Westboro's Fred Phelps and Atheist Bill Maher: Painting From the Same Palette

Fred Phelps, who died recently, hated certain categories of humanity in the name of God, and Bill Maher hates God in the name of humanity.

This is just one of the strange confluences between the preacher and the TV performer.

Another of these confluences is occupying pulpits of notoriety – Phelps at the Westboro Baptist Church where he was pastor for decades, and Maher, the massive pulpit of television. Phelps used his pulpit to promote hatred for the people he considered the enemies of God, and Maher the God he believes is the enemy of all people.

At just about the time Phelps was dying, Maher was pronouncing God a "psychotic mass murderer" and America "a stupid country" because "60 percent of the adults in it think the Noah's Ark story is literally true."

The strangest of confluences is that the two who seem to occupy such different poles could be twin poster-boys of contemporary hate. For the truth is they aren't "poles apart" but actually share the same end of the polarity between hate and compassionate love.

If Phelps preached hatred against homosexuals and certain other human categories, Maher's widely broadcast remarks not only could stir hatred for God but also for those who believe in Him.

Why would Maher's notion of hatred be any better or worse than Phelps'?

Hatred rises from distortion and distortion from ignorance. These are more streams in which Phelps and Maher reel and sway like synchronized swimmers at the Olympics.

It is not only Maher who distorts God, but Phelps as well. "You can't preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God," Phelps told a Huffington Post interviewer. This twists the nature of God just as Maher's imagery does.

To put it another way, Phelps and Maher paint from the same palette.

The two men are like an amateur oil painter I know. Untrained, all he can do is splash stark primary colors on his canvas, and then he wonders why it doesn't look quite right.

Distorted ignorance is a lack of awareness of the context that provides the subtle blend of tone that depicts truth. When the Bible speaks of God "hating" the literal meaning is to "love less." Phelps failed to recognize that all humans – indeed all creation – are loved by God. Maher doesn't get it that fundamentally "God is love" and everything He does is in that context.

Further, to "love less" is a quantitative, not a qualitative term. The result of love is approbation, or approval. "Loving less" in the biblical sense is not a diminishing of the quality and passion of love, but the withholding of quantitative sanction on destructive choices a loved one may make. In fact, the immensity of God's love is seen in the broken-hearted appeals of God for people everywhere to receive His love.

Most parents of more than one child can understand this. One kid is in near perfect alignment with the parents' desires, while another resists constantly. Mom and dad feel happiness in the presence of the obedient child but sorrow for the wayward kid – often because they have to watch his or her suffering brought on by disobedience.

There is no lessening of love for the two. If anything, the greater the love, the greater the capacity to be heartbroken. "Jealousy," for example, is viewed by primary-color-only people as negative meanness, which is hatred. However, to genuinely love is to be jealous, not in the sense of envy, but of care and protection. A loving God is a jealous Deity, and if He is not, He is not loving.

Maher may think God-believers are intellectually simple-minded, and Phelps may think those he lambasts are spiritual and moral simpletons, but it is actually Maher and Phelps who are artless.

Both men fail to see the reality that the omnipotent God, who could have chosen any kind of character for Himself, chose to love. In doing so He opens Himself to great pain. The opposite of love is not hate but apathy.

The God revealed in the Bible is anything but apathetic. The One who could dwell in utter serenity engages in the messy, risky, complicated art of loving. "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God," Paul writes. We don't grieve when we don't love, but are indifferent, like the pagan deities of ancient Greece and Rome, which tone-challenged Phelps and Maher confuse with the authentic God of the Bible.

From distortion and ignorance of context arises the next point of confluence between Phelps and Maher – sweeping generalization. The results are the non-realistic portraits of God and humanity the two men paint in stark primary colors only.

The reality is that there are compassionate homosexuals, generous atheists, kind Muslims, godly Christian liberals, and Christ-like Christian fundamentalists, to name a few.

Maher is a hyper-fundamentalist of atheism and Phelps is a hyper-fundamentalist of "Christianism." It is the "hyper" that produces the palette of hatred, with its stark, untempered primary colors.

The grace palette, however, is a curious and pleasing blend of color.

While religious Pharisees see only the primary colors of sin – either black and white – Jesus sees a woman at a well needing the water that satisfies the soul, a cowering, terrified, denying disciple who needs stiff bolts of courage and confidence, a tax-collector who needs forgiveness and relief from the guilt from a lifetime of fraud, a woman needing unconditional love rather than the shoddy objectification of her femininity by her users and abusers. Jesus beholds people as "sheep without a shepherd," needing nurture, protection, and guidance to the best water and food.

Maybe neither Phelps nor Maher has looked closely enough at that Jesus. In fact both base their attitudes mostly on the Old Testament. In doing so they are like a person dismissing a fascinatingly beautiful watercolor on a Chinese fan because all they see are the splashes and jabs of color on the segments necessary to make up the whole. Only when they see the fan opened fully do they see the complete enchanting painting.

Thus Bill Maher and Fred Phelps see only the incomplete part, and confuse it as the whole, a problem of the Pharisees Jesus confronted. Contemporary secular Pharisees behold all believers as dangerous psychotics, all wildly drunk on "religion... the opium of the people," to quote a master of primary-color-only portraiture, Karl Marx. But Jesus sees people hungering for God and truth.

Because Phelps and Maher both paint from the same palette in the stark primary colors of hatred they don't have the careful tints of grace, nor do they extend it to others.

Speaking of broad-brush art: hatred is hatred, whether directed against sinners of saints and the God they worship. That's why Fred Phelps and Bill Maher belong to the same school of art and dip from the same palette.

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