A Wasted Life

Fred Phelps, the 84-year-old founder of Westboro Baptist Church (that’s the Wikipedia link; I find it distasteful even to type the WBC’s actual website name), is at death’s door. He may already have died by the time you read this.

It’s fair to say he won’t be missed by the general public. Under his leadership, WBC has been a single-issue activist group, and that single issue was its hatred of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people. The church’s antics, most infamously including picketing military funerals with hateful, homophobic messages on their signs, are sufficiently well-known that I won’t detail them here. They’re nasty people, and especially nasty if you’re LGBT. They’re so nasty that even mainstream conservatives, themselves openly homophobic, disavow them.

Phelps was excommunicated from the WBC, which he founded in 1955, last year. I’ve seen it speculated that he was kicked out because he has softened his views and was calling for the church to take a “kinder approach.”

That’s not accurate. According to Nathan Phelps, Fred’s estranged, atheist son, Fred was calling for church members to be kinder to each other, after a power struggle that ousted his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper from command (I don’t know how Nathan came by this information, estranged as he is, but the church members themselves aren’t talking, so this is the best information we have.). We don’t have any reason to assume Fred isn’t still hatin’ on the gay people just as hard as he ever has.

At least two Facebook groups are preparing to celebrate Fred’s passing. I strongly condemn such actions. Death is a horrible thing, and I don’t think anyone’s death should be celebrated. For one, while it’s a cliché to say that would bring the celebrants down to the level of their antagonists, it’s also true. Yes, it’s not easy to take the high road with such an odious person. That’s why it’s called the high road. If you’re opposed to the beliefs and tactics of Westboro Baptist Church, you should actually be the better person you think you are.

For another, the death of a human being is also the death of learning. Any chance that Fred Phelps ever had to see the wrongness of his beliefs and repent will die when he does, and that is something to be regretted, not celebrated.

Phelps’s legacy is more complicated than most people realize. Yes, he’s an icon of homophobia. However, as an attorney in the 1960s, he also played a significant role in several civil rights advances. He fought against racial discrimination and sex discrimination, and in the 1980s opposed sending an ambassador to Vatican City on separation of church and state grounds. He and his law firm even won commendations and other awards for this work.

When I first learned about Fred’s past prosocial work, I wondered if he might have had a “Phineas Gage” experience. Phineas Gage, a nineteenth-century railroad worker, survived the passage of an iron rod through his brain. In popular lore, it reversed his personality, changing him from a hard-working, kind man into a shiftless, quick-tempered drunk. The truth is more nuanced than that, but similar things have happened to other people. Might Phelps have had an undetected stroke or aneurysm that caused his shift from tolerance to hate?

In interviews, Phelps has claimed there’s no dissonance between his homophobia and his support for racial and gender equality. Certainly, he wouldn’t be the first clergyman who managed to thread that needle with his theology, and in any case, Phelps’s church has stood behind him the whole way, so unless every congregant has suffered the same traumatic brain injury, we probably shouldn’t assume any such thing.

Westboro Baptist Church’s mischief continues without Fred Phelps, so when he dies, it won’t end. So that’s not another reason for anyone to cheer. There’s no reason for anyone to cheer.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with you. Celebrating his death does nothing to undo the harm he’s done nor does it solve everything his church will do in the future using his name. I find it sad that he will pass away never realizing the extent of the damage he has caused or the unnecessary hurt he’s inflicted on families and communities.

    Ironically, I imagine when he passes and realizes what he’s done, his first two words will be “Oh, shit…”

  • I agree with you, Vandy. Celebrating this man’s passing would be adding more fuel to his hate-loving congregant’s fires. It just stirs up the pot and gives them more recognition, more publicity, which they desperately crave, and more exposure. Without his strong leadership (it would be hard to believe that there’s one that could take his place) they may eventually die out or at the least fade from the spotlight. I would really hate to see their vitriol continue but then I blame the media for giving them such a strong stage to play on as well.

  • vbg

    Well, they’re already without his leadership, Patricia. As I noted, he’s been excommunicated.

  • Dal Coger

    1st of all, you state, ” death is a horrible thing” ; Well that it totally wrong. Death is not a horrible thing; it is part of life; everyone dies and the sooner everyone accepts that without fear the happier they will be. Now the death of Fred Phelps may not be a horrible thing, although for him is is probably a welcome relief; can you imagine living inside that twisted mind your entire life? Most people who are that evil and unpleasant probably are undergoing constant emotional distress and have to project it out to make themselves feel better. I agree that we shouldn’t celebrate bad people’s deaths; I have tremendous admiration for the Amish ( I don’t think I could actually follow an Amish lifestyle) Those guys are incredibly forgiving; That is the solution, i think; forgiving people like Fred Phelps.

  • IrishSpike67

    Sorry, Dal, I disagree with you. Death IS a horrible thing if you’ve lived most of your life being a hate monger. Vandy is correct in saying that death is horrible for someone like Fred Phelps. What chance does he have now to let go of his vile hatred? Zilch. Now, I actually believe there’s an afterlife but I think ol’ Fred is going to end up among like-minded individuals, all being hellish together. I believe in God but I don’t think S/He “sends” us anywhere. We create the afterlife here and now and I have to feel sorry for the old fool, Mr. Phelps. What kind of life did he have, being so nasty and hateful? And now it’s too late…so, yeah, death IS horrible, if it means you never learned to love in this life and now it’s too late…