been brought up as abused children. It validates anyone with low self-worth with its teaching that all people rightly deserve hell, an eternal child abuse from their Heavenly Father.
Their kind of salvation is supposed to be the way out of this, but for most “born again” feelings fade, so something more is needed. Maybe that’s more church attendance, more praying, more Bible reading, more testifying to others.
Others’ attention needs propel their whole career into the church, thereby becoming professional Christians. That, they believe, should get some necessary attention particularly from their only Heavenly Father.
But attention from an invisible being is hard to measure or convincingly feel. So they’ll need visible evidence.
Religious professionals aren’t supposed to admit these needs even to themselves, of course. But becoming pastor of a mega-church or televangelist can feel someone’s special to God with all those adoring, donating, self-sacrificing fans.
Even a lavish pastoral lifestyle can be taken as visible proof that Heavenly Daddy is paying special attention through all the faithful contributing to it. In a consumption-oriented society, material success is the goal of many seeking to feel they’re worth something.
Yet, realistically, when someone is emotionally starved for attention, nothing will ever feel as if it’s enough. Mega-church pastors won’t be able to settle even for these.
Imagine the unfulfilled attention needs of the thousands of pastors of tiny, indistinguishable churches often in the middle of nowhere. How can they get the attention from God and humanity to fill their void?
The answer is: be like Donald Trump or Fred Phelps. Act outraged and be outrageous enough to get the attention you crave.
When we in turn give them attention of any sort, we collude with them because they don’t care whether that attention is positive or negative. As the old quip goes: “It doesn’t matter what they’re saying about you as long as they’re talking about you.”
To them “persecution,” after all, is real proof that they’re righteous. Mockery only sounds like what they believe Jesus received from sinners.
What we need to face is that these are needy grownup children who’ve been wounded in their upbringing and are victims of religious abuse and religious exploitation of their woundedness. They don’t need our pity, but understanding that the real issue isn’t a rational one solved by logical discussion.
This means that the most powerful thing we can do is to say this and then treat them like the attention-needy children they are down deep. Surely, let’s not give them attention for their outrageousness, but stand our ground modeling the humanity-affirming and psychological healthy alternative of our own lives. l