What kind of parents take kids on vacation to picket Walter Cronkite’s funeral, telling mourners yesterday he will burn in hell? John Avlon tags along with the sick clan behind the Westboro Church. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
What are you doing for your family’s summer vacation? Shirley Phelps-Roper decided to take her two daughters to New York City from Topeka, Kansas. To protest outside Walter Cronkite’s funeral yesterday. They even had a fancy sign made up that said “Cronkite in Hell.”
“He’s in hell right now,” eagerly explains 23-year-old Megan, as mourners entered St. Bartholomew’s Church across Park Avenue. Her mom told me that Cronkite “had a platform to influence people in the right direction and he failed to do that. He chose to worship the flag and not God.” Also, he was a “fag-lover.” It says it right there on their press release: “We protest all this holy Cronkite worship. He was no hero to God. On his Cronkite Watch, America was surrendered to the fag-agenda. Ergo, Cronkite is now in Hell. And that’s the way it is. God hates Cronkite. “
The youngest daughter there, 16-year old Grace-Elizabeth, sports a navy blue “Priests Rape Boys” T-shirt and shuffled around on an Israeli flag.
The Phelps-Ropers are the founding family behind the Westboro Baptist Church. You might have heard of their practice of protesting at soldier’s funerals, where signs range from “God Hates Fags” to “God Hates America”—apparently because we don’t hate quite enough for Westboro’s tastes. Not surprisingly, their clique is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations. But they see themselves as something of a tough-love organization. They’re on a family trip to spread the word of a vengeful God. “Our only message is love God and he’ll bless you,” says Shirley. “Disobey God and he’ll destroy you.”
They begin their New York trip with a protest outside the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side, cordoned off in a little family-size protest pen, flanked by cops while they brandished signs saying “Jews stole the land,” “Israel is doomed” and “America is doomed.” The youngest daughter there, 16-year old Grace-Elizabeth, sports a navy blue “Priests Rape Boys” T-shirt and shuffled around on an Israeli flag. Despite that, she seems uncomfortable while her mother screams beside her. I ask Grace if she wanted to be there. “Oh yes, this is fun,” she gushes. “It’s the best thing we could be doing with our time.”
I asked her sister Megan—who just graduated from Washburn University this spring—what she thought of President Obama. Her eyes lit up. “Oh, he’s the Antichrist,” she says.
I ask for a little more explanation. “Well, he’s against Christ,” she says. Then mom swoops in, talking Deuteronomy and Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians before veering inevitably to abortion. “Reproductive freedom is a fluffy term for killing babies,” Shirley says. “Obama would support the murder of his grandchildren.”
Speaking of grandchildren, Megan and Grace are the grandkids of Fred Phelps—a Kansas attorney who started their church. They spoke of him in prideful tones as a pioneering civil-rights lawyer who just happened to spawn a family of lawyers who are now dedicated to trying to deny civil rights to gays and lesbians. Apparently, a family that hates together stays together. When you’re brought up to hate the world and the world hates you back, it’s a self-reinforcing circuit that only the family can understand. Maybe it’s like being brought up in a circus troupe, but your family business is preaching hate instead of, say, juggling. The kids seem to love the attention that comes with the public performance of protesting, and they have the serene certainty of the God-fearing and the brainwashed. I ask their mother if these sorts of family field trips could be considered a form of child abuse. She glowered—and then started yelling in another direction.
For New Yorkers, debate is both a sport and a pastime, and several fellow city dwellers come in to take their own shots at the Phelps-Ropers. Outside Cronkite’s funeral, one woman leans in and begins her objections by saying “I am a Christian…” but she is swiftly cut off. “No, you’re not,” says Shirley. Another questioner is dismissed as “a rebellious Jew”—apparently, his cufflinks gave his faith away—but he is offered the good news that precisely 144,000 Jews will be saved by the spirit before the rapture, which is coming with a vengeance any day.
It’s an old saying that “when you argue with a fool, you have two fools,” and the cult-like pathology of this family is far beyond normal domestic debates about politics or ideology or even theology. It’s not interesting as much as it is soul sickening to see children who were born innocent be so happily brainwashed, like those poor Palestinian preschoolers forced to watch a costumed Hamas mouse espouse the glory of murder and martyrdom. The profound weirdness—the banality of their homespun evil—becomes even starker when the time comes to pack up after the protest is over. The God Hates Fags.com T-shirt is covered up with a windbreaker. The “Cronkite in Hell” and “America is Doomed” signs are dutifully put away by the kids into a black carrying case. In the end, they look like a family on their way to the mall.
As they pile their bags into the back of a taxicab to go back to Kansas, I ask if they are happy to believe that America is going to be destroyed. “Yeah, we are happy,” says Megan. “It’s the judgment of God.”
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. He served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.