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The Westboro Baptist Church's Search for the Jewish 'Elect'

09/15/2010 08:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If Americans are sick of seeing Westboro Baptist Church members at the funerals of dead soldiers, they can rest a little easier. While they are not entirely retiring picket signs reading "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," church members have recently printed a few different ones: "The Jews Killed Jesus" and "Israel is Doomed."

These placards signal a slight change in focus that may become more prominent in the coming months or years: warn members of the Jewish community that it is time for them to repent for the killing of Christ.

"Now that you've got the beast in the White House," says Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of Pastor Fred Phelps, "and the destruction of this nation is almost upon them, God is going to return to the Jews. God is going to have mercy on them and restore them."

President Barack Obama, who they believe is the Antichrist, has made this shift in focus necessary.

I ventured to ask how they can be sure that Obama is the Antichrist.

"It's a secret, but I'm going to share it with you," she tells me. "First, I can read! Second, I can see! The scripture describes him, and he fits perfectly."

Westboro members see themselves as prophets ordained by God to warn an unaware and unrepentant generation. "We are called Watchers, and we're watching. We saw this amazing phenomenon called Obama," she tells me. "We know the time is right and all of a sudden this guy rises out of relative obscurity." She points to Revelation 13:5, which states that the beast will be given a "mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words."

"He is the king pin on the blasphemy front -- calling himself a Christian -- and these dumb, gullible, doomed American brutes believing him!" she says. "He's not a Christian, he's a Muslim. He's going to use the White House to promote murdering babies and fag culture."

According to Westboro members, shortly after Obama came to power, they realized that they had to shift some of their focus to the Jewish community. "With the beast in the White House, you got a short timeline," Shirley says.

According to Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas who has been doing extensive research on the Phelps family since 2004, Westboro members believe, like many conservative Christians, that Jews are hell-bound unless they convert to Christianity.

The attention that Westboro is paying to the Jewish community may lead some to conclude that they are associated with Christian Zionists. Nothing is further from the truth.

Christian Zionism, a term given to a particular worldview within evangelicalism, places an enormous amount of cosmic importance on the Jews and the state of Israel. The birth of the state of Israel as well as the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War, in which Israel gained control of several sites of Biblical importance, were significant periods in the evolution of Christian Zionism in the twentieth century.

For Christian Zionists, the fate of America is intimately tied to the state of Israel. As Jerry Falwell declared in 1980, "God has blessed America because America has blessed the Jew. If this nation wants her fields to remain white with grain, her scientific achievements to remain notable, and her freedom to remain intact, America must continue to stand with Israel."

Westboro members, in stark contrast, would declare that both countries are doomed. They are highly critical of contemporary Christian Zionist figures like John Hagee, the founder of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, who they believe is falsely telling the Jews that they have a right to the land.

According to Westboro members, all the Jews who remain in America and most of the Jews who live in Israel during the end times will be killed. "Because they broke the covenant, and walk in the ways of their fathers in disobedience, and because they killed their Messiah, they have got a final indignation coming upon them," Shirley tells me.

Whereas Christian Zionists give blessings and support to the state of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole, Westboro members believe that only the elect mentioned in the book of Revelation will be saved. As the end times near, Westboro members are on a new quest to find the 144,000 Jews who will convert in the last days (Revelation 7:4).

"They go to Jewish events to find them," says Barrett-Fox.

In an open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted on their website, they implore him not to be swindled by President Obama. "Rather than see him for the Beast he is, you foolish Jews will call him Messiah! ... You will literally place Beast Obama into your temple and call him god," the letter reads.

With this embracing of Obama, the destruction of Israel will be assured, according to Westboro. However, the 144,000 elect Jews will see the error in their ways and repent for the killing of Christ, and thus they will be saved. "[W]e at Westboro Baptist Church know that among your Jewish brethren are 144,000 souls who will be given a spirit of grace and supplications," the letter reads. "Those will mourn over their sins -- the chief of which was the murder of the Messiah -- and will turn their hearts to preparing the way for the return of Christ in power and glory."

As prophets of God, Westboro members feel it is their duty to warn the elect of the Jewish community before it is too late. "We realized that we had to start talking to these Jews," Shirley tells me. "They are going to have to repent for killing Christ and for breaking the covenant."

After demonstrating in front of many Jewish places of worship, especially over the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, Shirley is only slightly optimistic about discovering the Jewish elect.

"I don't know what we're going to find. We're looking, but they are no stinking good. We only find cursed Jews walking in gross, horrible darkness. That's what we've found so far," she tells me.