“Dying time is truth time, and so we preach truth to you regardless of who has died. Your vitriolic bilge is of no concern to us, and we indeed rejoice in it since every article written, every tweet tweeted, every talking head spouting off about this death puts forth this one blessed theological maxim – God Hates Fags.”
—Statement from The Westboro Baptist Church, March 22, 2014
was all prepared to write a blistering condemnation of Fred Phelps, the fundamentalist preacher who founded a strange church in Topeka, Kansas. Phelps will be defined, at least publicly, by his hate-filled crusade to rid the world of gay people, and I couldn’t wait to lash out at the man whose church-family uses the funerals of dead American soldiers to spread a gospel of scorn. I was ready to send off Phelps to the same place that he and his followers have joyously sent countless others—to an imaginary hell.
But then I read this:
I feel bad for his family. We have to remember he was a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather first. Some people do crazy things and just because they do crazy things doesn’t make them less human.
That was said by Rebecca Laubengayer, who was visiting her father in Topeka when Phelps died. Her father took her to the infamous Westboro Baptist Church because Rebecca wanted to see it. She lives in California, where homosexual marriage is legal and where she is able to marry her partner, which she will soon do. And I suppose if anyone had reason to vehemently condemn Fred Phelps, it would be someone like Rebecca Laubengayer. Why didn’t she?
Maybe for the same reason that Phelps’ granddaughter, Megan Phelps-Roper, didn’t condemn him. There is, after all, more to people than what we see in public, even if what we see is unquestionably reprehensible. Before her grandpa died, Megan Phelps-Roper wrote a letter to him, which included this:
To the whole world you were only ever the face of an evil entity. But of course to me you were always my Gramps. My kind, sweet, adoring Gramps. I miss you so much. I wish the sisters & I could meet you & Granny for another shake party up in your room (we’ll even bring your favorite strawberry one from McDonald’s).
I’m sorry for every second we’ve been apart this last year and four months. I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate you more when you were mine. I’m sorry our human frames are so weak & we couldn’t spend an eternity together on earth in perfect health. I’m sorry for what the church has done to our family. I’m sorry the media rejoices in the declining health of a human being. I’m sorry people reflect back the same hate & judgment that WBC delivers. I’m sorry you got trapped into a deluded way of thinking to the point that you were willing to hurt other people & yourself in order to serve a god out of fear. I’m sorry. I just am. I’m sorry I can’t hold your hand again & cry & reminisce with you as you lay on your death bed.
“You’re my great, big, beautiful doll!” You used to tell me. I wish I could hear you say it once more. This time I promise to know how much you mean to me. I never could have asked for a better grandpa.
– your gracie.
All of that sort of turns Fred Phelps into something other than the “evil entity” we came to know. It makes it hard to write a Phelps-goes-to-hell obituary after thinking about the way his granddaughter, who obviously doesn’t subscribe to his horrific theology, saw him. He was her “Gramps” and she refused to “reflect back the same hate & judgment” that Phelps specialized in. Good for her.
I know there will be no funeral for Fred Phelps—“No funerals, no wakes, no tributes, no scholarship funds, no public memorials or candlelight vigils,” says the staying-on-message church—but I don’t know whether he will be buried or whether the family will cremate his remains. What is certain is that all of us should bury or cremate the ancient beliefs that support such hatred as Fred Phelps preached and many of his family and church members still preach.
We need to bury or burn such theological trash because too many people, as Megan Phelps-Roper put it so well, get “trapped into a deluded way of thinking to the point” that they are “willing to hurt other people” and themselves as a way of serving “a god out of fear.” Instead of spending a lot of time condemning Fred Phelps for what he preached, let’s spend a lot of time condemning the ideas in those ancient texts from which he derived his hatred. Let’s bury those old ideas with an avalanche of science or burn them with the fire of reason.
Because it’s not just the Phelps family that is spreading such hate. Prominent evangelicals, like Franklin Graham, son of Billy, are spreading it too, even if they hide behind softer language and employ less confrontational tactics. As Steve Benen and others have pointed out, Graham recently praised Vladimir Putin for taking “a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”
Graham, who has questioned President Obama’s Christian faith and who endorsed Mitt Romney for president in 2012, said that Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have “turned their backs on God and His standards” and that “Russia’s standard is higher than our own” here in America. That wasn’t said a year ago or six months ago. It was said after Putin started an international crisis by invading and annexing Crimea. It was said after Putin appointed Dmitry Kiselyov to run the new state-owned media conglomerate, Rossiya Segodnya. Kiselyov has argued, as The Washington Post reported,
that Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws should go further, and that homosexuals should be banned from giving blood or donating sperm. When a homosexual dies in an accident, he argued, their heart should be buried or burnt to ensure it couldn’t be used as a transplant for anyone else.
What should be buried or burnt are literal interpretations of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. What should be buried or burnt are anti-homosexual interpretations of the myth of Sodom and Gomorrah. What should be buried or burnt are interpretations of Romans 1:18-32 that take seriously the Apostle Paul’s claim that homosexuals are “worthy of death.” All of that and more should be put away from among us here in the 21st century.
And we can begin to take such action even without wishing the worst for deluded people like Franklin Graham or, now dead, Fred Phelps. Because, as his granddaughter put it,
One way or another, he’s at peace. There’s only Heaven or peaceful nothingness. That’s what I think.