Mar 23, 2014

Fred Phelps, Sr., 1929 - 2014

Fred Phelps, Sr., who lead a small religious group dedicated to declaring God's judgement by picketing funerals, has died at 84.

Phelps founded his independent Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas in 1955, but only rose to national prominence in the 1990s, picketing at the funerals of AIDS victims. In 1998, Phelps led his followers in a protest at the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, a gay university student whose brutal death inspired hate crime legislation. The church, Westboro Baptist Church, used the occasion to proclaim its message, "God Hates Fags." Phelps said it was simple: "the sodomites have taken over the country, and this country has given itself over to immorality. We want to warn the nation, let them know that God is not going to let this country get by with that kind of degeneracy."

In the 2000s, Phelps' profile was raised further when the church protested or tried to protest at the funerals of soldiers who had been killed fighting in Iraq, declaring that God was punishing America for its tolerance.

According to the 2007 documentary Fall from Grace, the church was spending about $200,000 per year traveling to protests around the country.

On news of his death, the Topeka-Capitol Journal described Phelps as "vitriolic, outspoken and reviled," and noted he would likely be remembered for his "willingness to hate."

Westboro said their founder should rather be remembered as one who "preached a plain faithful doctrine to an ever darkening world."

Phelps and his church were often described in news reports as "controversial." This was not really true, however. Phelps was perhaps the least controversial religious leader in America. Everyone opposed him.

Phelps, circa the founding of
Westboro Baptist in the 1950s
Tim Miller, professor of religious studies at The University of Kansas, noted he couldn't think of anyone else or any other group as universally reviled.

Ryan Jones, who made a documentary on the Westboro Baptists in 2007, said he found that, for the most part, Phelps' views were so out of the norm that "they're seen as almost foolish rather than offensive."

Even figures from the far right, who are generally regarded as hateful and unacceptable by the American mainstream, considered Phelps to be really hateful and unacceptable. Bryan Fischer, a Christian radio show host who openly calls for discrimination against gays and lesbians, says Phelps was a homophobe. Dennis LaBonte, a self-identified Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, said Phelps was bringing shame on America. The late Jerry Falwell, who once said terrorist attacks were God's punishment of America for secularization, called Fred Phelps "a first-class nut."

Phelps, for his part, led protests against both Falwell and Fischer.

Some on the left have also noted that Phelps was, in some ways, good for progressive causes.

As Jay Michaelson writes:
Phelps was one of the LGBT community's best friends -- precisely because he was so outrageous . . . Phelps was like the emperor with no clothes on. There was nothing disguising his feelings; he made it clear that being anti-gay really was all about hate
For religious people in particular, he also crystallized the theological choice. Sure, you could say 'hate the sin, love the sinner.' But when Westboro came to town, they made it excruciatingly clear what hate really looked like. Being anti-gay started to look more and more like a prejudice -- or worse. Moderates deserted in droves.
In the public discourse, the man was a kind of walking, shouting, sign-waving reductio ad absurdum. He seemed like someone who had gone to great lengths to transform himself into a cartoon villain.

This made counter-protests of Westboro Baptist quite popular. It was, for some, an experience of catharsis. As Ryan Lopez writes in Slate, "In shouting down the Phelpses, you're also shouting down every bigoted family member, childhood bully, and homophobic co-worker you've ever encountered."

For others, it was an incredibly easy way to take a stand. Picketing Phelps' picketers was a way for Americans to distinguish themselves from those who live in hate and to come together around something that seemed positive. Whatever differences Americans had, they agreed that Phelps was wrong. In a time of deep cultural divisions, he even made it possible for soldiers' funerals to be profoundly unifying for Americans.

"The truth is," writes Richard Kim in the Nation, "Fred Phelps made a lot of us feel pretty great about ourselves."

Phelps, for his part, relished being reviled. He took it as a sign he was a true minister of the gospel. Reading hate mail reportedly made him smile.

He was unaffiliated with any broader religious group, but identified as a Primitive Baptist and five-point Calvinist. He especially touted the doctrine of double predestination. He appealed selectively to Puritan literature when arguing with other Christians (and other Calvinists) about whether or not God loved of hated humanity. Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, was a particular favorite.

"The mission of the church," Phelps said, "is to preach to a doomed world, to let them know about the second coming of Jesus. It's not going to be pretty. Look at the world of Noah. In his day there were 12 to 16 billion people on Earth, and only eight got out of that flood alive. The world is going to be devoured by fire."

A Westboro document opposing the idea that "God loves everybody" says that all other Christians accept that doctrine, but that idea of God's love is actually Satanic.

According to the church, this is biblical:
Have you ever wondered how many times 'God loves everyone' is found in the Bible -- 20, 50, 100, 200? Have you ever wondered if it appears in the New Testament or Old Testament or both? Have you ever wondered who said these words or who they are attributable to? Have you ever wondered how many times Jesus said 'God loves everyone?' As a matter of uncontroverted fact the phrase 'God loves everyone' never appears in the Bible. You can search from Genesis to Revelation, including looking in all 66 books, 1,189 chapters, 31,173 verses and 774,746 words and you will never find this phrase. Period.

. . . 'God loves everyone' is straight from the mind of Satan and his ministers that serve him. In essence 'God loves everyone' means that man can lead a sinful life, violate the commandments of God daily, not fear Him and still go to heaven.
Though small, and made up mostly of family members, Westboro will likely continue on uninterrupted in its work, despite Phelps' death.

He had been sick for a while, and not part of the day-to-day operations. Phelps was reportedly excommunicated from the church last year. There was a power struggle between one of Phelps' daughters, a lawyer and a spokeswoman for the group, and a newly formed board of elders, made of six men, three of whom are related to Phelps. The board removed Phelps' daughter from leadership, and the struggle reportedly prompted the patriarch to plead with the church to be kind to each other.

Phelps was then exiled, and moved then into hospice care in Topeka, Kansas, according to an estranged son who was also excommunicated from the church.

Westboro disputes these characterizations. It says it has no leadership but Jesus. The church also warns against taking false hope from Phelps' death:
If every little soul at the Westboro Baptist Church were to die at this instant, or to turn from serving the true and living God, it would not change one thing about the judgments of God that await this deeply corrupted nation and world. That is the pinnacle of your hopes, and by far the most vain. Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, or the power of God.  
There is only one hope for any human -- inside or outside of this little church -- that God gives you repentance unto salvation.
Phelps will not have a funeral, according to family.