The news that Fred Phelps, the 84-year-old founder of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., has died drew predictable reactions from just about everyone, from anger, to glee to relief. Phelps and the congregation, which includes most of his many children and their children, have become best known for protests arising out of their disgust of homosexual behavior and their hatred for every gay.
In recent years, they have picketed memorial services for U.S. military casualties of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, claiming the deaths themselves were God’s judgment for America’s toleration of gays. Virtually everyone has seen photograph’s of Westboro members — often referred to simply as “the Phelps family” — brandishing crude signs proclaiming “God Hates Fags.”
Word began circulating a couple of weeks before the patriarch’s death that he was indeed on his deathbed. His estranged son Nate broached the matter of his father’s impending death as additional reports surfaced that Phelps had recently been voted out of membership at Westboro after calling for a kinder approach among members as a male board of elders defeated his daughter in a power struggle.
If true, that appeal is ironic. Observers saw Phelps as anything but kind or gentle — in fact, just the opposite. Instead, Westboro members emulate the abrasive persona Phelps himself cultivated as the pastor/patriarch of the church/clan. Some refer to him and his offspring as the most hated family in America.
Phelps didn’t start out where he ended up in life. He was ordained a Southern Baptist minister in 1947. But Westboro, which he founded in 1955, doesn’t claim a denominational affiliation. A lawyer by profession, Phelps specialized in civil rights cases challenging Jim Crow laws in the 1960s. Years later, he was disbarred.
The pickets started in 1991 with a demonstration at a Topeka park known to be frequented by gays. Westboro began to gain national attention when they appeared at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student whose 1998 murder prompted hate-crime legislation in several states.
Small groups of Westboro picketers regularly showed up at religious meetings like the Southern Baptist Convention carrying their trademark signs. SBC, American Baptist and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leaders, among many others, denounced the congregation’s activities.
Church leaders suggested after Phelps’ death that there would be no funeral for him because the congregation doesn’t worship its dead. That also will ensure that Phelp’s funeral itself will not be the object of counter-picketers, but it hasn’t stopped many people from proclaiming their delight at his passing via social media.
Comments about his death have been predictably brutal, some even suggesting that the pastor/picketer likely did not make it into heaven as he left this world. Others have wondered aloud and in print what afterlife punishment might have awaited Phelps, who inflicted such hate and pain in the name of God on gays and anyone who took issue with Phelps’ position on the issue.
Fred Phelps may have envisioned his own gravestone and the words that would appear on it at his death. As of this writing, that has not yet been made known. Nor has the whereabouts of his final earthly resting place been disclosed. Perhaps it will be within the Westboro compound, where many among his extended family live.
Phelps relished criticism of his tactics and seemed to covet the notoriety he and his clan achieved for what can only be described as hate-mongering. His church has given no indication that it will change its ways but will only add to its record of conducting more than 50,000 pickets in more than 900 towns and cities to date.
On the subject of homosexuality, Phelps practiced “hate the sin and hate the sinner.” He apparently regarded homosexuality as a sin for which there could be no repentance and no forgiveness. That’s where he parted company with the likes of other faith groups, many of which believe homosexuality is sinful behavior but also hold that no one is beyond the grace and mercy of a loving God.
Fred Phelps has left a legacy, not a rich one but a distorted and destructive one.
Intentionally or not, Phelps created a congregation — literally a family — with perverse views about Christ, about God and about the church. In his hateful zeal, he has hindered the church and its witness, and misrepresented the work of Christ.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.