My parents taught me never to speak ill of the dead, but in the case of Fred Phelps, who died last week at the age of 84, I think they would have made an exception.
The man – who will be referred to in this column without the modifier “reverend,” because there was nothing reverent about him – defined the word “odious.” He and some of his family members constituted the entire membership of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. It was BINO, Baptist in name only.
Phelps and some members of his family (though not all) picketed military funerals with signs that read, “God hates fags,” “God hates Jews,” and “thank God for dead soldiers.” Phelps was an equal-opportunity bigot.
The father of one dead service member went to court seeking to outlaw picketing outside churches where military funerals were held. He lost because the behavior, though deplorable, was regarded as an exercise in free speech protected by the First Amendment.
The media played a role in promoting Phelps and his cultlike family. The outrageous, the bizarre, the twisted, especially if these things can be tied to religion, are favorite subjects of broadcast networks and newspapers.
Some years ago I was the object of Phelps’ wrath. I was the speaker at the Kansas Prayer Breakfast. It was the first time I had encountered Phelps and his bigotry. I mentioned my surprise at pickets outside a prayer breakfast to then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who was seated next to me. She told me not to take it seriously because “they picket everybody.”
Phelps claimed to be serving God with his diatribes against people he claimed were God’s enemies. But instead of directing hatred toward people, no less a figure than Jesus of Nazareth said, “love your enemies.” Real Baptist preachers will tell you it is Satan who hates and God who loves. They will tell you that Satan is a masquerader, a fraud and a liar. Does that sound like Phelps?
If Phelps were a dollar bill, the Secret Service would have arrested him for being counterfeit. His is a counterfeit religion, which bears no resemblance to true faith.
Phelps’ language is useful in one sense. He should cause everyone to examine their own words and behavior toward people whose beliefs, lifestyle choices and faith might differ from theirs. Hate never converted anyone to another way of thinking, believing or acting. Hate does, however, give permission to some to behave in evil ways. If even one person is beaten, killed or otherwise harmed because Phelps’ family has encouraged others along such lines, even Baptists would say it is an affront to the real God that Phelps did not represent.
Acts 13:10 contains a verse that is applicable in Phelps’ case. Paul, the Apostle, is speaking about a man named Elymas he judges to be a fraud: “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?”
Substitute the name Fred Phelps for Elymas and the description fits.
Though Phelps is gone, the kind of hate he preached remains. It is why hate must be opposed no matter which group, faith, ceremony or individual is the target.