I don’t want to talk about Fred Phelps. I don’t want to talk about the Westboro Baptist Church. They don’t deserve the press; it’s exactly what they want, so why on earth would we ever give it to them? But like a scab you can’t help but pick just to watch it bleed, Fred Phelps and his cadre of bigoted howler monkeys keep itching their way into my consciousness, clamoring for examination and ridicule. If there’s one thing the Westboro Baptist Church is good at, it’s gaining your attention, and for the time being, they’ve gained mine.
When I first heard that the The Daily Currant’s satirical article “Westboro Asks Public Not to Picket Phelps Funeral,” had gone viral, I was completely unsurprised. True to form with any other manifestation of fundamentalism, the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrates a critical lack of understanding when it comes to irony. Why wouldn’t they be compelled to say such a thing? It’s completely in line with their character. They’ve become such an unwitting parody of themselves that you can’t even make fun of them anymore. In truth, there will be no funeral for Fred Phelps, so the multitude detractors who would love a chance to spit on his grave will never get the satisfaction. If there is a hell down below, he’s there, laughing maniacally at all of us.
Of course, if I were as batshit crazy as he was, I’d be laughing, too. And for that, I can’t really hate the guy.
Vice wrote something akin to a thumbnail biography on Phelps, and published it the day he died. It’s a pretty compelling contextualization of the man, and while it won’t convince you to like the guy (hell, an army of PR lawyers with an army of image consultants couldn’t convince anyone to like they guy), it does demonstrate that Phelps wasn’t always the bigoted lunatic spokesperson for apocalyptic Christendom we’ve come to loathe. He was, once upon a time, a rather ordinary lunatic; a pill-popping junkie in denial who, after succumbing to an overdose in the late sixties, apparently lost what remained of his already rather warped and fragile grip on reality.
When charting the course of Phelps’ rise to hate-filled prominence as the head of the Westboro Baptist Church, you discover that the man was routinely beating his children for fun and profit, engaging in frivolous and often malicious lawsuits, and making a killing at both. Phelps’ unholy exploits are well chronicled by his estranged son Mark in his book Addicted To Hate, and I won’t elaborate on them in detail here. Vice author Gavin Haynes sums it up rather well with his claim that “the rather ordinary domestic tyranny imposed by this broken vessel seems far more unpleasant than all the more publicity-savvy placard-waving stuff he did outside the compound gates.” His family’s public misdeeds, vile as they were and are, pale in comparison to the destruction and abuse Fred Phelps himself wrought upon his family in the name of God. If it wasn’t for him, there would be no Westboro Baptist Church, and there would be no basis for this conversation I didn’t want to have in the first place.
Despite the suffering they have endured, I feel no pity for the Phelps clan. The House That Hate Built still stands, proud and defiant against respect and civility, and the Westboro flock are as hateful and shameless as ever. As I write this, the Internet is abuzz with reports of a WBC protest at a concert in Kansas City this past Friday, the day after Dear Leader died. Phelps’ death (not to mention his excommunication from the WBC last year) have not slowed them down in the slightest. Under new, even more vitriolic leadership, Westboro Baptist Church is poised to be a thorn in the side of respectable discourse for years to come, and a more perfect snapshot of just that could not have been better captured than the one obtained by pro-choice activist and The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead in the following Twitter exchange:
In the end, Fred Phelps was just a bad penny in a sea of wooden nickels. His death gains us nothing; to quote Gavin Haynes once again, “to cheer his demise would be to miss the point.” If success is the best revenge, then cold comfort can be had in the fact that, with marriage equality laws on the books in seventeen states and Attorney General Holder instructing state AGs to stop defending gay marriage bans, Phelps died on the losing side of LGBT history, and so will his family. His legacy–if he is even to be remembered at all–should serve only to instruct mankind of our base and savage nature, and that the peak of our evolutionary development lies at the base of a valley we can never hope to scale.