4 Lessons I’ve Learned from the (Hateful) Ministry of Fred Phelps
Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church patriarch, is dying. It’s been revealed that he’d been excommunicated from the church he had pastored for 59 years in August, 2013, and is living out his final days in hospice care.
It’s strange to think that Phelps, a lawyer and founder of a Topeka, KS law firm in 1964, was a huge advocate for civil rights. In fact, Phelps’ small law firm made up 1/3 of the state’s federal docket of 60’s era civil rights cases.
Being Fred Phelps eventually caught up with him. He was disbarred, on both the state and federal level for unethical behavior. Both times it was for aggressive behavior and speech toward witnesses and justices.
The Rise of Westboro Baptist Church
In 1991, Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church began picketing Topeka’s Gage Park, calling it a den of anonymous homosexual activity. Within three years Westboro was picketing all over the United States. Phelps told a Topeka Capital-Journal reporter, “If you are preaching the truth of God, people are going to hate you. And they can’t often or always articulate why, and so they fall back on specious, insincere and false reasons why they hate you. And you swim in a sea of lies. And I love it!”
Wesboro became a household name in 1998 when they picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young, gay man tortured and murdered by two men who had offered to give Shepard a ride home from a lounge. Since that funeral, Westboro became well-known for picketing the funerals of homosexuals, celebrities, and even American servicemen and women. “Enlisted people are dying,” said church members, “because God is punishing America for losing its moral compass.”
Picketing with signs like “God hates fags,” “Pray for more dead soldiers,” and “God hates fag enablers,” the Phelps feel they’re being obedient to God. Being hyper-Calvinists, they have no illusions that anyone will see the light from their behavior. As far as they’re concerned, God has already decided to save whoever he intends to save—their job is to spread and communicate his hatred and anger.
It’s reported by Westboro that, at the height of their picketing, they were annually spending upwards of $250,000 a year.
What can we learn from this man and church that has remained such a thorn in this nation’s side for the last 20+ years?
1. Not everything done from faith is laudable
Some of history’s most atrocious acts have been done by “true believers.” It doesn’t matter how sincerely you believe something stupid and/or dangerous, it’s still stupid/dangerous. Jim Jones doesn’t get a pass on the 900 people he killed even if he believed with all his heart that they’re “revolutionary suicide” was going to usher in a new age.
In a post titled What Would It Take to Admit You’re Wrong?, I discussed the dangers of certainty. Nothing’s lost if your convictions cause you to act charitably and kind to others, but if your strongly held opinions engender hatred, confusion, aggression, and violence, it’s best to hold them carefully. Most likely you’re wrong, and you’re going to do an incredible amount of damage by the time (if) you figure it out.
The sincerity of Phelps’ beliefs do nothing to engender me toward his cause. He was an angry, spiteful man who created God in his own image.
2. We enable what we lavish attention on
After a while, this 40 member (yes, you read that number right) church only had to threaten to picket something for media attention. They’ve received incredible attention for threatening to picket funerals of Steve Jobs, Joe Paterno, and Whitney Houston—none of which they attended.
Think about this for a minute. This small church made primarily of Phelps family members has gained the attention and influence associated with much larger churches because . . . we gave it to them. In the end, they built a national platform to spread their hate out of our outrage.
Why do we go out of our way to heap attention on the lowest common denominator? If we had rolled our collective eyes in the early nineties, they wouldn’t have had the financial ability to continue their mad picketing tour. That’s on us.
(Also, I do see the irony in writing this post in light of point #2—no need to point it out.)
3. It’s dangerous not to question authority
Many churches thrive on a very authoritarian leadership model. I honestly don’t know how this model is biblically justified, but it’s dangerous.
Many of my readers could tell painful stories about the sexual or financial abuses they’ve suffered at the hands of power structures focused on one charismatic individual.
There have been been Westboro insiders that have eventually walked away from the church. They have lost people like Phelps’ son, Nathan, and grandaughters, Grace Phelps and Megan Phelps-Roper. These three have walked away from Westboro and are no longer in contact with most of their family.
But what about the others. The Spiral of Silence suggests that there are others who question what goes on at Westboro but are afraid to speak out. It will be interesting to here some of those raised in the church talk about it someday in retrospect.
The world is full of Hitlers, Mansons, Hubbards, and Phelps who somehow find (or produce) people to fulfill their goofy visions. Where is the critical thinking that would cast doubt on the behavior of these individuals?
4. Only love can conquer hate
As we talked about earlier, we empower the things we pay attention to. And we pour an inordinate amount of energy into outrage. Westboro’s whole platform was built on the fact that we love to be outraged.
The problem is that outrage is easier to manufacture than love. When we spread someone’s message of hate in order to communicate how much we hate it, we’ve only added to the negativity. I picture the river of ectoplasmic slime bubbling under the city of New York and feeding on everyone’s outrage and hatred in Ghostbusters II.
I place my faith in Christ’s cruciform example of triumphing over darkness with sacrificial love. But I need to have faith. Trusting in love is to play a long game. In the short term, love always looks subservient to hate. Hate is more imposing, more intimidating, and more threatening than love. But I will always believe that love wins.
Fred Phelps, you have done more to hurt the gospel, stir up hateful people, and alienate members of society than nearly anyone in the last 20 years. I know that when you step through the veil and look into the face of love, you’ll immediately be overcome with guilt and sorrow for your choices. I sincerely pray for mercy.
The rest of you Phelps? Let’s get your act together, huh?