How do you solve a problem like Fred?

Reportedly, the Rev. Fred Phelps, the longtime head of the Topeka, Kan.-based hate group the Westboro Baptist Church, is in hospice care [Phelps passed away on Mar. 19th ed.]. His son Nathan Phelps, one of several Phelps children and grandchildren to escape the controversial group best known for its offensively named website and its picketing of funerals, has posted that the elder Phelps was recently excommunicated from the unaffiliated church.

Some have reacted to the news of Fred Phelps’ final days with glee. There have been jokes about whether the WBC would picket his funeral in a final act of meta commentary/irony/absurdity; others have said that his is the only funeral they’d ever want to picket. And, as when the Rev. Jerry Falwell exited the stage, others have voiced a general relief at his upcoming absence from the national discourse.

Nathan’s Facebook post about his father’s ill health, and his and other walkaways’ being shut off from contact with the patriarch, stirred different emotions in my heart. Nathan left the church and his family the day he turned 18, alleging physical and emotional abuse; he’s now a straight ally to the LGBTQ community and heads up the atheist-leaning Center for Inquiry branch in Calgary.

But Fred Phelps is his father. He is a husband and a grandfather. There are people who love him, even if that love is only one of many mixed and conflicting emotions, and I like to think that this fact alone would be sufficient to explain why I can’t find it in myself to rejoice at the prospect of his death.

There’s more, though. Fred Phelps is a case study in things going wrong over the course of a life; in what happens when a force for good somehow, for some reason we’ll likely never go, gets turned and goes the opposite direction.

Before he was a nationally known homophobe, Fred Phelps was a civil rights attorney at a time when there was a clear and present danger to life and limb associated with that vocation. He worked to secure the civil rights and voting rights of African Americans. And he valued the First Amendment’s separation of church and state even into the 1980s, criticizing the Reagan administration’s appointment of an ambassador to Vatican City as a violation of the Establishment Clause. And he was already an associate pastor or pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church through this time.

It wasn’t until about 1991 that Fred Phelps and his congregation started drawing attention for their anti-gay activism. I heard about them pretty early on as the Internet started to come into its own, and I’ve harbored a morbid curiosity about them over the years. In my first year of seminary, Nathan Phelps was kind enough to be interviewed for one of my course projects, and I’ve followed his career — which I see as a work in trying to redeem the family name — with great interest and enthusiasm.

Given the very limited view of people the Westboro Baptist Church seems to expect are in God’s good graces, I imagine it would rankle the membership to know that my own view of Fred Phelps has been observed by a couple of friends to sound more Jewish than my background in Christianity would usually inspire: I mourn the lost potential in Fred Phelps’ life, the way his start as a force for good somehow led to his becoming a force of intolerance and cultural division; I grieve that like Jerry Falwell, he seemingly never reached a moment of clarity that would have given him the chance to recant hateful words and try to heal some of the wounds he had inflicted; and I feel a solidarity for Nathan and his fellow escapees, who must try to do not only their own work in healing the world but also feel a need to carry an extra portion to repair the damage Fred and other relatives have wrought.

I won’t dance on Fred Phelps’ grave. The good part of him seemingly died long ago. And rather than making a tacky scene upon his death, instead of lowering oneself to the ethical standard his strange cult has embraced with great gusto, I’d recommend that those who wish to take note of his death do something more constructive instead:

Donate money to an LGBTQ rights organization, or to the Centers for Inquiry, or to child abuse intervention efforts or mental health research.

Counter hatred with love. Send a sympathy card to the church. Do so without irony. (But I’d understand if you don’t wish to include a return address.)

And perhaps most importantly, if you live in or near Topeka, do not picket Fred Phelps’ funeral … if the church even has one, which seems to be its open question. (They apparently have called funerals “worship of the dead.”) Instead, and here’s where you get the gold star in humanity and maybe a write-in vote for the Nobel Peace Prize … show up and act as a human buffer to protect his family from picketers, the same way so many have done to protect other grieving families from the Westboro Baptist Church in the past.

We get no points for returning hateful and obnoxious behavior with more of the same.

I don’t really believe in a heaven, but if I did, I’d like to think Fred Phelps’ arrival would go something like this: Initial shock at seeing so many people, of such different varieties, past the obligatory pearly gates; and St. Peter telling him he’ll have plenty of time to meet his new neighbors, but he’ll need to go watch the Remedial Compassion video presentation in the new arrivals orientation center, which should last about 15 minutes, no big deal.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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5 thoughts on “How do you solve a problem like Fred?

  1. Jason,

    I appreciate your post. I wrestle with this entire situation. As someone who teaches religion at a state university, Westboro Baptist is often cited by my students as the harmfully destructive potential of religion in our world. (And it does seem that the church highlights extreme exclusivity, hateful praxis, and deleterious consequences for members and many outside of the church.)

    I did not know that Fred Phelps worked within the civil rights movement, so thanks for humanizing him and his story. This post helps me (even if slightly) to have more compassion toward his passing.


  2. Jason,
    Thank you very much for your thoughts on the passing of Mr. Phelps. You managed to hit the heart of what many of us in interfaith deal with in situations of conflict. We “mourn the lost potential in Fred Phelps’ life, the way his start as a force for good somehow led to his becoming a force of intolerance and cultural division”. We know that even those that seem incapable truly are capable of compassion and understanding. We want so much for them to rediscover their potential for loving their neighbor in the middle of all of our circumstances.
    A quote by Desmon Tutu articulates this notion well, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.

  3. Jason, this is a great post, and you give voice to much of what I’ve been thinking and feeling since Fred Phelps’ death. If we choose to react to his death in the same way that he and his church reacted to so many other deaths, we haven’t learned anything and still have a long way to go. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for the feedback, all. The last week has brought me back time and again to two thoughts:

    People are never — or at least very seldom — just one thing.

    And, paraphrasing Sister Helen Prejean, judging a person solely by the worst thing he or she ever did is a morally dangerous business.

  5. Atheist here, for me there is no heaven, no hell. All we do must be here in this world, in this time we have in the here and now. That Mr. Phelps chose to turn to being an intolerant purveyor of hate is his legacy. That’s too bad. They don’t recognise the harm he caused them, not yet. Maybe like him they will have a softening of their views but the sad thing is generation after generation are being indoctrinated.

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