ACCORDING TO A Facebook post of his estranged son, Nathan, Fred Phelps Sr, the founder of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, is dying. There’s an undeniable aesthetic appeal in the prospect of Mr. Phelps soon meeting his Maker, but this indulgence presumes far more than I can manage. My own view, if you care to know, is that Phelps will die and dissolve and remain forever in a condition of no condition whatsoever.
This anti-theistic position is the most through repudiation of the man and everything he stood for. In life, Phelps evaded prison on several occasions, and in my view at least he’ll also escape the punishments of the non-existent hereafter. This means I’ll never be able to enjoy the comfort, or whatever it is, of contemplating his eternal damnation. But then again, what if I did avail myself of this sadistic revelry, like the early Christian theologian Tertullian “admiring, laughing and rejoicing” at the sight of the tormented?
The answer to this is that I would be much like Phelps himself. It’s not that I have any kind feelings toward a man who, in the words of Mary Elizabeth Williams, lived a life of “the most callous, consistent viciousness.” Nate Phelps has spent the past two and a-half decades exposing and condemning the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, characterizing his father as “cruelly, viciously violent – physically, verbally and psychologically.” In Nate’s view, Fred Phelps established the church in 1955 for the purpose of venting his hate, which by all accounts is considerable.
Phelps has described himself as a “Primitive Baptist,” although he is condemned by representatives of this theological tradition. His beliefs, as they concern damnation and salvation, conform to the doctrines of Calvinism. Phelps, according to an exhaustive Q&A posted on the church’s website, believes in the doctrines of pre-destination and the elect, meaning that at the beginning of the world God chose the saved as well as the damned.
Needless to say, the chosen are few, the damned many. The Westboro Baptist Church therefore protests and vilifies entire nations, as well as entire religious traditions, including Judaism and Roman Catholicism. Phelps’ targets have included American Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr., Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, Conservative Washington Republicans and Bill O’Reilly. The list of those Phelps at one time courted, and even in some cases praised, is short, but just as odd: it includes Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Saddam Hussein.
The unifying theme and active principle of Phelps’ apparenty scattershot theology is sadism. Phelps’ theological determinism claims that God has elected you, long before you were even born, for eternal perdition and torment. There’s nothing that you can do about it: it’s God’s will. And in the short time that you are a wretch and alive on this Earth, it is fitting and proper that you should be abused, cajoled and otherwise baited and attacked by God’s Chosen Few.
The point often missed, even by his harshest critics, is that Phelps was not your ordinary “repent and be saved” crusader. The redemption or “saveability” of his targets was never a consideration – Phelps was in the sadistic business of rubbing salt into the wounds it was the pleasure and will of God to have inflicted. The cruelty of Phelps’ psychology is perfectly summarized in a metaphor employed by King Lear’s Gloucester. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” Phelps was a sportsman-accomplice, gleefully attending as the wings are capriciously pulled from the victims.
As vicious and stupidly mean-spirited as Phelps was, there is nothing in his theological handbag that is without historical precedent. His doctrines have enjoyed wide currency throughout the Christian era, and only his erratic and exhibitionist applications have distinguished him. “God hates fags” was a clever piece of marketing, a way to get free press (an obsession of his), but it was also a forceful re-statement of existing prejudices. For this reason Phelps was able, as recently as 2005, to hold successful signature drives for motions that would have repealed anti-hate-crime and anti-workplace-discrimination city ordinances. He lost this Topeka battle by a 53–47% margin, just as he was denied the 1998 Governorship of Kansas primary in a vote that yielded him 14% of the ballots, “only” 15,233 citizens considering him fit for the state’s highest office.
In August of last year, Fred Phelps was ejected from the Westboro Baptist Church for reasons that have been kept to the church’s membership. Given the subsequent behavior of the congregation, the expulsion is not indicative of a change of heart or a change of direction. Westboro Baptist continues to picket funerals and to applaud every American misfortune, from earthquakes to school mass shootings, as the glorious work of an angry, hateful and vindictive God. Along the way encouraging grassroots movements, like the Patriot Guard Riders, have emerged to repudiate the work of this church and to spread a contrasting message of respect and decency.
The current face of the Westboro Baptist Church is spokesman Steve Drain, a filmmaker who went from documenting the church to embracing it. His daughter Lauren, a nurse and ex-member, today calls for peace and change: “As a nurse I can say that every man & woman deserves the right to make peace with themselves, their family & their God on their death bed.” A commendable sentiment, and a decisive breaking with Westboro’s ugly legacy. An even more thorough repudiation would be to further confront the church’s beliefs head-on, and to finish the work of people like Nate Phelps and the Patriot Guard Riders, by making it clear to this church that hate in all its forms is not the work of God, but instead of small and broken people.