“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Blaise Pascal
It appears that the Reverend Fred Phelps, the infamous leader of the Westboro Baptist “God Hates Fags” Church is dying. Apparently he is dying alone in hospice care, excommunicated by the members of the church that he led and isolated from family members who had left that church.
The 84 year old Phelps, a self described “Old School Baptist” whose “church” was not affiliated with any Baptist denomination brought his tiny congregation to prominence through its outlandish and hate filled protests at the funerals of anyone, especially homosexuals who they deem as damned by God. Bearing placards proclaiming the message “God hates fags” he and his church members made their presence known in every state, bringing controversy and filing legal challenges against their opponents. In 2010 Phelps won a case overturning a judgement against him and Westboro Baptist (Snyder vs Phelps) on appeal to the Supreme Court.
Phelps’ motivation for what he did sprang from his hyper-Calvinist religious beliefs, beliefs that led him to condemn even Billy Graham as a “false prophet.” His actions were motivated by a religious belief that is all consuming. Those beliefs, though protected by the Constitution have been used for decades to vilify anyone that he disagrees with and opposes.
Though homosexuals are the most visible targets of his church’s rage, they are not alone. Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Catholics, Mormons and most other Christians are condemned by Westboro and Phelps. He and his flock launched vicious attacks on the United States and, picketed the funerals of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and even the victims of 9-11-2001. I am quite sure as a progressive Christian, and military Chaplain had I been killed in action in Iraq that his minions would have spread their hatred at my funeral.
Reactions to Phelps being on his deathbed have been varied. Many of those that he vilified, attacked and tormented are overjoyed, and to a certain extent I think I can understand. Through much of his life he has been nothing more than a man driven by hate and intolerance and a pathological need to torment others in their time of grief and loss. Likewise a number of his children have recounted the extreme abuse that they suffered at his hands.
Phelps and his clan are people that I have little sympathy for and who by their actions have angered me countless times. They take their freedom and use it to bludgeon others, usually when they are most vulnerable. When I heard that he was dying I mused about him going to a Southpark type Hell where he would celebrate Christmas in Hell with Satan, Hitler and Saddam Hussein, and wondering if he needed asbestos water skis for his vacation on the Lake of Fire.
That being said I can take no joy in his death or his excommunication from the church that he led. I have to agree with George Takei who said: “I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding “God Hates Freds” signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.”
But there is nothing to celebrate in his death. He has caused too much pain and suffering to too many people, including some of his children and grandchildren. A cruel and unforgiving man is dying alone and abandoned by the flock that he groomed to hate and reject all others. It seems a fitting epitaph and the ultimate form of irony.
His estranged son Nathan Phelps remarked: “I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made…”
May God have more mercy on the soul of Fred Phelps than he ever showed to others.