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4 Lessons I’ve Learned from the (Hateful) Ministry of Fred Phelps

fred-phelps-400x240Fred 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?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. I am very curious as to what your basis is for the “hyper-Calvinist” reference in your commentary. Not that Westboro is orthodox in any stretch of the imagination, but most non-Rformed Baptists I run across (starting with my own father) pretty much reject Calvinism out of hand, so I find the association a bit puzzling.

    What is the point of the comment, anyway?

    March 19, 2014
    • Thanks for your question. The Westboro Baptist form of Calvinism is well documented. The last article I read was Joanie Eppinga’s great piece in Sojourners entitled The Face of Hate, but you can find their beliefs on their own website: Manifesto of Westboro Baptist Church. If you have any question about their hyper-calvinism, just check out the last comment on that page.

      To every lover of Arminian lies — believing and preaching that God loves every individual of mankind — we say, You are going to Hell! Period! End of discussion! God’s decree sending you to Hell is irreversible! Hypocrites! How can ye escape the damnation of Hell?!

      The point of the comment is that I thought it was relevant.

      March 19, 2014
      • Thanks for the clarification. Actually, I’ve never bothered to even see if WBC even had a website or a published “this we believe” because one can pretty much recognize dogma when one sees it.

        On the other hand, not to put too fine a point on it, but seems to me a bit of a misnomer — they don’t seem to be really even in the same zip code as the ongoing hyper-Calvinist debates I am seeing in some of the Reformed circles – primarily the PCA which I am aware of mainly from being a Ruling Elder in that denomination. Quite frankly, I am not sure how to characterize them because I find their complete over-the-top hatemongering to be outside the basic theme of TULIP itself.

        Anyway, thanks for the response and the pointer to their website, and also the Eppinga piece, which I intend to read shortly.

        March 19, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Breaking – CSMonitor – Fred Phelps legacy . . . 03/18/2014 « Emergence International
  2. Fred Phelps legacy: Should Westboro Baptist founder be picketed? | NEWS U.S. JOURNAL
  3. Fred Phelps legacy: Should Westboro Baptist founder be picketed? (+video) – Christian Science Monitor | GreatNewsUpdate
  4. Today in Blogworld 03.21.14 - Borrowed Light

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