West of Westboro

Jimmy MagahernJune 1, 2015
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Some of the Valley’s most ardent Fed-fearing, LGBT-demonizing citizens find a mouthpiece in a headline-grabbing East Valley preacher. Could Steven Anderson just be getting started?

Juan Payan likes to go running with his pastor.

He meets up with him early, between 5 and 6 a.m., when Payan can usually find the lanky, bearded 33-year-old religious leader running barefoot near the Western Canal between Southern Avenue and Baseline Road.

“He’s super cool,” says Payan, a friendly young East Valley man who works as a cable TV installer, though he never watches TV. “When I was going to the Catholic church, the priest was always very distant. But the pastor’s not like that. In church, he can kind of overwhelm me with his biblical knowledge. But outside of church, he’s just a regular, cool guy. That’s the only way to explain the pastor. He’s just like everybody else.”

Few outside of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe would choose those particular words to describe its leader. Payan’s pastor is Steven Anderson, the controversial, hate-spewing holy man who leads a dedicated congregation of about 150 parishioners at Faithful Word, operated out of a large office space anchoring a business park on 48th Street and Southern Avenue. His bigger ministry, however, is online. Reaching thousands of followers worldwide over the Internet, through the videotaped sermons he uploads weekly to his blog and YouTube page, Anderson is perhaps the heir apparent to late Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps – a fringe provocateur so audacious that he sometimes blips on the mainstream radar.

And yet it’s easy to understand why Payan considers his pastor just a regular guy. Away from the pulpit, and unprovoked to defend his extremist views, Anderson can be almost disturbingly charming and guileless. A friendly family man. Utterly, inexplicably normal.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve caught clips from Anderson’s incendiary sermons once or twice on the evening news or social media. In August 2009, the day before President Barack Obama’s third visit to Phoenix, Anderson made headlines by declaring, from his pulpit, that he was “going to pray for Barack Obama to die and go to hell!” because of the president’s stance on abortion. The next day, one of Anderson’s flock showed up at Obama’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars at the Phoenix Convention Center with a loaded semiautomatic AR-15. (Chris Broughton, who wasn’t arrested thanks to Arizona’s permissive “open-carry” law, later claimed it was just part of a publicity stunt for a conservative radio talk show host.)

Last December, Anderson stirred up his biggest furor yet – including a string of protests and an official designation of his church as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center – by declaring, “We can have an AIDS-free world by Christmas,” and then offering his solution, which he began by quoting Leviticus 20:13 of the King James Bible, the only version he subscribes to: “‘If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.’ And that, my friend, is the cure for AIDS. It was right there in the Bible all along. If you executed the homos like God recommends, you wouldn’t have all this AIDS running rampant!”

Portrait by Stephen DentonPayan was in church that day. He was part of the congregation Anderson whipped into a froth with a fiery sermon comparing gays to the unrepentant sinners of ancient Sodom and Gomorrah, and the words hit Payan hard on a personal level.

“I have a brother who’s a homosexual,” he reveals. “So that was hard to hear. I was fairly new to the church, so I was like, ‘Man, this is crazy!’ But then he described what the Sodomites were, through God’s word, and me and my wife looked at each other after church and I go, ‘That’s my brother. Like, to a T.’”

Payan had never been comfortable with his brother’s homosexuality, but he says he defended him after his brother came out to his parents. “My dad, it killed him to hear that; he’s a proud Latino,” Payan recalls. “But I was telling him, ‘No, no, it’s okay.’ That’s because the world was telling me that. When you hear people talking against gays nowadays, you’re told that’s not right.”

He began running with the pastor, and after a few one-on-one talks along the trail (“He ties it all together – like, ‘This is the biblical side, but it also applies to your regular life’”), Anderson helped Payan reverse all those years of PC conditioning (so long, Ellen) that had softened his gut feelings about his brother’s lifestyle.

“I don’t talk to my brother anymore,” Payan says. “He understands why. I told him my reasoning. I said, ‘I believe in God’s word, and what you’re doing is filthy, it’s wrong and it’s an abomination.’”

Would Payan be comfortable with seeing his brother executed for being gay, though, as Anderson explicitly suggested?

“That’s hard,” Payan says, actually giving the question some consideration. “Because on one hand you’re telling yourself, ‘He’s blood, he’s my brother.’ But then there’s also God telling you, ‘You know what? He’s a reprobate. This is against my laws.’

“Sometimes I have trouble thinking about that,” Payan adds. “But then I think, ‘What would I do if my brother was a murderer, or if he went and raped a woman? How would I feel about that?’ It’d be the same way.”

There’s a certain involuntary behavioral tic shared by many of the people who congregate at Faithful Word Baptist Church. Kind of a stifled, awkward laugh, followed by a quick approving nod of the head.

It appears in a wave across the room each time Pastor Steven Anderson utters one of his patently undiplomatic bombshells, which he constructs from the unvarnished readings of the oft-softened passages he pulls from the old King James and force-fits to contemporary times. This Sunday morning’s sermon is unexpectedly benign. Anderson spends most of the hour talking calmly about humility in the preaching profession – although he still manages to drop in a cringe-worthy line or two about forbidding women as pastors and at one point calls yarmulkes “little Jewish Satan hats.”

Heh, ahem. Mm-hm.

The congregation that packs Faithful Word’s seats each Sunday morning is surprisingly diverse: white, black, Latino, Asian, young, old – and lots and lots of kids. But they all share a common hunger for what many in the congregation call “hard preaching”: an in-your-face reading of the centuries-old doctrine that includes all the dark stuff most contemporary churches water down.

“God doesn’t love everyone,” Anderson preaches in his famous “Why I Hate Barack Obama” sermon (almost 71,000 views on YouTube). “One time I made a list of all the verses where God says he hates people. It’s like 30 verses. Yet people don’t want to accept it, they just wanna believe that God loves everybody. But he doesn’t.”

“I’ve been to other churches where they read versions of the Bible, but mostly they’re just saying what you want to hear,” says a  44-year-old parishioner named Sean who travels from the west side of the Valley to hear Anderson’s sermons. “Here it’s like, he doesn’t change it… I don’t know if I could go from here to anyplace else. It’s like getting the meat and then trying to go back to baby food.”

Most evangelical Christian churches adhere to the New International Version, or NIV, the biggest-selling English translation of the Bible, which critics say glosses over some of the more controversial parts of the original Hebrew and Greek text (the word “sodomite,” for example, is stricken from the NIV).

Anderson is on Team King James – the license plate on his Hyundai reads “KJVONLY” – and he’s emerging as the King James Only movement’s most prolific, and most divisive, voice. His YouTube channel has over 18 million views, and MP3s of his sermons are downloaded about 100,000 times per month. He also writes, directs and produces DVD documentaries, with titles like Marxist Lucifer King and AIDS: The Judgment of God – sometimes without revealing his intent to his interview subjects; the Jewish Anti-Defamation League is currently exploring legal actions against Anderson over his latest DVD, Marching to Zion, which they claim twists the words of local rabbis to present an anti-Semitic message.

On interstate trips to guest-preach at other Baptist churches and promote his wares, Anderson also routinely videotapes his Patriot-style confrontations with checkpoint inspectors and posts them to YouTube, presumably to make a point about federal overreach. In his spare time, he even manages to market his own line of sacred piano sheet music. He’s the Dane Cook of hard preaching.

“He kind of pioneered it,” says Zsuzsanna Anderson, the pastor’s 36-year-old German-born wife and mother to their eight children. (“For us to intentionally limit our family’s size, that is not natural,” she says.) “There are other pastors who preach boldly, including some that he’s mentored and sent out to start their own churches. But he really was the pioneer.”

His boldness can make other Baptist preachers uncomfortable. “Pastor Anderson and I disagree on a few doctrines; however, this is not unusual in our kind of churches,” emails Stephen Nichols, pastor of Regency Baptist Church in Orangevale, Calif., where Anderson spent time as a teenager in the late ‘90s. Nichols declines to comment on his protégé’s strident style, writing only, “Each pastor preaches and teaches the Bible as he believes God would have him.”

“I think he has a personality that people respond to: You either love him or hate him,” observes Roger Jimenez, who was mentored by Anderson in his teens and now serves as pastor of Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento. “Plus, he has a bigger Internet presence than most pastors, and with that comes negative publicity. But even that helps get it into the homes and gets people to hear it. That’s how his mind works.”

Portrait by Stephen DentonPeople come to an Anderson service to hear the hits. “This is the guy who prayed for Obama to die, sent the homos to be executed, had a run-in with Border Patrol,” says Zsuzsanna, running down the list of what people see first when they Google her husband’s name. With the eight genuinely adorable Anderson kids (five boys and three girls, ranging in age from 1 to 13) in tow, the pastor’s wife commandeers a whole row in the church, which seems to grow in parishioners after each controversy. This morning, her husband is intent on showing a kinder, gentler side.

“I remember in Bible college I was taught, ‘Do not be friends with any of your church people; you cannot interact socially with any of your church members, because they will lose all respect for you,’” he says, stepping away from the podium to get closer to the group. “Now, I don’t believe that. Many of you have gone to eat with me, or gone running or hiking or skiing with me, or have just hung out with me. And I think it’s good for us to have communion and fellowship and friendship. Ninety-nine percent of the people can handle being my friend.”

After the service, taking a quick break in his office, Anderson is friendly and accommodating, even after the newcomer identifies himself as a journalist. Overall, he projects an eagerness to show he’s not the monster the media make him out to be. “People will watch my most extreme clips online, out of context, and they think that’s who I am 24/7,” he says, with an easy laugh. “All they really see is a caricature of the most extreme statements that ever come out of my mouth all strung together, and they’re always put in a bad light by the media.

“Everything you’ve heard about me in the media is true, to the extent that I really did say all those things,” he’s quick to add. “But you’re not getting the complete picture of why I believe what I do. When people actually meet me and get to know me, they realize I’m not the villain that they think I am.”

Anderson started life as a California boy, born the month “Bette Davis Eyes” ruled the Top 40. But growing up in one of the few fundamentalist Baptist households in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, Anderson says his parents permitted very little secular music around the house. “With one exception: the Beach Boys,” he says.

Anderson remembers listening to early Beach Boys cassettes on his little GE Kid-Corder when he was four or five, and becoming a fan of their earlier catalog, when the group wore matching shirts, sang about surfing and projected a wholesome, all-American image. He stopped listening when he found out, a little later on, about Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson’s brief, misguided friendship with Charles Manson. He rejected the Beatles, too, when he found out John Lennon and Yoko Ono had posed nude on an album cover.

His older brother Clint says Steven rejected all pop culture pretty early on, although he does recall them both watching TV together as kids. “We definitely watched some Clint Eastwood movies,” says the compliance director and part-time guitarist, who still lives in northern California (and swears he wasn’t named after his parents’ favorite Western star). Clint remembers his brother doing the normal boy things – playing Nintendo, riding dirt bikes – but he also recalls him playing preacher early on.

“We had these neighbors who were from the Reformed tradition of Christianity, and he used to get into debates with the father,” he says. “Even from a young age he would be talking to the kids about salvation.”

Steven, who today totally eschews TV, popular movies and music but, like extremists of other ilks, is nevertheless a big fan of the Internet, says he hears from old friends on Facebook. “Old elementary school friends will post, ‘Oh man, I remember in fourth grade when you were debating Calvinism on the playground!’” he says. “I always wanted to be a pastor, ever since I was a little kid.”

No one can pinpoint when the fiery anti-gay stance took; his brother doesn’t recall any triggering incidents. But Zsuzsanna, who met Anderson when he was 18 and visiting a missionary friend in Munich – and married him, in a quickie Vegas ceremony 10 months later – says their first fight was over his “violent” views on the subject. “I grew up in a humanist school in the German education system,” she says. “I was really like a left-wing feminist before I met him. I was even against spanking.” Eventually the lapsed Catholic was won over, or worn down, by Anderson’s unshakable resolve.

“He was the first person I ever met that was just unwavering,” she says. “I didn’t agree with him for weeks, but I was just blown away by the fact that he didn’t waver. And I think that’s what people respond to. Whether you agree or disagree with what he says, at least you know where he stands. You never have to wonder, ‘What does he really believe?’”

The King James Only crowd gravitates to Faithful Word like steampunk geeks to a Maker Faire, and there are lots of beards and prairie dresses at a Sunday service. Along with rejecting homosexuality, advocates reject worldliness – no one here has gotten near a TV since Will & Grace – and  contraception, evidently. There are so many kids that FWBC maintains two kids’ playrooms, one on either side of the hall.

What KJOs do accept is Anderson’s no-holds-barred  representation of the so-called Authorized Version of the Protestant Bible – especially, it seems, the parts where God puts the beat-down on a population now viewed more favorably by Americans than evangelical Christians, according to a recent poll commissioned by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group.

On the local evening news the week of Anderson’s viral sermon on homosexuality, KPNX-12 news anchor Mark Curtis pressed Anderson to clarify exactly what he meant by the word “executed,” which Curtis – who is Jewish – suggested sounded a little Hitlerian. “I believe what the Bible says, that homosexuals should be executed,” Anderson answered emphatically. “Let me make myself clear: I believe that. And I’ve never gone back on that for one second.”

There’s a YouTube mash-up put together by a fan in Rhode Island that pits clips of that broadcast against a CNN interview of Joel Osteen, the televangelist with over 20 million monthly viewers worldwide. Grilled by Soledad O’Brien as to whether or not he thinks homosexuality is a sin, Osteen hems and haws before finally saying, “I think part of my, if you want to call it, success is that I’ve stayed in my lane, and my lane is lifting people’s spirits.” Cut to Anderson banging on his pulpit and screaming, “No homos will ever be allowed in this church as long as I’m the pastor here! Never!”

Relegated to reluctant silent minority status by widespread LGBT acceptance, anti-gay fundamentalists have found their spitting punk rock hero in Anderson, an anti-establishment firebrand who aggressively violates progressive social mores on stage.

But what would happen if a FWBC regular, riled up by Anderson’s rhetoric, actually went out and opened fire on a lesbian bar? What would happen if Juan Payan actually killed his gay brother?

Marc Victor is a Phoenix attorney who defended Anderson in one of his many run-ins with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, when he was forcibly removed from his car, Tasered by agents and thrown to the ground at the Yuma checkpoint for obstinately refusing to submit to an inspection.

“Arizona has some criminal concepts, like all states do, about conspiracy and accomplice liability where one person can be criminally liable for the acts of another person,” Victor says. “But if it’s just one person preaching his religious views and another person on his own deciding to go do things out in the world that are criminal, I don’t think that would be within either of those two statutes. You’d really have to look at the specific facts.” Westboro Baptist Church members, for example, are still allowed to wave hate speech signs outside military funerals. While the pickets always generate unrest, they’re shielded under the Supreme Court’s ruling that “matters of public import” are protected by the First Amendment.

Democratic State Rep. Andrew Sherwood participated in a public protest outside FWBC, which falls within his district, following Anderson’s anti-gay sermon last December. At one point he caught Anderson’s reaction to the demonstrators, observing him snacking outside the front door of his church, taking in the show. “A lot of businesses pay to have sign-wavers,” Anderson cracked to media, looking for laughs. “I’m just glad people know we’re here.”

Seeing the pastor’s showman side, Sherwood says he’d like to believe Anderson’s extremism is all an act. “In the political arena, in the business arena and apparently in this church, it’s becoming a business model to be extreme,” he says. “That seems to be his product. Some people have that personality where they sort of create a character, and once they’re confronted by an issue or see the news cameras rolling, then they sort of transform into that character and they do what they think will be useful for their agenda or profitable for their business model. It may just be his goal to drive more people through the door.”

Victor, though, has had numerous meetings with Anderson and insists the persona is no act. “Whether or not you agree with his convictions and principles, he believes in what he says and does,” he states. “I certainly don’t think he’s a fraud.”

The Andersons live in a modest, four-bedroom house in a 57-year-old neighborhood in Tempe. On this particular Thursday morning, oldest son Solomon, 13, is playing a masterly rendition of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the upright piano in the living room while his brothers and sisters play with one of the five hamsters that roam the house (along with a dog and a very pregnant cat). Asked if he wishes his parents would allow him to listen to hip-hop and rock like most other teens, Solomon laughs.

“Not really,” he says. “I don’t like any rap, rock or pop. I’ll hear it when we’re in the store and it’s pretty ugly. The only other music that I like besides sacred and classical is some ungodly techno,” he adds, with a smile.

Zsuzsanna homeschools her children and keeps them under control with enviable authority. At one point the playful noise of all those kids becomes too loud to talk over, and Zsuzsanna calls for them all to step outside on the patio to work on their assignments. Remarkably, the house is hushed in less than 30 seconds. Respect.

Like her husband, Zsuzsanna maintains a blog with a sizeable following of admirers and hecklers. She pulls out a manila envelope stuffed with hostile, threatening emails from people enraged by her husband’s sermons or her blog posts on birth control. Several are from a Texas woman who sent enough complaints to Arizona’s Child Protective Services to warrant a late-night visit from the agency.

“On one level, this could be cause for alarm,” she says evenly, in her faint German accent. “I’m not saying we’re totally unprepared. We’ve got alarms and cameras; I have a gun if I choose to carry it.”

Steven, whose job before running the church was, conveniently, selling home fire alarms, gets mail, too. “I get horrible things sent to me,” he says. “I’ve had human waste, used condoms, white powder spilling out of an envelope with a death threat. It’s crazy,” he adds, with a laugh. “But hey, it keeps me humble!”

“They say they’re tolerant of everybody, but they’re not tolerant of us,” Zsuzsanna says. “Everybody has people that they don’t like or that they hate. It’s just who you choose to be intolerant of, and we choose to draw the line where the Bible draws it.”

Admirably, they’re fearless and transparent about their lives. “Our address has been published online,” Zsuzsanna says. “But not a single person has ever actually showed up to harass us.” They get out in the wicked world, too. “We shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, where a lot of the people who hate me probably hang out,” Steven says. “That’s part of why I do show my face everywhere, so people in the community can get to know me.”

The kids trickle back into the kitchen and living room, the youngest daughter, Anna, cuddling a baby hamster and smiling sweetly. For a moment, you wonder why anyone would find fault with the Andersons, whose children appear so happy and well-adjusted. And then Zsuzsanna begins to talk about “the homos.”

“It’s not that other people don’t believe what we believe,” she says. “Our thing about homos being disgusting? There are 70 countries in the world where it’s against the law to be a homosexual. People believing they should be executed? It’s been in the Bible for 4,000 years and for the vast majority of time, people believed what the Bible said. They’ve definitely been doing it throughout history.”

She pauses for a minute to tell Anna to put the hamster down and gives Solomon a pinch on the cheek, calling her oldest “sweetheart.” “Don’t call me that!” he chuckles, embarrassed.

“You can pull out any belief that we have and there are millions of other people in the world that believe the same,” she says, gently petting the cat. “We are not alone in this.”


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