Well Fred Phelps is dead.
He was born in 1929, so he made 84.
It is almost impossible to describe this man, such was his life, such is his legacy. Probably the closest single word as epithet would be 'tyrant' or perhaps ‘hatemonger’. A man so full of bitterness and bile that he twisted and contorted his entire extended family into a parody and turned them into willing acolytes in the cult that is the Westboro Baptist Church, obeying the old patriarch to the letter. Until very recently, he ruled the cult as impassioned religious demagogue but also as tyrant. The Louis Theroux 2007 BBC documentary ‘The Most Hated Family in America’ showed all too well the fear of Phelps that was held by the family members. His tyranny was rampant and so, not much questioning, not much dissent occurred in Westboro Baptist.
Their ‘church’ has been rejected by the Baptists and other Protestant denominations as has Phelps himself for his extremist views. On only a few occasions, one or two family members have left the cult and have been rejected by them ever since. The evil perpetrated in this man’s name at so many levels is astounding and is a monument to the obsession, opprobrium and resolve of Phelps to do all in his power to militate against gay people and more latterly, the whole of America, including its dead soldiers and the military in general, for accepting gay people.
So why? How did it come to this?
Phelps was not a stupid man. He had graduated from law school. He was also given to obsessiveness and retribution for perceived hurt. He had worked as a lawyer in his earlier career, but presaging the turmoil that would surround his adult life, he was disbarred in 1977 in telling circumstances.
The Wikipedia entry for his disbarment states:
“A formal complaint was filed against Phelps on November 8, 1977, by the Kansas State Board of Law Examiners for his conduct during a lawsuit against a court reporter named Carolene Brady. Brady had failed to have a court transcript ready for Phelps on the day he asked for it; though it did not affect the outcome of the case for which Phelps had requested the transcript, Phelps still requested $22,000 in damages from her. In the ensuing trial, Phelps called Brady to the stand, declared her a hostile witness, and then cross-examined her for nearly a week, during which he accused her of being a "slut", tried to introduce testimony from former boyfriends whom Phelps wanted to subpoena, and accused her of a variety of perverse sexual acts, ultimately reducing her to tears on the stand. The trial became an exhibition of a personal vendetta by Phelps against Carolene Brady. His examination was replete with repetition, badgering, innuendo, belligerence, irrelevant and immaterial matter, evidencing only a desire to hurt and destroy the defendant. The jury verdict didn't stop the onslaught of Phelps. He was not satisfied with the hurt, pain, and damage he had visited on Carolene Brady” (Wikipedia).
While being trained in the profession of the law, Phelps was not of the calibre to be able to examine intensively and extensively. In other words, he was smart enough, but he was no genius. And his personality traits coalesced with some little intelligence as to make him an impossible and unreasonable opponent.
“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring”
(Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism, 1709).
Pope’s famous couplet is apposite to Fred Phelps most surely. His wit took him to Bible College where he was eventually ordained into a Southern Baptist church and his personality took him to extreme Calvinism where he thought of himself as a Primitive Baptist (not that they accepted him either). I have always found Calvin pretty hard to swallow and have rejected his most famous of theological positions: unconditional election and limited atonement; the first holding that God has chosen a certain elect to be saved, their own lives being irrelevant to God’s decision, while others are not to be saved; while the second holds that Christ died for these elect only and not for anyone else. The God portrayed by these theologies comes off as a pretty unsavoury character, hugely partial, biased and indifferent to the lost eternity of those not in the elect which is most of humanity if you think about what Jesus said, ‘narrow is the gate and few there be that find it’. The pure Calvinist God is monstrous and couldn’t match it with the weakest of human fathers. Phelps was utterly and completely attracted to this portrayal of a ruthless God like a moth to a flame. This imago dei matched his own skewed retributive and belligerent personality. In the Westboro Baptist cult otherwise known as the ‘God hates fags church’, Phelps fashioned God after his own image.
Fred Phelps’ behaviour is legendary or more accurately infamous. I do not need to go into the picketing of funerals of gay people and of fatally wounded American soldiers. I do not have to go into the hate speech and vile invective of their website. If you believed that, then God hates everything and everyone, every nation, every person not of the Phelps persuasion. It is a theology of grotesquery, a twisted parody of the Judaeo-Christian God-figure where God is portrayed as a furious, rage-filled, retributive, violent, castigating, aggressive, vengeful deity. “Can you preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God?” Phelps asked in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. “The answer is absolutely not". The Theroux documentary was challenging to watch as the members of the cult when speaking of God came across as being absolutely terrified of him. And their fear of God was what they preached and protested.
“God hates fags.” “God is your enemy.” “God hates you.” “USA = fag nation.” “Fags die God laughs.” “Thank God for maimed soldiers.” “Pray for more dead soldiers.” “Thank God for dead soldiers.” “Thank God for IEDs.” “God killed your sons.” “Thank God for 9/11.”
A man of impenetrable hatred preaching a god of fury, rage, retribution, judgement and tyranny and indoctrinating his family to do the same; adults and children alike. It is not conceptually possible to get further away from the relational God whose essence is love that Jesus told us of if you purposely tried.
What do we do with Phelps’ death? Well, whether we are Christian or not, I believe we should be better and bigger than Phelps and his family ever were. We should not picket his funeral if he has one. We should not dance on his grave. We should not delight in the demise of another human being. If we do call ourselves followers of Jesus, then we need to leave Phelps to God and not return hatred for hatred.
It is hard to imagine anyone being so unempathic, so blind to the suffering he caused others. But psychologists do talk about a trait called psychopathy that is identified in people who do not have the ability to empathise. Most people usually think immediately of serial killers when we use this term, but serial killers are only the extreme version of psychopathy. Many people are known to exhibit strong traits of psychopathy, eg., some bosses and narcissists come to mind. It is often associated with either narcissistic or anti-social personality disorder. It would not surprise me to learn that Phelps might have been in one of these categories, such was his lack of empathy.
As such, I think he deserves our pity. Please do not misperceive my meaning here. I do not feel sorry for Fred Phelps. And I certainly do not endorse his life. But I do wonder whether this was a tormented soul. Was Phelps narcissistic? Did he have a personality disorder? Did he have homosexual inclinations himself and used Freudian reaction formation as a defence against it? We will never know. But we do know that Fred Phelps was not a happy man nor a man in peace. I am comfortable leaving him to whatever comes next for those of his ilk. He leaves a dreadful and terrible legacy of twisted religious bile behind him and a family probably forever destroyed.
There is one final point I wish to make. It has been a strong theme through the whole BGBC Blog. I want to point out that Fred Phelps was a fundamentalist extremist. But he used mainstream Christian doctrine and well-known Bible verses to spread his filth. Where we are convinced that we have the truth and everyone else is heretical; where we hold that our version of God is correct and all others are in error; where we say what is right and what is wrong; where we focus on one tenet of thought and neglect all others; where we ignore science and human reason; where we pronounce judgement on our fellow human beings guided by our own teachings; where we split God’s beautiful creation into the saved and unsaved, the elect and non-elect, the washed and the great unwashed; where we put dogma ahead of people; where we give blind allegiance to texts written in the ancient world; where we place the letter of the law before the spirit of the law; where we follow a primitive tribalism over an inclusivity of the family of humanity, then any of us potentially could become another Fred Phelps.
Fundamentalism misses the point of spirituality entirely. It is a parody of authentic spiritual life. It is pharisaic and misguided. In its most tribal forms, it is cruel and even cultic. It is a diminution of the human spirit and an attempt to give borders to the divine, to put God in a box.
Fred Phelps might have been one of a kind and to be sure, he was. But there is a lesson here. The road away from Jesus - his life, his example, his teachings, his non-violence, his preparedness to forgive, his willingness to love, his desire to be with those most struggling, his willingness to die to show a better way - leads only to law, judgment, exclusion, arrogance and domination; the stuff of fundamentalist religion. People suffer under the yoke of fundamentalism because the focus of fundamentalism is not people; it is conformity. Jesus' focus was always the people. Fred Phelps was an exemplar of the most extreme forms of fundamentalism and should be discussed in the same arena as Jim Jones, Shoko Ashara, David Koresh, L. Ron Hubbard and other cultists of their ilk. When you look at Fred Phelps, you see a neon-lit example of how fundamentalism can easily tip over into cultism. For those of us who call ourselves Christian, we need always to be vigilant that we follow in Jesus’ footsteps and to eschew once and for all religious arrogance.
Vale Fred Phelps. In truth, the world will not be poorer for your passing.