The Legacy of Fred Phelps

By Christian Piatt 3-24-2014
Westboro Baptist Protestors, Samuel Perry /
Westboro Baptist Protestors, Samuel Perry /

I suppose it is an indication of how steeped in popular culture I am that the first thing that came to mind when I heard of the death of Westboro Baptist Church founder and former leader Fred Phelps was the song, "Freddie's Dead," by Curtis Mayfield. But although it is a relatively superficial and tangential connection to make, I still prefer that to much of the venom and grave dancing have witnessed since the announcement.

Phelps and his predominantly family-based ministry is best known for their over-the-top protests of everything from gay pride festivals to military funerals, as well as their deeply divisive and inflammatory signs. But given the fact that only a relative handful of people attend Westboro Baptist, and given the extreme nature of their mission and message, Phelps's ability to galvanize and garner the attention of the mainstream media was nothing short of remarkable.

It is less well known that Fred Phelps was kicked out of his own congregation in recent years as the beast of intolerance he had given birth to within his congregation turned even on him. Apparently, even Phelps himself had lost the necessary edge of judgment, anger, and intolerance his followers deemed necessary to champion their cause going forward.

I understand holding great disdain for Phelps, for the ministry he helmed for so many years, and for the profound emotional and spiritual damage wreaked by their media stunts. Aside from the emotional trauma of those who have been the subject of their protests, Christianity as a whole has suffered as some have looked to this twisted caricature as exemplary of the most unattractive dimensions of faith that admittedly has its own checkered history.

What I don't understand, however, are the flippant jokes and the unrestrained expressions of joy over the death of a fellow human being. For one, he was a person – created in the likeness and image of God – however reprehensible we may have found his theology or his treatment of any number of other people. As followers of the way of Jesus, such celebration should be unimaginable.

Second, the end of the life of Fred Phelps does not mark the end of the ministry of Westboro Baptist Church. As noted above, the ministry has been functioning without him for some time already; if anything, it may serve to help venerate him in the eyes of those who might have otherwise questioned his removal from the ministry.

Finally, to express such elation over another's demise is actually a show of weakness. It accedes power over our own spiritual and emotional discipline to the one whose rhetorical poison we allow to contaminate our own personal well. When Jesus called us to respond to hate with love, it was not simply because it was a "nice" thing to do. To refuse to respond in kind to such negativity is to refuse to afford it the power that seeks over us.

And just in case anyone reading this feel that, though this may be an appealing sentiment that it has no grounds in reality, I would offer a short story. About 10 years ago, when our small denomination gathered in Kansas City for our international assembly, folks from the Westboro Baptist Church came to protest the fact that we had a gay and lesbian Christian group participating in the event. One of Fred Phelps's sons actually confronted me on the street and verbally abused me in an attempt to get me to use force against him. I have since learned that such provocations lead to many lawsuits that helped fund their ministry.

I gathered myself and moved on, but what our attending youth offered was so much more moving and powerful. While the Phelps clan stood on one corner, waving their signs about how much God hated fags, our young people drew words and images in sidewalk chalk just across the street. They drew hearts, doves, and phrases like "God loves you" and "we love you."

They ended by circling around the Phelps family, joining hands and singing “Jesus Loves Me” before returning to the assembly hall to continue their planned activities. Suffice it to say that those high school students taught me a great deal about creative nonviolent engagement that day. And had the folks from Westboro Baptist not been there to try and provoke something far more dark and insidious from those in attendance, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to see our kids so beautifully and perfectly reflect Christ to them while we adults stood by and did nothing.

There will always be hate. There will always be intolerance. But it is my hope that, as long as the message of the gospel endures, there will be those among us who seize upon these moments of seemingly overwhelming darkness as an opportunity to let shine an indelible light.

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus . His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date .

Image: Westboro Baptist Protestors, Samuel Perry /

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