The new media is awash with news of Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps' death. The trending comments in social media pretty much run from vengeance to schadenfreude, but most miss the most interesting details of the events. It seems “Rev. Phelps” was no longer in charge of his “church”, Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. There has been an apparent power struggle for control of the 50+ member congregation and during it Fred, the founder was excommunicated! Additionally, his outspoken daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper was also ousted from power. The news was broken by Nathan Phelps, one of the sons of Fred Phelps Sr. who left the church 37 years ago.
Seems Fred saw the rancor brewing in his flock and advocated a “kinder approach” to church dealings. Well, a church based on the premise that “God Hates (insert name here)”, would not be very accepting of that message. It wasn’t and thus Fred was OUT!
So considering the history of this hate-filled place, how am I reacting to the news of Phelps demise? Well, that is a source of some conflict.
Having come face to face with these folks on at least 3 occasions, I can say that once I filter out their incendiary rhetoric I have always felt pity for them, and then felt I needed to go home and take a scalding hot shower. It is hard to come face to face with hate. It is even worse to come in contact with a willful ignorance so deep that these people have managed to actually see a completely different world than the one in which we exist.
I believe the Phelps kids have been raised in what is essentially an isolated compound, cut off from anyone but their kin and others who carry their beliefs. They have so successfully insulated themselves that their world view is skewed in the extreme. They see a world of “sinners” condemned to burn in hell and the Westboro Baptist Church members who are “saved”. There are no shades of grey in their world, just black and white and most specifically those who condone homosexuality and those who condemn it.
The focus on homosexuality is where I have the most problem, obviously. From a few Bible verses in Leviticus and one dusty letter from Paul in Romans, these people have created an entire epistemology that filters reality and creates a world of fear and hate. More specifically, their view of God is far from the New Testament God of Jesus, and much closer to a psychopathic punishing entity whose only concern is dealing out death, destruction and suffering upon those He is displeased with. That is a sad world to live in.
The cynical side of me has often wondered if the Phelps family can actually believe in their own hatred or is it just a ploy to get attention and more specifically to draw the ire of folks who act out against them. They self-fund their church, and much of that income comes from law suits and settlements. Many of the family are lawyers like Phelps himself. Traveling to all those funerals and picket lines is not cheap.
Even if I assume their motives are “pure” it’s really hard for me to rejoice in the death of their father and founder. To face death knowing your legacy is one of being arguably the most reviled man in the country has to carry some gravitas. Worse still, Fred is now reviled by his family and former congregants and that has to be painful, even for someone who lived with constant burning hatred.
I guess much of the pity I feel is for a man who has steeped himself in hate so much that he hasn’t got much humanity left, and that is a tragedy. Phelps was once a Civil Rights attorney who fought the Jim Crow laws, so there is obviously a human being buried inside all that bile.
The other reason I find Phelps a pitiable figure, is the reason for his virulent anti-gay stance. His daughter, Lauren Drain in an interview with the Advocate Magazine comes very close to saying Fred had some kind of homosexual experience as a cadet at West Point that might have sparked his fire against gays. Though she doesn’t specifically spell it out she notes that “…something made him change his mind about the military, and in turn have kind of a crusade against sexual immorality and homosexuals.”
All speculation, but it certainly would fall in line with other rabid anti-gay crusaders who later turned out to be suffering from internalized homophobia. The most egregious case being George Rekers, former ex-gay therapy advocate and co-founder of the Family Research Council caught traveling with a “rent-boy” on a European vacation.
Whatever his reasons, Phelps must have been living in a state of constant agitation, and if he really believed that God was pouring his vengeance on the US, constant fear of being caught up in an apocalypse. Not a good place to live.
Worse still, for a man who claimed to preach the “word of God” it is sad that he apparently never listened to the words of Jesus. There is not one quote about homosexuality by Jesus, but a whole lot of specific warnings for straight folks about infidelity and divorce. Even more his ministry was about God’s grace and inclusion.
Not to get too preachy, but had Phelps spent more of his life concentrating on these messages and less on finding convoluted reasons to condemn people, he would undoubtedly be a happier man and perhaps the world would be a kinder place.