Fred Phelps, the “God Hates Fags” chronic cleric protester from so-called Westboro Church, who died yesterday, proved America’s endless capacity to hype charlatans and kooks. He became a national personality because he persuaded his family cult of several dozen children, grandchildren and in-laws to follow his absurd crusade.
Many of the Phelps progeny are lawyers, so they sustained their sect by litigation, often against their adversaries, while spending reputedly hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to demonstrate around the country. Their signage was printed at their own print shop.
Phelps was himself a disbarred lawyer who in his early years apparently litigated against racial segregation. He presided over his Westboro Church in Topeka for nearly 60 years. Professing to be Baptist but not tied to any denomination, it touts a deviant form of Calvinism that emphasizes divine hatred for the wicked.
The Westboro protests started in the early 1990s and were from nearly the beginning a media sensation. They targeted any event or personage remotely tied to homosexuality, demonstrating against flamboyant movie stars and conservative Evangelical clergy, from Elizabeth Taylor to Jerry Falwell.
Media interest temporarily declined when Phelps targeted the Iraq War, which he bizarrely assailed as one more exertion in defense of homosexuality. He even dispatched family members to Iraq before the invasion, with permission from Saddam Hussein’s regime. But the close media attention resumed when Phelps began protesting at military funerals to denounce soldiers who ostensibly fought for homosexuality. Dozens of state legislatures passed laws attempting to protect funerals from Phelps. Counter-demonstrators tried to block his access. It was a lot of hoopla over one nutty man and his handful of family followers.
For all the ponderous analysis of Phelps, few have admitted the obvious. He was however unconsciously a best friend to homosexual and liberal sexual advocacy. Angry, southern (from Mississippi), white-skinned and white-haired, irrational, proudly hateful, hectoring, supposedly Christian and Baptist, Phelps was the living embodiment of what enlightened social liberals imagined hardcore social conservatives were really like.
Or if they actually knew better, especially in the media, then he was a convenient stereotype to discredit traditionalists. Sometimes media reports, while carefully highlighting his “God Gates Fags” signage, merely described him as a Baptist pastor, implying his views were not uncommon in that demographic. He was the much needed and entirely cooperative foil to the secular zeitgeist’s demand for the deification of “tolerance.”
Had Phelps campaigned with hateful placards against Catholics, or vegetarians, likely his media notoriety would have been nonexistent. But he shrewdly chose the hottest of hot buttons in his quest for media fame, playing fully to the typecasting so desired for discrediting Christian and traditionalist sexual norms. Did he actually have any real convictions of his own, or was he merely a huckster? The answer to his motivations and psychology is mostly unimportant. His shabby historical significance is that he played a not inconsiderable supporting role in the ongoing Kulturkampf to eradicate traditional religious faith and ethics from public life by stigmatizing them as hateful.
What’s the best way to handle sorts like Phelps and Westboro who are essentially nihilists craving attention for validation? When I was growing up, the American Nazi Party was headquartered in my hometown of Arlington, Virginia. Their founder, George Lincoln Rockwell, was assassinated near my home. He reputedly once confided that he didn’t really have Nazi views but invented the party to achieve celebrity, at which he was successful.
I often walked by Nazi headquarters, where a Hitler portrait and Swastika banners were plainly visible through the window. Every Independence Day for years the Nazis marched in the local July 4 parade, in uniform, a half dozen clearly troubled souls. A few booed, but most onlookers were silent. Undoubtedly the Nazis hoped for confrontation, or at least an attempt to ban them from the parade. Instead, they were mostly ignored. Eventually, they quit Arlington for a new location before dissolving.
Ideally Phelps and Westboro too would have been ignored as irrelevant and unserious, representing almost no one. But they were too useful as props in our current culture wars. To be fair, conservative Christians sometimes highlighted Phelps to burnish their own credentials. I confess partial guilt, having drafted a news release condemning Phelps in the 1990s for a coalition of conservative Mainline Protestant caucuses. We, or at least I, half hoped Westboro might demonstrate against us. Instead, we only merited a hectoring phone call from a Westboro member denouncing our “heresy.” Oh well. They evidently had bigger fish to fry.
So good-bye, and good riddance, to Rev. Phelps. He performed his sordid role on the stage to near perfection. He professed to believe in divine judgment, ardently wishing it on others. I doubt he, as a huckster, really believed in hell or much of anything. But now he knows for sure what the other side looks like. And he knows the consequences for discrediting the faith to the delight of its scornful critics.