I have admitted on my Facebook page that I’m torn about my own feelings about the recent death of Fred Phelps. I was tracking and reporting on him when I worked for the regional gay newspaper News-Telegraph more than 20 years ago. I’ve talked to him and I have felt the bullet-proof vest he wore under his jacket when I laid my hand on his shoulder. I’ve drawn some conclusions about him and the cult he founded, though not all of those conclusions may prove to be accurate.
I could not help but feel a dark cloud lift when the news broke that Fred Phelps had finally died. I’m not particularly proud of that first reaction: one of relief and even something akin to happiness. I didn’t dance around the house right away, but after the news sank in, I admit I did pull up “Ding Dong, the wicked witch is dead,” by the munchkins.
Why would my reaction be considered hateful or negative? I think it was extremely human and natural, if not a bit disrespectful. Like I care if Fred knows I have zero respect for him?
I never imagined that Fred would die like this: alone in a hospice, rejected by much of his family, excommunicated from the cult/church he founded. I expected one of two different stories when his obituary was published.
First, I thought it was very likely that someone would assassinate this maniac. Westboro Baptist Church’s style was violent, though almost never in a physical way, unless one of them was physically attacked. “I must be doing something right,” he told The Kansas City Star. “I got every organized and unorganized group in the United States saying they want to kill me.” I know he believed this, because he wore a bullet-proof vest at public demonstrations. I read letters from gays stating that “someone should just kill him.”
If that had happened—if a gay person was guilty of shooting Fred Phelps in the head, the story today would be very, very different, and the blowback for the gay community would be fierce, at least from some quarters. Fred Phelps would attain martyrdom, something I believe he was seeking. Perhaps I wasn’t feeling a sense of happiness that Fred had died, per se, so much as I was so greatly relieved he didn’t die a martyr at the hands of one of us.
Then, about five years ago, I wrote about WBC’s online musings that were eerily reminiscent of Jim Jones, the leader of the suicide-murder religious cult that littered the jungles of Guyana with their Koolaid-poisoned bodies. The story was brought to my attention by a gay blogger in Oklahoma City who went by the moniker Gossip Boy. Unfortunately GB’s website is no longer functional, but this is what I documented then:
From WBC’s website:
When we’re done, we will leave your filthy land and be placed safely out of the reach of the horror that will then land upon you swiftly and certainly – in one hour.
We pray it to be any day now, for the promises of our God are sure and certain. We finished our job in Napa County – one of the few we have left – and then went to tell the Saints of our God-blessed exploits and our joy.
Gossip Boy wrote:
Westboro recently lost a massive lawsuit and are bordering on bankruptcy. Their protests have resulted in a backlash from parties well beyond gays and lesbians. Their dynamic leader Fred Phelps is in bad health and some claim near death. Now they want to end their mission and go be with God.
When a cult like this starts talking about the end, then it’s time to move in and get the children out.
So in the second scenario, I was expecting a newflash and close-up television reports of a cordoned off WBC compound in Topeka, as first responders loaded corpses of women, children and men into ambulances.
As early as 1995 I wrote about my own convictions that Fred would never go quietly:
Mark my words. When Fred Phelps leaves this world, he will, in all likelihood, leave it “a-blazing.” But there will be no satisfaction—let alone justice—if he dies from a bullet fired by a Gay person who “just couldn’t take it anymore,” or from a blazing brand set to the wooden fence surrounding his compound.
We don’t need another Waco incident in Topeka. Nor do we benefit by making Fred a martyr. It’s what he wants, you know—the ultimate in getting attention.
How in the world am I not supposed to feel relief, and yes perhaps even a tiny jolt of joy that the Universe decided on such an anti-climactic end to Fred Phelps?
Ignore attention whores
There is not only no reason to protest Fred’s funeral (there isn’t even going to be one, by the way), but if the justification for such an action is payback for all the grief he has caused at other families’ funerals, the rationale is flawed. As someone who has been observing and writing about Phelps since the 1990s, one thing has become abundantly clear: regardless of the name for the psychological illness he and his followers suffer, they were literally turned on by the media attention they managed to garner.
Indeed, whenever that attention waned, they simply upped the level on their outrageous meter. When the media lost interest in their “God Hate Fags” message, they switched to picketing the funerals of military veterans and signs that read: “God Hates America.”
Frankly, I’m surprised the church/cult/family has decided not to have a funeral, just to draw out protesters so they can have another show. It suggests that some other changes are going on within the Topeka compound.
If you really want to get even with Fred, even after death, the best strategy would be to ignore him now. That’s the one thing he went to great lengths to avoid. Nothing could be worse in his mind than to be ignored.
Fred was our friend?
I’ve read several comments from people saying that Fred Phelps and WBC were some of the best things to happen to the gay community. I have agreed in the past, and said the same thing twenty years ago:
Let Fred stew. He does us more good than harm. Even people who don’t like “the fags” can’t help but realize we’re real human beings compared to the Phelps’.
Today I am seriously reconsidering this notion, especially when I read that Fred said much the same thing to Sanchez:
“The only way we have to get the other side out is to picket,” Phelps said. “I’m the best friend that homosexuals have. I tell them the truth.”
As Sanchez noted, “The last part is a flat-out lie. Phelps believed homosexuals were worthy of death.”
Yes, Fred called for our death, and when some of us did die, he came to our funeral to dance on our grave.
Let’s not forget that our “friend” destroyed lives and families, including apparently, his own. Fred built his own life on our backs and our graves. If the equality movement gained allies from Fred’s antics, are they really the kind of allies we should seek? How can we possibly claim that the ends justify the means?
No, Fred Phelps is not and has never been our friend. That any mind was changed in favor of gays and lesbians as a result of his hatred and outrageous public spectacles might be compared to collateral damage… an unnecessary and undesirable consequence of the use of excessive force.
Ding, dong, the wicked prick is not dead
For at least a year something ominous has been going on inside the walls and the minds of those living who continue to animate Westboro Baptist Church. Fred lost favor there in the last year, for reasons that are not yet known to outsiders, and those who are now leading the church (no, I’m sorry folks, it is not Jesus Christ) are showing signs of discord and strains.
Several credible reports have surfaced that Fred himself was excommunicated from WBC last year. That this report is acknowledged on the WBC website, with a “neither deny nor confirm” statement is evidence that it’s probably true. Fred may have been evil, but his intelligence was never questioned by anyone who interviewed him. As Mary Sanchez, reporter for The Kansas City Star wrote yesterday:
It’s tempting to write this way of thinking off as idiocy, but the most striking recollection I have of my long early interviews with Phelps was his intelligence. People want to deny his intelligence, and yet it was striking, to the point where it drew you in. Not the overall message — that was easy to dismiss — but the sharpness and expansiveness of his mind.
Fred Phelps’ wife, children and grandchildren do not plan to memorialize him in any way. This is another sign that their very humanity has deteriorated almost beyond recognition. Reports of cursing and bickering behind the compound walls contrast with their own assertions that all is well with their particular version of the body of Christ.
Even from beyond the grave that Fred may or may not yet be occupying, his dark ichor continues to flow in those left behind. It is still too soon to write that the possibility the WBC will yet de-evolve into a Jonestown type disaster has passed.
Fred Phelps has earned his place in history and wikipedia, but ultimately failed in his ultimate goal of becoming another martyr for God. There is nothing wrong with being grateful about that.
UPDATE March 22, 2014
On behalf of Nathan Phelps, son of former Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps, Recovering From Religion has issued an official statement, which fits nicely with this post.
Fred Phelps is now the past. The present and the future are for the living. Unfortunately, Fred’s ideas have not died with him, but live on, not just among the members of Westboro Baptist Church, but among the many communities and small minds that refuse to recognize the equality and humanity of our brothers and sisters on this small planet we share. I will mourn his passing, not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been. I deeply mourn the grief and pain felt by my family members denied their right to visit him in his final days. They deserved the right to finally have closure to decades of rejection, and that was stolen from them.
Even more, I mourn the ongoing injustices against the LGBT community, the unfortunate target of his 23 year campaign of hate. His life impacted many outside the walls of the WBC compound, uniting us across all spectrums of orientation and belief as we realized our strength lies in our commonalities, and not our differences. How many times have communities risen up together in a united wall against the harassment of my family? Differences have been set aside for that cause, tremendous and loving joint efforts mobilized within hours…and because of that, I ask this of everyone – let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.
The lessons of my father were not unique to him, nor will this be the last we hear of his words, which are echoed from pulpits as close as other churches in Topeka, Kansas, where WBC headquarters remain, and as far away as Uganda. Let’s end the support of hateful and divisive teachings describing the LGBT community as “less than,” “sinful,” or “abnormal.” Embrace the LGBT community as our equals, our true brothers and sisters, by promoting equal rights for everyone, without exception. My father was a man of action, and I implore us all to embrace that small portion of his faulty legacy by doing the same.