Fred Phelps: An Ironic Legacy

This post comes with a trigger warning. Discussing a hate group and their leader, I had to chronicle what they’ve done. For those of you who come to my blog seeking writing advice, short fiction, and memoir entries, an article on Fred Phelps might seem off topic. I’ve met the man on two occasions, and as a commentator on trolls, cyber bullies, and internet culture, I felt compelled to weigh in.

(Thanks to Achilles Sangster for providing many of the photos featured throughout, check out his blog here)

Fred Phelps: An Ironic Legacy

No, this wasn’t Photoshopped. Back in 2001, I met Fred Phelps
No, this wasn’t Photoshopped. Back in 2001, I met Fred Phelps (photo by Achilles Sangster)

In America, 17 States now allow same-sex marriage. The constitutionality of gay marriage bans are being challenged. Media pundits, who once built followings on anti-gay rhetoric, are losing their sponsorship. Efforts to deny service to gay people under the guise of “preserving religious freedom” are being vetoed left and right.

There are many heroes in this new era of civil rights: plaintiffs who brought unjust laws to the supreme court, students who formed GLBT groups, actors, musicians, and sports figures who outed themselves. Still, few have swayed the court of public opinion as much as one man.

Reverend Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, the group responsible for the infamous God Hates Fags demonstrations.

13 years after my first encounter with Fred Phelps, so much has changed. 2 years ago, my home state of Minnesota shot down a gay marriage ban. Last fall, our first same sex marriage ceremonies happened.

We made this progress, despite the best efforts of people like Phelps, or perhaps because of them.

An Accidental Hero

Fred Phelps died Wednesday night. For reasons that have not been made public, he’d been excommunicated from his flock. The most vocal advocate of the traditional family, went through his final days without his own at his side.

If you’re looking for a mocking eulogy over the corpse of an American Monster, you’re going to find something different here. I intend to recognize his greatest accomplishment as the accidental champion of the gay rights movement.

If you need to reread that last sentence, it’s okay, I’ll wait.

America’s biggest hate speech advocate was also a hero to the people he disparaged. As the old Gotham proverb goes: he wasn’t the hero they deserved, but he was the hero they needed. Exploiting tragedy, Fred Phelps made bigots feel disgusted. He lionized the left into action, while the far right fled to the center to distance themselves from him. After the Phelps family press tour came to your town, bigotry went into the closet.

Patriots didn’t want to align themselves with people who stepped on the American flag. Christians didn’t want to be associated with people who protested funerals, who mocked hate crime victims, adding insult to the injuries of grieving families.

Fred Phelps proved that free speech worked, by forcing everyone on the edge the conversation to finally have it.

Bad Publicity

More than any passage in the bible, Fred Phelps believed there was no such thing as bad publicity. Building his brand by marching on cemetery land, his family handed picket signs to children who weren’t old enough to read them. They dressed infants in t-shirts with their web address, before their tiny hands could even reach a keyboard let alone type it in.

For every sin Phelps condemned, he committed a thousand more in marketing. Showing up to picket events that were so far off his message, newscasters struggled to identify where he was coming from.

Recording a parody of We are the World called God Hates the World, they picketed Michael Jackson’s funeral.

As I type this, the Westboro Baptist Church are planning to picket Lorde’s concert in Kansas, for no other reason than to leech off of her popularity.

While Christ preached treating others as you would like to be treated, Phelps preferred name calling instead. He valued shock value. In a 1996 press release to announce the Church’s protest of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he compared Jews to Nazis, with no mind for the irony.

Loving God with his words, Phelps loved ink with his actions. Lobbing so much hate at the press, in the hopes that some of it would stick.

The Westboro Baptist Church didn’t understand their target customers. In an exchange after their overjoyed reaction to 9/11, they told me they’re not trying to save the world, they’re just trying to tell it that it’s condemned. They weren’t concerned about winning hearts and minds, just building brand awareness. They were a firm with nothing to sell but smear campaigns against their competitors. Their key demographic was themselves.

They upped the ante higher than their stakeholders were willing to go, then shamed them for not matching their investment.

When a Woodbury high school student got kicked out of class for wearing a STRAIGHT PRIDE t-shirt. The Westboro Baptist Church came to his defense. A group of my friends forged press passes to approach Fred Phelps and have a conversation.

When I told Phelps that the student didn’t want his support, he told me the boy was going to hell for his cowardice. It didn’t matter if you shared Phelps’s ideology, the only way to get a cabin on his ark was to marry into his family.

Mixed Messengers

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 1.20.37 PM
(photo by Achilles Sangster)

When gay issues weren’t in the news, the Westboro Baptist Church rode the coat tails of tragedy to get their message on TV. They trolled the media for screen time. Their logic was that all suffering was a sign of God’s wrath, and God was only mad about one thing: the gays. Thus every event was fair game to tack themselves onto.

Showing up at the sites of mass shootings, they made Columbine a cause for celebration, they made Virginia Tech a family vacation. They went to Tucson to commend the shooting of a congresswoman. They went to Sandy Hook to rejoice in the death of children.

They picketed ground zero in New York City. They made signs promoting the snipers in DC. They treated the Boston Marathon bombing as a time for merriment, while the 24 hour news cycle struggled to decipher exactly what they meant.

When the news ran low on terrorism, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed funerals for tornado, flood, and earthquake victims.

They weren’t cynical in their belief that natural disasters were products of God’s wrath. In phone conversations I had with members, they took each of these events as signs of the end times. The rising tides had nothing to do with climate change, oh no, it was proof that the church had been right all along. Regarding the coming rapture, their tone was hopeful, like children on Christmas Eve, shaking their presents.

The Best in People

For all Fred Phelps efforts to condemn gays, America, and the world, something else happened. He brought out the best in his opposition.

After the September 11th attacks, a student stood outside the Phelps compound with a sign that read NOT TODAY FRED. Two days later, he had a legion of supporters behind him.

At the height of the Iraq war, when the headlines were full of death tolls, the Westboro Baptist Church crashed military funerals. This incurred the wrath of the The Patriot Guard Riders. Bikers set up barricades, clogging the streets with mile long motorcades.

The Westboro Baptist Church might not have been interested in making converts, but wherever they went people started changing.

Locking arms, communities came together to show what loving thy neighbor really looked like.

Walking a Mile with Fred Phelps

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 1.19.28 PM
(photo by Achilles Sangster)

When Phelps came to Woodbury high school in 2001, his driver let him off on the wrong side of the street. Mobbed by counter demonstrators, he gravitated to a familiar face: me. We’d met the day before, while he was protesting a Lutheran church, for no better reason than it happened to be on the way.

We found ourselves arguing over why the Columbine shootings happened.

He believed that it was because, “From kindergarden on they taught them that it was okay to be gay.”

I believed that the shooters had been bullied by people echoing much of Phelps’s sentiment.

We didn’t see eye to eye, but we spoke at a reasonable tone.

When the police told him he couldn’t cross the street without going to the light half a mile up the road, he chose to walk with my friend and myself.

Shivering in his cowboy hat and Starter jacket, he was underdressed.

I made the tired joke, “In Minnesota, we have two seasons: winter and construction.”

He laughed. There was something calming about him. There were traces of a southern gentleman. Years after being disbarred, he still spoke in casual legal terms. It was endearing, even charming. It almost made me forget who he was and why he was there.

The battery for our camera died. Still, we stood beside him for the entire demonstration, asking variations of the same question, “Why not honor your faith in some other way?”

Phelps’s response, “All the other churches have that angle covered. We’re the only ones still preaching this part of God’s message.”

Before stepping into the van, he shook my hand. He kept repeating his web address. As if I’d ever forget.

In high school, I had a friend who was pushed down a flight of stairs. He’d been targeted by a bully for being openly gay. A witness saw him go into shock, convulsing in a pool of his own blood. I had another friend who was jumped by attackers with crowbars on his way home. He said there was nowhere to go but to take his beating. My closest gay friend, someone I’d known since kindergarden, dropped out of high school after the harassment became too much to bear. He committed suicide several years later. At his wake, his parents didn’t know what to say. They talked about how much he loved his iPod.

Now here I was staring at someone who thought all of that pain was part of God’s plan, and all I wanted to do was change his mind.

God Hates Globes

God Hates Globes invades a Westboro Baptist picket
God Hates Globes invades a Westboro Baptist picket (photo by Achilles Sangster)

The next time the Westboro Baptist Church visited Minnesota, they came to protest the Episcopalians nominating their first openly gay bishop. Rather than forge press passes to interview the Westboro Baptists, we decided to join them. We stayed up all night preparing signs based on a literal reading of the bible. We set out to follow the same principles as the Westboro Baptists, just not the same passages.

While their position was that God viewed homosexuality as an abomination, ours was that the earth was flat based on our biblical interpretation. Personally I think our argument had more validity; we found 30 more passages to support our position than the ones they cited.

When the Westboro Baptists arrived at the convention center, we elected not to stand on the side of the counter demonstrators, but to mix ourselves in with the Phelps clan. After all, we’d studied their methods. While they stood on American flags, we stood on deflated globes. Their signs called the Episcopalians sodomites, while ours declared OUR MAP DOESN’T SPIN.

God Hates Globes takes over
God Hates Globes takes over (photo by Achilles Sangster)

Children waved signs that read GOD BLEW UP THE SHUTTLE, we waved signs that read COLUMBUS WAS WRONG.

They shouted, “God hates fags!” at the counter demonstrators.

We shouted, “It’s hip to be square!”

God Hates Globes got more laughs by far.

Round Earth Theory

A few years later, the Westboro Baptist Church announced their intention to come to Duluth to put a plaque next to the ten commandment monument. In one of the church’s early adventures with Photoshop, they’d created a 3D mock-up of their plaque and tried to pass it off as real. Their plaque was designed to commemorate the death of gay student Matthew Shepard, for “violating God’s law.”

We decided to build our own plaque to commemorate the death of Galileo Galilei, for the crime of promoting round earth theory.

IMG_2918 copy

My father, a centrist conservative, drove us up to Duluth to make our delivery.

On the day of the demonstration, the Westboro Baptist Church didn’t show, so we went on without them, setting our creation next to the ten commandments.

IMG_2933 copy

Later I called the Phelps family hotline. The voice on the other end told me a story about how her daughter had said the publicity surrounding the monument was a monument onto itself, which is why they felt no need to make the trip.

I said, “You couldn’t afford to make the monument, could you?”

She said, “No, we did. Didn’t you see it on our web site?”

“I saw a marble pattern on a poorly rendered wire frame.”

She hung up.

Years later, they announced plans to picket a graduation ceremony for a Minnesota high school with a GLBT group. On our website, we declared that God Hates Globes would be right behind them. When the school got wind of our plans, we were asked not to attend. They said they wanted to make the event about the students.

We showed up, but we left our signs at home. We figured, several hundred dollars worth of giant CONGRATULATIONS balloons would blot the Westboro Baptists out. They didn’t come. This was when the first rumors of Fred Phelps’s health condition started to spread.

An Ironic Legacy

With Fred Phelps’s death, I can’t help but feel like the world lost something. He gave us a villain to fight against, a cause that spurred the soft spoken into action. Rather than inspiring support, his methods sent likeminded literalists in another direction.

There’s no need to mock the man’s cause by picketing at his funeral. Phelps has devoted his entire life to undermining it, whether he realized or not. Rather than celebrate a man’s death, let’s take time to appreciate the world he’s leaving behind; a better place, despite, and perhaps because of, his best efforts.

***

5 years ago I made a short documentary on God Hates Globes. It puts the events mentioned above into perspective. Check it out. (for people having problems viewing it on Vimeo I put up a YouTube Version)

59 thoughts on “Fred Phelps: An Ironic Legacy”

  1. God hates globes? ha! Only you, Drew. I bet they were pissed. Seriously though, to go out of your way to stand up to bigotry the way you did so many times over the years is really admirable. Most people do just as you said, get as far away from the clearly deranged fanatics like Phelps as possible. And I agree with you 100%, the way he lived his life and conducted himself was the worst he could have done for the cause he believed in. A man’s words, though they may be directed at another, speak volumes of his own character. Maybe now that he’s gone, there won’t be another voice quite so vehement to take up the reigns and do as he did. You think it’s reasonable to hope that Westboro Baptist will fade away? I will hope so, anyway.

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    1. The Westboro Baptists have been picketing for year without Fred Phelps direct leadership. I imagine they’ll keep going until one of them realizes how much damage they do to their own cause just by representing it. I imagine more members will flee until there’s a scant few left.

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  2. Drew. This is utterly brilliant. On every level. I think you are a truly inspirational individual and you and your friends have dealt with the bigotry in such a unique way. I admire you all for standing up to Phelps in such a non confrontational manner. The humour is there but gives a firm and serious message. ‘God hates Globes’ as an idea is just genius. I think everyone should see this post and your video. Unfortunately I don’t think we will ever change the truly bigoted mind of those few despots, but stuff like what you did can help other people see that there is a different way to protest against them. Maybe it can aid those who may be sitting on the fence to climb down and fight against such outmoded ideas in a peaceful way. I wish my youngest brother could meet you. He seems to have been lost to religion and spouts an awful lot of bigotry and it makes me ashamed to be his sister at times. I get so cross with him and end up just tying myself in knots with my arguments even though mine are based on rationality and actual evidence. Next time he goes off on one, I’m just going to get my inflatable globe out and stamp on it. 🙂

    Thank you so much for sharing this. You really are an exceptional person.

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  3. For Phelps it was never about religion, it was about the money. Westboro Baptist, where one family comprises the lion’s share of the membership, raked in money through lawsuits after they would incite people who turned out against them. They’ve been at that for years and made a huge amount of dough that way.

    The cynical side of me wonders if maybe Phelps was excommunicated for not making enough money in his latter years – or perhaps truly finding religion and wanting to repent for what he’d done.

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  4. Wow, what an experience. I have more to say but it’s hard to find the words for what I mean. All positive. I love the ending. I smiled at the movie playing in my head as you told the story of how you were a part of the gathering that countered one of their protests. That’s pretty awesome.

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  5. On the bright side, there’s surely to be a new spokesman for the church. Either that or they’ll dissolve without a leader in a few years and we’ll have to turn our eyes towards someone else as the archenemy/greatest hero of gay rights. Good luck to you man.

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  6. God Hates Globes! Just brilliant. You are so right, Drew. Phelps and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church have only brought a wonderful cohesiveness to champions of LGBT rights. We should thank him and pray for his soul.

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    1. That would have been a crazy vantage point to have. How did the school handle their arrival?

      It was pretty crazy we followed them from church to church, the day before. When we got to the school… it felt dirty to be a part of the entire media circus

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      1. If I recall correctly, and I may be wrong, I don’t think they were actually let onto the school grounds, so they were a good distance away from the building itself. I probably witnessed much less being in classes all day. I really only saw them when I was arriving and leaving. Ha, when I put it that way it just sounds lame.

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      2. No, it makes sense. I recall them being on the sidewalk far from the main building. I just imagine that the thought of them being there would be insanely distracting

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  7. It’s a really unfortunate thing that so much progress in places has to come out of heated vitriol. You hit the nail on the head, I’ve been saying since his death, “Yeah, but look at where we are now because he was willing to stand on the line.” I don’t respect opinion, but change almost requires a nasty letter along with it. I won’t call it something he intended to do, but he got the vehicle moving faster in the most ironic way. Good post! Shameless plug on my own blog. Keep it up!

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    1. Thank you so much for reading it.

      I have to confess, I once pitched a story where a Fred Phelps-like figure was an agent provocateur, fighting for gay rights by adopting a hateful persona. My screenwriting teacher thought it was way too complicated

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      1. The concept, while complicated, could make a nice move. However, the movie would almost solely have to take precedent on the struggles in attempting to take on this “Batman” type persona, and how it changes the man/woman into a truly hateful and spiteful person who once was so full of love.

        In my opinion, think Breaking Bad, but in that vein and I thin you have a possibility.

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      2. Breaking Bad would be exactly the type of spirit I’d be going for. Come to think of it, the concept would make a fine serialized drama on a network brave enough to try it

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  8. Great article!! One small correction regarding giving credit to the Hell’s Angels for the biker motorcades protecting families’ right to mourn privately. The group is actually called The Patriot Guard Riders and is mostly comprised of veterans who are also bikers. I only point this out because my dad is the ride captain for the CA chapter. They started out riding to protect against Westboro picketers but now do all sorts of things to support military families. Give them a google, you might find them interesting.

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  9. Terrific article. I am so proud of this country (USA) that the constitution is upheld with the freedom of speech tenet. I didn’t really follow Mr. Phelps nor you Globes Hatred campaign…although it provokes great humor. Humor heals. Remember…A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones. Proverbs 17:22. I also appreciate how you have described Mr. Phelps supposed “hatred” actually was helping the cause of GLBT communities.. A magnificent perspective. Thank you so much for this post. It is quite inspiring. Warm hug for you. P.S. Check out “the energy in relationships” on my website which is www dot karenbethglunz dot com. I think you will find it illuminating. It comes from John Gray’s (venus/mars relationships fame) earlier book IF YOU CAN FEEL IT YOU CAN HEAL IT. He kindly gave me permission to use the images as I desired.

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  10. I absolutely love this. I think it is important to see the benefit of a villain rather than delve into the hatred of him, which is essentially what he wanted. It is thought people like him that people come together.
    I wrote a post vaguely touching on this, nowhere near so eliquently written. When I posted the link on my facebook page, I was met with some severe negativity for the opinion of not giving in to the hate the WBC spreads.
    This is really beautifully written. Well done, good sir. Well done

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  11. Excellent point about Phelps helping the GLBT cause. I was raise staunch conservative Christian, and it was these very “(insert group) is going to hell” beliefs that made me question and finally walk away. Thank you, Mr. Phelps, for mobilizing me from my complacency and making me truly examine my previous education. I’m a much better person for it.

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  12. Great article, and great idea “God Hates Globes”! I’m sure the concept was lost on them. Until his mangy spawn daughter Shirley joins her father wherever he may be, their pathetic little group will limp along. I had the opportunity to see them in action when they picketed the Lutheran church I attend. The 5 or 6 of them gathered on the corner across from the church with their signs, and the 200 or so of us stood on the grass lawn of the church singing hymns and patriotic songs. We even had a Satanist join us, which kind of confused some of the older folks. And you are right, all that hate turned the most unlikely people into supporters of equal rights for everyone. When you have little 70 & 80-something year old church ladies waving rainbow Pride flags, there’s the proof their message isn’t working.

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  13. I loved it. I saw a comment from someone saying they hope Fred Phelps is never remembered. We know he will never be forgotten. The jokes about him will never die, it ridiculous ways will be fodder for anyone clever enough to speak out against him and that stupid church.

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  14. Another bonus to the church still protesting? Besides bringing people together, it also helps, when you’re trying to avoid negative God-less hate-mongering peace-stealing bullies, when they stand out and identify themselves. So few of them do. 🙂 Good incorporation of the Dark Knight reference, by the by.

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  15. Awesome job! This is definitely worthy of a major news outlet, IMHO. I love the whole “God Hates Globes” angle (I think a “cats don’t exist” angle would work, too, since nowhere in the Bible are they mentioned). I am not gloating, but it is with little irony that hate-filled men such as Phelps always end up dying alone and bitter. After all, “…as ye sow, so shall ye reap”!

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  16. The way I see it, this whole situation boils down to a few yeses and nos: Yes, the Bible says homosexuality is a sin. No, the U.S. government does not exist to force people into believing the Bible. Yes, we need many compromises here. No, it won’t be easy. Yes, plenty of people on both sides will be upset. No, we don’t have to listen to all of them (especially the ones who are clearly off their rockers).

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  17. One of my favorite Westboro stories is when a group of them went to a soldier’s funeral in McAlester, OK and someone slashed the tires of their van. No one would service their car except a Walmart. Good post. Thanks.

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