Fred Phelps, 1930-2014
A titan of hatred has fallen. Fred Phelps, founder-leader of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church and homophobe par excellence, is dead. I don’t know where to go with that. Fred Phelps, dead. Fred Phelps, dead. How do I take that? Do I mourn or rejoice? Should the LGBT community picket his funeral as a last “fuck you” to a man who made so many’s lives Hell, or give the Phelps family and Westboro some respite, time to grieve and mourn?
[Fair Warning: When discussing Westboro, homophobia comes up, as do anti-Americanism and simple bigotry. If these offend you or are triggering, move along. The rest of you, click away…]
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God hates everyone…
Fred Phelps was a man filled with hatred. His God was not the God of modern Christianity, not a compassionate, benevolent father deity Who sent His only son to die for the sins of mankind and to Whom mankind could return by accepting Him. Not for him the Good Shepherd who would leave his flock if one had gone astray. No. Fred Phelps’ God was the God of the Old Testament on an especially bad day, ready to wipe out whole nations if someone crossed Him. The God of Sodom and Gomorrah, the God of the Flood, the God Who stopped the Sun so that Joshua could get his killing done before dusk, the God Who sent two she-bears to eat children because they (the children, not the she-bears) had mocked Elijah’s baldness–this was Fred Phelps’ God.
God didn’t just hate “fags”, as Westboro’s signs famously proclaimed–He hated everyone. America, yes, AIDS patients, sure, the Catholic Church, you bet–but the hate didn’t stop there. No, Westboro theology is a regular hateapalooza! I could go on about who God supposedly hates and why, but basically God hates everyone who isn’t either a member of Westboro or aligned theologically. This might seem counterproductive, but Westboro aren’t exactly mainstream, or even garden-variety fundamentalist. The usual Christian belief about conversion is that it’s a good thing, as the more people converted to the Real True Faith means more who will go to Heaven. This is not the Westboro take on it. Instead, theirs is a Calvinist orthodoxy, a belief in the Elect and the Damned. In a nutshell: God has a list of everyone who will ever be born. Some are marked for salvation and will get into Heaven automatically; everyone else is damned for all eternity. It doesn’t matter how good you were, or that you went to church every Sunday and twice on Christmas and Easter, or even that you were an ordained minister–if your name isn’t on The List, you’re going to Hell for all eternity. Wailing, gnashing of teeth, fire, brimstone, ironic torments, the works. Therefore, proselytizing is a waste of time, seeing as anyone not on The List will burn for eternity anyway. This would be enough to put me in opposition to them–I’m a universalist, Unitarian, and Episcopalian, and generally a wishy-washy when it comes to matters of faith–but the other prong of Westboro theology rankles me yet more.
God is–although this runs through mainstream Christianity, Westboro just takes it to a whole other level–a fantastic grudge-keeper; because Eve ate one damn apple from the Tree of Knowledge, all (unsaved) humanity is automatically doomed to Hell. Mainstream Christianity at least offers a “Get out of Hell” card, however: Accept Jesus and you’re saved. Westboro doesn’t offer this out, and therefore feels free to piss off as many people as possible telling what is, in their view, the truth–we’re all going to Hell, except for Westboro members. Gays are just extra doomed.
Of course, “God hates fags” is hardly unique to Westboro–there are any number of fundamentalists out there who have made homophobia a cornerstone of their ministry. But most of these preach a doctrine of “hate the sin, but love the sinner”–a position I dislike intensely, as it patronises homosexuals, makes them into children incapable of doing better, and covers hatred of homosexuality with a false compassion–and Westboro’s position might best be described as, “hate the sin and the sinner–and the sinner’s society, too”. In a crazy way, I can admire that–the willingness to take an unpopular stance and then defend it constantly and honestly, not bothering to sugar-coat or tone it down one bit. Of course, that stance is evil and hurtful, and counter to everything I stand for; that stance harms those closest to me and me myself; that stance contradicts the values of an open, liberal society which welcomes and protects its members regardless of how they differ from the theoretical norm. It doesn’t make the defence of that stance any less admirable.
But that stance is horrendous, and evil, and all of those other things. I don’t deny that. Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were committed to their respective stances; it doesn’t make them any less reprehensible. I am bisexual. My brother is gay. My friends are all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, or allies. Westboro’s homophobia hurts me and those closest to me. And while it’s refreshing to see a fundamentalist church which doesn’t bind God and country into one big, happy package, I am a patriot whose love of country with all its faults and bigotries and strife trumps whatever criticisms I might offer at the moment–indeed, I feel it strengthens them, in the same way that parodies of a work/genre are arguably strengthened by love of the subject matter. America was founded on one idea: “That all men are created equal…” Over the past 200-some years, that “all men” has expanded from what Thomas Jefferson meant to include all races, creeds, genders, and sexualities. Westboro’s stance isn’t just homophobic–it’s un-American and anti-American. It’s un-Christian, too–at least, counter to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus never said that the Kingdom of Heaven was barred to anyone on account of sexuality; he partied with prostitutes and taxmen. Christians are supposed to accept people without prejudice, love their enemies, and pray for their persecutors. Westboro thinks their enemies are going to Hell and are prejudiced against everyone. Not everyone is a “good Christian”–I acknowledge that–but Westboro goes against the grain of the Gospels and Beatitudes.
The good Phelps did
Provocative idea, I know. That one man and his unreasoning hatred for homosexuals–and everyone else–could do some good, in however twisted a way. But to bring the focus back to the acts of Fred Phelps–the past two sections have focussed on Westboro to the exclusion of all else–the fact is that Fred Phelps has done much good. Not Phelps himself so much as his actions–or rather the reactions to his actions. Though Phelps’ actions later in life were reprehensible, as a teenager he apparently loved his country enough to apply to the United States Military Academy and got in but did not attend. Later, as a lawyer, he took civil rights cases when no-one else would, as he felt that the appalling conditions in which Mississippi blacks lived were un-Christian. It’s tempting to imagine an alternate Fred Phelps who took as his motto “blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” or “inasmuch as you have done for the least of these, you have done for me” and preached the Social Gospel. In such a world, I might be writing a very different post as an off-hiatus warm-up–probably something about the Ukraine or whatever international crisis is preoccupying alt-me.
But counterfactuals and hypotheticals are beside the point. And yes, Westboro and Phelps did good, albeit unintentional good. This isn’t to say that what they did was right; rather, what they did was so wrong that it discredited what others did with similar intent but less extreme methods. Because of Westboro, more moderate homophobes–your Pat Robertsons, your Jerry Falwells, your Mark Driscolls–now have to clarify that they’re not like those people, the ones holding GOD HATES FAGS signs at soldiers’ funerals. It’s always good to have your opponents on the defensive; I don’t think that Westboro is entirely responsible for the growing tolerance of LGBT people over the past forty-some years, but having a bunch of loonies as the public face of the community’s opposition certainly helps.
There’s also the countermovement, and this may be the greatest thing Phelps wrought. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; in some cases the reaction is greater than the action. Westboro picketed, said “fags” were going to Hell, that soldiers were damned for defending their countries. The LGBT community saw an opening, and countered with theatre, mocked the homophobes; veterans rode in to protect the families of the bereaved. In the end, though this is far from over, it’s Westboro and those who are more moderate but still more bigoted that will look absurd. The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice. In the past forty-five years, the LGBT equality movement has moved quicker than any other toward tolerance, civil rights, acceptance. In the end, we will be victors; I can’t see it any other way.
How then should we mourn?
Well, how? This is the big question; how do we deal with the death of a man who was one of our most implacable enemies? To put it as I’ve been phrasing it to myself these past few days: How would Reed Richards or Doctor Doom react to the other’s death? I’ve been asking myself that question for a few days, now, and I still don’t have a satisfactory answer. Nor do I have one answer for the other, related question which has been wandering around my head–should the LGBT community picket Fred Phelps’ funeral?
The answer to the first question depends as much on your personal feelings on the death of one’s enemies–and make no mistake, Phelps was an enemy to the community; I picked the analogy to Richards and Doom entirely intentionally–as it does on your feelings on gay rights or death in general. For my part, I’m torn. I despised Fred Phelps and the rest of his church on principle–because I am a liberal and bisexual and Episcopalian and a northerner and one hundred percent unconditionally for gay rights–yet I can’t celebrate his death as fully as some in the community. It just feels gauche to celebrate the death of an enemy. Maybe that’s Christianity; maybe it’s pacifism; maybe it’s the latent conservatism which forces me into a collared shirt regardless of temperature and to mind the finicky rules of grammar; maybe it’s weakness; maybe it’s some combination of the above. But I can’t unreservedly rejoice in Phelps’ death. As I said on my Tumblr immediately after the story broke, I’m personally mourning the death of a worthy enemy.
I can see both sides of the second question; there are two answers, and I can’t settle for either. On the one hand, we (viz. the LGBT community) should let the Phelpses and Westboro grieve privately, as that is only civil. On the other hand, why? The man never gave AIDS patients, or politicians with whom he disagreed, or soldiers, or their families that much; why shouldn’t those he hurt the most repay the favour? It’s only fitting, anyway; a picket is in some perverse way the best possible sendoff for the man who organised so many. For my part, I won’t participate in any pickets, not because I’m opposed to them–again, I’m on the fence and leaning slightly toward support–but because it’s too far by air.
One last thing
Okay, so it’s more like a few closing thoughts, a housekeeping matter or two, then on to the footnotes.
God, I know that I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m not given to prayer. But I’d be glad if you’d consider this first item:
May the soul of Fred W. Phelps, Sr., never find rest. May he know neither the life nor the torment everlasting. Turn him away at the gates to both Heaven and Hell; let his soul wander the Earth for eternity. Let his name not be forgotten; let his legacy be one of hatred and division, and the memory of how we rose above that division. And when the Sun has swollen to a red giant, when the Earth’s very surface is boiled away, take his soul, O Lord, and smile and say, “nice try”. Then reincarnate him as a soon-to-be-squished ant. Thank You, O Lord, for considering this humble request.
Fred Phelps’ death was in the middle of a web of coincidences: My Spring break started on March 20th. It is also the vernal equinox, and the birthday of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers was, as some of you may know, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and when pressured to add antigay material he refused, saying simply that God loves everyone. Fred Clark–another Fred–based his Phelps obit around this second item and Mr. Rogers’ mother’s advice to him–”Look for the helpers”.
Our final few items are matters of housekeeping and shameless self-promotion.
Housekeeping first. Some may notice that the blog looks a bit different; I revised the header to be less unwieldy and more accurately reflect the content and update schedule (or lack thereof). I’ve also added an about page; the tweaking isn’t quite done. And yes, the hiatus is off. I didn’t build up the backlog I wanted, but I have the ability and free time to write thousands of words with relative ease, nowadays. I may make this layout permanent–not just for triggering topics, but to more easily fit these posts into a single page. If anyone knows how to hyperlink within posts, tell me. I know some find my footnotes awkward to read.
And follow me on Tumblr at tripleaart.tumblr.com and on DeviantArt at docmagnus.deviantart.com. Send any fannage or abuse to email@example.com.
Comments section, take it away!
–Alex Adrian, 3/23/’14
A brief list of people God hates, according to Westboro:
Okay, that’s obvious.
This was before he became a strict Calvinist.
If you steal, steal from the best.
If it’s not too much, God, could You make San Francisco, New York City, and London stops on his route?