Buried Or Burnt, Fred Phelps R.I.P.

“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

I 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.

westboro and lorde

6 Comments

  1. Troy

     /  March 24, 2014

    Amen my brotha!

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  2. I too wish the Leviticus passages didn’t exist, but even if they didn’t the Fred Phelps’s of the world would likely seize on some other controversial cause that would gain them the attention they crave, attention both positive and negative. He found the key in unwavering certitude. I am reminded of Jimmy Swaggart, a preacher whose more-successful certitude eventually was exposed as hypocrisy. Channel-surfing the other day I happened to come across his son, Donny Swaggart, casting his wisdom before some admiring congregation. Family business I guess. The problem is the human condition and that’s a conundrum. There will likely never be a time when we are free of the next Phelps, Swaggart, Hitler, Putin, Assad. All we can do is what we’re doing – exercising free speech to show them up for what they are.

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    • Unwavering certitude is, indeed, the culprit, Jim. That’s what I have always maintained.

      Jimmy Swaggart was perhaps the worst of the old TV evangelists, in terms of his absolute and intolerable cocksureness. Even in my evangelical days, I couldn’t stomach him, nor buy what he was selling. He was a yahoo, as far as I was concerned. But I did study his style, which was more entertainment than anything else. I remain amazed at how these guys can pull off what they pull off. Sometimes I will watch “Campmeeting” on one of the religious channels and the fact that there are lots of people willing to part with their hard-earned money, in response to some theatrical plea from a man on television waving a Bible around, sometimes makes me very depressed.

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  3. King Beauregard

     /  March 24, 2014

    I will not mourn Fred Phelps, nor will I pretend he was a good man and the world is poorer for his absence.

    On the one hand, he exposed homophobia and made it as repellent as possible.

    On the other hand, he (almost certainly unintentionally) provided cover for Christian bigots who know to be polite about their bigotry. “Boy, that Fred Phelps certainly is uncivil. That said, the Bible makes it clear that …”

    What Fred gets, and these smiling hypocritical Christians do not, is that civility is more than smiling and avoiding cuss words. Many many people seem to think that good manners make up for inhumane treatment of others. I doubt Jesus would agree.

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    • No, the world is not poorer for his absence. But at least one granddaughter of his feels she is poorer. And that glimpse of humanity in an otherwise dark human story is something to ponder.

      I confess I never looked at this thing the way you explained it. That Fred Phelps helped make homophobia repellent is a very good take on it, I think. The softer version of the gospel of homophobia, preached from so many evangelical pulpits these days, is way too palatable to people and Phelps did a lot to take the gloss off the message and offer it to us in its rawest form. That allowed people to see what the heart of that message is: hate.

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      • King Beauregard

         /  March 24, 2014

        It’s the old conundrum that I wrestled with, big time, after people I knew to be good and decent became cheerleaders for the Iraq War, and didn’t even care that it would kill innocent men women and children for no good reason. (“Wars happen; people die”, one of these “good and decent” people responded to me. I’ll never forget it.)

        The conclusion I eventually came to: we are apes and we evolved ape instincts; those ape instincts pretty much compel us to be decent to people we’re face-to-face with. The challenge of being human — being better than an ape — is deciding that people matter because they are people, not because they’re part of “your tribe”. Even if they’re mere abstractions to you, they still matter.

        So, I can understand that Fred Phelps has family that love him, and I do not begrudge them their feelings. I would even try to summon some kind words if I were speaking directly to one of them. But Fred Phelps, public figure, did what he could to sow hatred, and that’s completely unacceptable by my standards.

        And now, a heartwarming story. Some years back, we had a mouse problem at our office; seems a mouse was getting into the box of Cheerios on Frank’s desk. So we got glue traps, and eventually caught the culprit. As people looked at this tiny frightened creature, it started to dawn on them that we were condemning it to a slow, painful death, and massive efforts were made to free the mouse. (Olive oil and Q-tips, in case you were wondering.) And Frank was so worried about the mouse that he fed it Cheerios while we were trying to free it.

        That’s the conservative paradox: they can be wonderful people at close range, but Lord help you if you’re just an abstraction to them. I’ve seen it writ larger too, for example my relatives who love the Republicans and all their works, yet got super-concerned about my schoolteacher sister who got laid off under Governor Kasich and was likely to lose the health care that allowed her to afford life-saving medicine. Jesus Book of Matthew Christ, how dare you engineer misery and squalor on an entire swathe of people but then worry about the fate of one of them because she shares some genes?

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