If Fred Phelps didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
He was the living embodiment of hatred: mean-spirited and vicious, he and his extended family (many of whom he brutally abused) came to fame picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard. They practically trademarked the phrase “God Hates Fags.” And when targeting gays wasn’t enough, they expanded their targets to include women, Jews, Barack Obama, and eventually, anyone associated with the United States itself—including dead soldiers, whose distraught relatives were mystified to find fire-breathing fundamentalists shouting at funerals.
The whole enterprise was, in many ways, a fraud. Phelps’ gang called themselves the “Westboro Baptist Church,” but they but they haven't been a real church in years—they were a family business, with more lawyers on staff than ministers, and no congregants.
And yet in other ways, Phelps’s enterprise was dead serious. They took their Bible seriously, and when God said He hated something (or intimated it by making it punishable by death), Phelps hated it too. Their slickly-produced, 25-minute YouTube video explaining this is difficult viewing, but admirably rigorous theology.
No one, though, did more harm to his own causes than Fred Phelps.
Indeed, Phelps was one of the LGBT community’s best friends—precisely because he was so outrageous. Every time Maggie Gallagher or Robert George would get up and give some vaguely reasonable defense of ‘traditional’ marriage, Phelps’s posse would show up with their tricolor posters and homophobic rhetoric. Phelps was like the emperor with no clothes on. There was nothing disguising his feelings; he made it clear that being anti-gay really was all about hate.
For religious people in particular, he also crystallized the theological choice. Sure, you could say “hate the sin, love the sinner.” But when Westboro came to town, they made it excruciatingly clear what hate really looked like. Being anti-gay started to look more and more like a prejudice—or worse. Moderates deserted in droves.
And for nonbelievers, Phelps was a perfect caricature of the religious bigot, spewing bile and clearly missing the point of Jesus's teachings. He was the kind of Christian that atheists love to hate.
I faced Westboro’s picket lines twice. Once, I was with New York’s LGBT synagogue, which had been notified of the picket and which proceeded to raise over $50,000 in pledges of support. (Cleverly, many organizations treated the pickets like a walk-a-thon, and took pledges keyed for each minute that Westboro stayed.) Another time, I was speaking at Washington D.C.’s Jewish Community Center—although it wasn’t clear whether they were picketing me or the JCC.
Both times, it was difficult to watch little children holding gruesome posters of aborted fetuses, and chanting ‘AIDS cures fags.’ But the politician in me smiled. These are exactly the RWNJ’s (Right Wing Nut Jobs) that conservatives desperately try to keep away from the cameras—and here they were, getting the spotlight.
So while many activists said the best thing to do was ignore Phelps— “don’t give him any more attention than he deserves,” they said—I always wanted to shine a big, bright light on him. The more he was the face of the anti-equality movement, the better. Ted Nugent’s got nothing on him.
The Phelps phenomenon is not limited to homophobia, of course. On the Left, we’ve got our anti-vaxxers, anarchists, and conspiracy nuts. On the Right, they’ve got RWNJs from the Tea Party, the Christian Right, Truthers, Birthers, Libertarians… the list goes on. Moderates on all sides try to hide extremists in the attic.
And yet, on the Right at least, establishment Republicans are dependent on their wing-nuts. Hard-right evangelicals and Tea Party Patriots make up over half of the Republican vote. Without the Fred Phelpses of the world, the Paul Ryans—let alone the Marco Rubios—wouldn’t have a base. They may want to muzzle him, but they still need his vote.
(For the record, Phelps himself ran for office as a Democrat, not a Republican, but he never won a primary.)
As such, the passing of Fred Phelps the human being is less important than the resilience of Fred Phelps the symbol. As symbol, Phelps was the reductio ad absurdum of many conservative beliefs. Tea Partiers think Obama is a socialist, Birthers think he’s a Kenyan, and Phelps said he was the antichrist. Tea Partiers think America has lost its way, Glenn Beck thinks it’s time for revolution, and Phelps said America will be destroyed by God for losing its moral grounding. Phelps lay along a continuum of conservatism—not on the other side of a border from it.
And for that, I am grateful.