What I Can "Appreciate"about Fred Phelps

Most people are familiar with him, but I don’t imagine many knew him. He was a Pastor, but his church would not be classified as “mega” in our modern vernacular; most estimates put the membership at around 50 people. He never had his own TV network, but his influence was enormous. Though infamous  might be the most accurate word.

Fred Phelps was the Founder and Pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, the church that picketed funerals of soldiers and high profile people (e.g., Steve Jobs, Elizabeth Edwards, Michael Jackson). They first gained notoriety at the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, and it was their vivid and hateful signs about homosexuals that got them the most attention, and kept them in the news where ever they showed up. 

And now we learn that he is near death.

I've already seen many speculating on his eternal destiny. I will not enter that debate, since I refuse to do to him what he has done to me and others—assign him to hell. That is not my job, nor my inclination!

I admit, the “god” Fred preached is foreign to me. The vile tactics he used showed no compassion or mercy and I can find no examples in the Bible to justify his mean-spirited methodology. At best, he patterned his entire message from accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures of an angry, vengeful God. But he also professed to be a Christian, and yet there was no balance with the Love that was revealed and displayed in the Jesus of the Gospels. Indeed, the man didn’t seem to grasp that the word “gospel” means

Good News. As the angel proclaimed at Jesus' birth, it’s “good news of great joy, which will be for all people.”(Luke 2:10 NASB)

Fred did not preach that message!
There was no good news.
There was no joy.

Personally, I think Fred’s anger was probably motivated by his own dark struggles. We know from several of his children who left (escaped!) the ministry that he was an abusive and controlling father. And many examples give us evidence that those who scream the loudest about the “sins” of others are usually fighting their own internal, hidden battle. I think he is a miserable, conflicted individual…and that played out in his role as Pastor. It gave him a focus, a platform and a target for his own demons.

For me, Fred is proof that a person’s view of God has a distinct effect how they live. To his credit, I think that he was a genuine, unwavering representation of the “god” he served.

As a gay man, I never had to guess how Fred felt about me. It was out there in gaudy signs for all to read. He didn’t watered down the meaning with the trite sentiment of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

He didn’t tone it down with discreet talk of “unwanted same-sex attractions,” “gay lifestyle” or “homosexual behavior.” He told us clearly: God Hates Fags! 

Moreover, I believe that he gave voice to what many believe, but are too timid or polite to admit. Fred’s theology was expressed in harsher vocabulary, but it is really not that dissimilar from what's taught in Fundamental/Evangelical churches today.

  • Fred said “God Hates Fags,” while most Fundamentalists will bring up Levitical law and assert that “Homosexuality is an abomination to God.”
  • He said Queers go to hell, while most Fundamentalists will preach that “homosexuals will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”
  • He thanked God for AIDS, while most Fundamentalists will quote Romans 1 and insist the homosexual brought it on themselves.
  • He blamed the death of American soldiers on our country's permissive stance on homosexuality, while many preachers today blame homosexuals for floods and hurricanes. 

Is there a difference?

In tone, obviously.
In appropriate wording, definitely.
But in actual denotation, I don’t think so.

Fred was honest..
With his signs, he was unequivocal and explicit in his condemnation of queers.
And I can "appreciate" that.

Conversely, many churches today will put out a sign that says “Everyone is Welcome,” but we know that’s not true. There are...stipulations

.I would never participate in Fred's ministry—a church that sees me in such hateful terms. Likewise, I would also never support or be involved with any church, group or political organization that believes the same way, but chooses to uses more flattering or restrained verbiage.

We are also hearing that Fred might be another victim of his own hateful creation—excommunicated from the church he founded. No one knows the reason, but obviously it was determined that he was no longer an “us” but a “them.”  That's how unrestrained hate works; there is never a shortage of "others."  And hate knows no loyalty, turning on anyone who challenges or threatens the expression.

Call it Karma or "reaping what you sow." Either way, I take no delight in his imminent passing, nor his current suffering. He may be sidelined, but sadly, his legacy continues. Apparently breeding a new generation.

And regardless of the fringe status of Fred and Westboro Baptist Church, his legacy also lives on in churches that hold the same views, but pass them off with more religious decorum. For the gay person, the results are essentially the same. It's still rejection. It's still condemnation. It still  hurts!

No, I won't spend time mourning Fred's passing, but I also will not allow his ministry and his message to infect me. I will not invest energy in hating him or envisioning his eternal damnation; that kind of bitterness would only hurt me. With renewed vision, I will continue to speak out against bigotry and exclusion in the church—blatant or subtle. I will maintain an  emphasis on our divine call to Love, our message of compassion and inclusion!

I think churches could learn a valuable lesson from Fred Phelps: be true to what you believe. Don't hide it in lofty sounding theological arguments. Don't frame it the pretense of religious piety. Drop the indefensible, hypocritical idea of "love the sinner, hate the sin."

Pick a side!
Be like Fred or be like Jesus.
God hates Fags or "good news...for all people."

As one who believes in an afterlife, it is my hope that when Fred Phelps does meet the loving, merciful God, and sees the diverse rainbow people in heaven, including homosexuals ("red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight"), his first words will be something like: “Wow, did I get it wrong!”

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