Fred Phelps, an American Pastor who headed the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas died at the age of 84 on March 19, 2014. While some individuals leave behind legacies of their good deeds and loving memories, the only thing Phelps left behind was a family and church founded on the principle of hate.
A frequent eyesore at various events ranging from military funerals and gay pride gatherings to mainstream events that captured the attention of our pop-culture obsessed society, Fred Phelps and his clan believed it was their sacred duty to warn others of God’s anger over the growing acceptance of not only modernity in general but also issues like gay rights and abortion. From slogans and signs such as ‘God Hates Fags’ to ‘Thank God for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), Phelps has caused many controversies both during his lifetime and after his death.
The first response many individuals had when hearing that Phelps had died was: “Are people going to picket his funeral?” or “Should members of the – insert varying communities the Westboro Baptist Church pissed off here – show him the same amount of respect as he did in life to us?” While many individuals are stating that they should forgive and forget his hate, the fact of the matter is that the church he founded and the legacy of hate he created is troubling. While there is still room for debate about the symbolic power of rising above it all, it is worrisome that he’ll exist in death even more so than in life.
While any such protest at Phelps’ funeral is impossible because the Westboro Baptist Church is not having one for Phelps (coincidence?), the problem still remains. It is far too easy to deduce that Phelps was most likely a homosexual and his repressed sexuality caused him to utilize religion as a force of hate to embody the worst parts of humanity in public forums. More importantly, it is too easy to dismiss Phelps and his independent church as a bunch of “loons.” However, it is very difficult to clean up the mess that Phelps has caused since he famously picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard.
The complex legal, religious, and social mess that the Westboro Baptist Church has created goes all the way from their tiny, secluded area in Topeka, Kansas all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. In the case Synder v. Phelps, the Court held that even speech deemed outrageous could not be liable for a tort of emotional distress (a.k.a. the plaintiff was forced to return a settlement won in a previous court case where the Westboro Baptist Church was held liable for causing emotional distress towards their family after their son was killed in Iraq).
While I do not know many individuals who are willing to marry into the Phelps family, their utter demise seems to be imminent; not because of Phelps’ death, but because the legacy of hate that he created being slowly beaten back by the tide of modernity. It greets the remaining Phelps family members each time they unpack their signs to protest yet another event.
Should we rise above his death and not protest? Did Phelps awaken a new, more radical class of LGBT activists who have dedicated their lives to turning back the hateful tide he has caused? Or did Phelps help further the divide between the LGBT and religious community by embodying everything that hurt and grief-stricken closeted and open LGBT members dislike about religion as a whole? If Fred Phelps never existed, would some other nameless figure have taken his place?
While I do not think we’ll ever know the answers to the many questions behind Phelps’ existence, I say if people want to dance on his proverbial grave we should let them polish their tap shoes. However, the problem is that although Phelps may be gone to whatever version of heaven or hell one believes in, his family and his church live on and will be at the next funeral or event with their signs higher than ever.
John Erickson is Co-Chair of the Queer Studies in Religion Caucus for the American Academy of Religion’s Western Region and a Doctoral Student in American Religious History at Claremont Graduate University. He holds an MA in Women’s Studies in Religion; an MA in Applied Women’s Studies; and a BA in Women’s Literature and Women’s Studies. His research interests involve an interdisciplinary approach and are influenced by the LGBT and women’s rights movements. His work is inspired by the intersectionality of the feminism, queer identity, and religious political and cultural rhetoric. When he is not working on his dissertation, he can be found at West Hollywood City Hall where he works on policies and special events relating to women, gender, sexuality, and human rights issues that are sponsored or co-sponsored by the City of West Hollywood. He is the author of the blog From Wisconsin, with Love and can be followed on Twitter @JErickson85.
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