fred phelps

2014 in Review: An Unsettling Year, with Religion in a Starring Role

Photo via WikiMedia Commons / RNS.

ISIS' flag incorporates the shahada and the seal of Muhammad in its design. Photo via WikiMedia Commons / RNS.

For most of recorded history, Isis was an Egyptian goddess, a benevolent type who cared for widows and orphans, cured the sick and even brought the dead back to life.

This year, the world met the other ISIS.

The rise of the so-called Islamic State, variously known as ISIS or ISIL, dominated headlines in 2014 as a self-proclaimed caliphate sowed death and destruction across Iraq and Syria.  For some, the group confirmed their worst fears about Muslim extremists, bent on killing religious minorities and subjugating women in a quest for domination that included leveling villages and beheading hostages.

The terror wrought by the Islamic State reflected a sense of turbulence that upended international news in 2014. But it was not the only source of unrest. The Ebola virus in west Africa put the world on edge, and a bloody war between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria and the slaughter of more than 100 children at a military school in Pakistan added to the mix.

At home, America wrestled with police brutality as grand juries declined to prosecute officers in the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. From botched prison executions to a stream of desperate migrant children flooding America’s southern border, things felt troubled, disorienting, always on the verge of breaking apart.

Religion played a large role in those stories, and in other major headlines from 2014:

Hate Won't Win

Fred Phelps died early Thursday morning. Phelps was best known for his deeply rooted hatred and promulgating the tasteless slogan “God Hates Fags.” His little group of mostly extended family members that comprised the 59-year-old Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, carried their signs with such ugly and painful statements all over the country. Phelps’ small cult got the most attention for their protests of military and other high-profile funerals, claiming that the slain soldiers deserved to die as a consequence of God’s judgment against America’s tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Such shameful and angry messages, understandably, caused great pain among the mourners and family members grieving their loved ones.

Phelps Touched on Fears and Anger Many Feel

Fred Phelps, the 84-year-old founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died last week. Photo court: Rudolf 1922 via Wikimedia Commons.

As anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps passes on to whatever is his reward, we need to ask how he managed to inspire a following.

His was hardly an exemplary life. One neighbor remembers seeing his children in Topeka, Kan., in the 1970s and noticing they were bald. He was told Phelps sent his kids out to sell some product, and if they didn’t make their quota, he shaved their heads as punishment.

Another remembers how Phelps beat his wife and children with his fists, a belt, and a piece of wood.

Many tell how Phelps and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church sent vicious faxes when gay men were dying of AIDS, picketed military funerals with “God hates you” signs, and blamed terrorist attacks and fallen soldiers on America’s growing tolerance of homosexuality.

He was consistent, that’s for sure. Brutish and bullying from home to pulpit to public forum. Filled with anger and hate. And totally unrestrained in how he expressed his rage.

For God So Loved Fred Phelps: On the Gods of Hate and Scandals

by Sébastien Barré / Flickr.com

"Against the Westboro Baptists Church - Albany, NY - 09, Mar - 11" by Sébastien Barré / Flickr.com

God is not like me or Fred Phelps. And I am thankful for that.

Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, died last week. Phelps and his church are infamously known for picketing the funerals of lesbian and gay people and the funerals of American soldiers with signs saying “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for 9/11.”

There is no doubt that Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church have spread a lot of hate and caused a lot of pain over the last few decades. From funerals to Lady Gaga concerts, the church’s website boasts that Westboro members have picketed more than 50,000 events since Phelps founded it in 1955.

Why was Phelps filled with so much hatred? He explained his animosity in 2006 when he analyzed the tragedy of 9/11:

We told you, right after it happened five years ago that the deadly events of 9/11 were direct outpourings of divine retribution, the immediate visitation of God’s wrath and vengeance and punishment for America’s horrendous sodomite sins, that worse and more of it were on the way … God is no longer with America, but is now America’s enemy. God himself is now American’s terrorist.

If you didn’t know it before, you know it now: theology matters. What we say about God matters because, like all of us, Phelps was a reflection of the god he worshiped.

The Legacy of Fred Phelps

Westboro Baptist Protestors, Samuel Perry / Shutterstock.com

Westboro Baptist Protestors, Samuel Perry / Shutterstock.com

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.

Grieving for Fred Phelps in Topeka

Phil Griffin, a member of Metropolitan Community Church of Topeka and a lay leader for the MCC denomination. Photo: MCC Topeka.

Fred Phelps, famous for picketing funerals with vicious anti-gay messages, died this week. His estranged son, Nate, had posted on Facebook that the 84-year-old Phelps had been excommunicated from his own Westboro Baptist church and was in hospice end-of-life care.

Nate and other Phelps children and grandchildren abandoned this church of hate over the years. In the end, Fred Phelps died without the comfort of church or family.

When I heard Fred Phelps was on his deathbed, I grieved for Nate. His whole life was spent either learning the lessons of hatred from his father — or recovering from them. I grieved that Nate Phelps was banned by his family from saying a final goodbye to his father which could have brought healing and closure for Nate in his battle against hate.

Atheist Nate Phelps on His Father: I Mourn 'The Man He Could Have Been'

Nate Phelps, shown with fiancee Angela Feldstein, has broken with his father’s church. Photo courtesy Nate Phelps. Via RNS.

Nathan Phelps, the estranged atheist son of anti-gay Kansas pastor Fred Phelps who died Wednesday, is asking people to look beyond his father’s legacy of hate.

“I ask this of everyone,” the younger Phelps said in a statement issued Thursday about his father’s death at age 84. “Let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.”

The younger Phelps, who is 55 and goes by Nate, is one of four of Fred Phelps’ 13 children who renounced their father’s activities, which included picketing the funerals of veterans, AIDS victims, and celebrities and left his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The church of approximately 40 members of the Phelps clan is best known for its public protests and colorful signs declaring, “God hates fags.”

Hate Won't Win

Courtesy Westboro Baptist Church

Fred Phelps. Courtesy Westboro Baptist Church

Fred Phelps died early Thursday morning. Phelps was best known for his deeply rooted hatred and promulgating the tasteless slogan “God Hates Fags.” His little group of mostly extended family members that comprised the 59-year-old Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, carried their signs with such ugly and painful statements all over the country. Phelps’ small cult got the most attention for their protests of military and other high-profile funerals, claiming that the slain soldiers deserved to die as a consequence of God’s judgment against America’s tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Such shameful and angry messages, understandably, caused great pain among the mourners and family members grieving their loved ones.

May God Have Mercy on Fred Phelps

Amy Tracy is a writer for global mission at David C Cook in Colorado Springs. Photo courtesy of Amy Tracy. Via RNS.

A “fringe hatemonger” — that’s what I called Fred Phelps in a letter to the editor of The Washington Times in 1999. In response he announced in a news release that he was coming to Colorado Springs to protest the “… false prophet James Dobson and his fag-infested Focus on the Family scam.”

It felt almost “out of body” to pull into the Focus campus one morning and see people holding explicit neon signs telling me I was going to hell. I was a fairly new believer at the time, and managing media relations for Focus on the Family. With my salvation came the holy conviction to begin the difficult journey to battle against my own same-sex attractions. The chants, the signs, the venom — it all felt uncomfortably familiar. Christians were once again protesting me. I couldn’t get away from it.

It also challenged my immature understanding of theology. “What if Phelps is right?” I worried. I buried these thoughts for years — though truth be told, they’d surface at nearly every mention of his name.

A Prayer for Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps at his pulpit, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fred Phelps at his pulpit, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Editor's Note: Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church — best known for anti-gay demonstrations that include picketing soldiers' funerals — is reportedly near death. The following is offered as a prayer.

Good and gracious God,
We lift up a prayer
for the misguided –
for those who hate
and belittle
and abuse
in your name.

For those
who wish to see
the hate go on,
the anger be fed,
the world continue
on its unsustainable path
of division and judgement.

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