by Linda Ryan
Fred Phelps is dead. The founder and patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) died in Topeka, Kansas, Wednesday, March 19th, of an undisclosed illness. He was 84 at the time of his death. Fred Phelps and his church are highly recognizable names to much of America, and that was (and is) the way they want it.
Phelps and his followers are most known for their picketing of funerals of those with whom they vehemently disagree: those who died of AIDS, young gay men like Matthew Shepard and even the very straight Jerry Falwell who, in the opinion of the WBC, didn’t go far enough in condemning homosexuality. They picketed the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that God struck them down for defending the US and its increasing acceptance of homosexuality.
Their fame, or notoriety, grew through those outrageous public acts which they claimed as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The church, mostly made up of Phelps’ family members, included a number of lawyers all too ready to file suit against anyone who curtail their appearances or rights to be as vocal and obnoxious as they chose. One case against them went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that they could not be sued for monetary damages resulting from mental or physical anguish caused by the WBC’s demonstration at a family funeral. The WBC was guaranteed the right of free speech – but the door was also opened for other groups, on any side of a given issue, to have their say, no matter whether or not they conformed to what was generally considered the religious or social norms of the majority.
As Phelps aged, he went out less and less, leaving the active demonstrating to his family. Gradually, it seems, his influence with the church also waned and leadership of the congregation changed to non-family members. According to some news reports, Phelps was excommunicated from the church he had founded because he had endeavored to create a kinder relationship among church members. Somehow, given the images of Fred Phelps, the word “kind” does not seem to fit. Who knows? Away from the spotlight he might have been a real prince.
Members of the WBC appeared to indicate that Phelps would not have a funeral because the church does not believe in “Worshipping the dead,” as they stated it. How ironic that the man who picketed so many funerals would not be having one of his own, but then, perhaps it is just as well. For some, the opportunity to retaliate in kind might just be too strong to resist.
One thing I wonder, though, is if there is anyone who is really mourning Fred Phelps? His family seems divided between those who left the church years ago and were estranged from the patriarch and those who stayed on and carried on the mission he had laid before them. There are reports of abuse from some of Phelps’s many children, but others say he took a Biblical view of punishment and did it strictly by Biblical standard. But do any of them mourn his passing? Certainly the WBC isn’t draping itself in funereal black and planning a grand sendoff for the founder of their congregation. The communiqué on their website is a scripture-laced (if highly selective choice and interpretation of text) condemnation of much of what mainstream (and even outside-the-mainstream) Christian communities stand for.
The GLBTI community, people who have probably more reason to rejoice than just about anybody, has those who have expressed joy and relief that Fred is no longer among the living. On the other hand, there are also a number who have expressed their belief that God will judge Phelps and that they had no need or right to do so. There have been prayers offered for him, just as for anyone who has died. Some too have offered forgiveness for the unrepentant Phelps. They take the words of Jesus very much to heart and forgive for their own soul’s sake as much as to release any ill will and resentment against him.
In a way, it is said that Fred Phelps did gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons (GLBTI) a kindness with his rhetoric of hate and outrageous public behavior. People looked at the WBC and its antics and began to see GLBTI in a slightly different light, especially as family members and friends began to come out. How odd that the current climate of growing acceptance of equality between straights and GLBTI began with such hatred and malice. There is still a long way to go before globally and even here in the United States that GLBTIs can enjoy all the rights and benefits their straight counterparts already enjoy, but it getting closer. It seems almost ironic that such progress could begin with someone like Fred Phelps and his religion of hatred and judgment.
So what now for poor Fred? Is his fate to be laid in a wooden box and whisked away to an undisclosed grave where he will become part of the regeneration of the earth but without any kind of marker to attract unwanted attention? Will he become another resident in a local cemetery that will grow into a tourist attraction? Will he be cremated and his ashes scattered to the four winds? Has he reached the pearly gates and had God say in a kindly voice, “Hullo, Fred, I’ve been waiting for you. Come on over here; I have a few things to explain to you …” or perhaps he’s been met by Matthew Shepard and all those whose funerals he tried so hard to disrupt?
Still, I have to wonder, is there anyone to mourn Fred and to grieve for the man who made a decision to fight the civil law instead of defending it and instead to push for his version of God’s law instead of following the footsteps of Jesus? Will anyone regret his passing and miss his presence in their lives?
Fred Phelps was and is not the only person of his kind, but was undoubtedly the most openly vocal and visible about it, saying loudly and often crudely things that some think but dare not express aloud. There are still those who openly agree with every word he said and applaud every public demonstration of those words. Conversely, there are some who are on the exact opposite end of the scale with most others falling in between the two.
The Westboro Baptist Church will go on with its same activities, under new leadership, raising up a new generation to follow in its footsteps. The world will continue turning and life will go on, sometimes changing laterally, sometimes regressing, sometimes progressing. Fred Phelps is now a part of history and, as a baptized Christian, part of the Communion of Saints although I suspect he will never be listed in the bracket for Lent Madness*. I wonder if, in a hundred years or even fifty years, people will look back and wonder about Fred Phelps and pray that he has received the justice and mercy God promises to all.
Rest in peace, Fred.
*Lent Madness is a wonderfully informative and highly amusing Lenten practice from the publishing house that brings us the daily devotional Forward Day by Day. It features saints both ancient and modern pitted against each other in a format much like that of the NCAA. To see it in action, please visit Lent Madness and join in the contest.