On Sunday night, the estranged son of the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. posted on Facebook that his father, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, was near death. From then until his death was formally announced Thursday, the elder Phelps became a trending topic on social media, with the discussion centered on this question: Might it be a cause for celebration?
Phelps rose to fame (or infamy) for his decades-long work of “opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth,” according to the church Web site. He expressed that opposition by picketing the funerals of military servicemen and women who in his view had been killed in wartime by a vengeful God punishing the United States for its increasing acceptance of gay rights. Many a grieving family had to put a loved one to rest within view of Phelps and others holding signs saying, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God for 9/11” and his signature slogan, “God hates fags.”
Phelps’s church cast a wide net, claiming to know other groups that God hates — Catholics and Jews among them — and Westboro’s pickets included the funerals of Elizabeth Edwards, Michael Jackson and even a former president of the Mormon Church.
Despite the cruel and unpopular pickets, the Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the First Amendment protected Phelps’s right to an outdoors protest of, in that particular case, a military funeral.
Westboro Baptist, in Topeka, Kan., first captured the public’s eye in 1998 when church members picketed the funeral of college student Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death allegedly because he was gay. Many Americans who had never heard of Phelps were shocked and repelled at the sight of a church group at a funeral holding signs that read, “Fags are nature freaks,” “Matt in Hell” and, of course, “God hates fags.”
Still, when Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, was asked about Phelps a few years ago, she astonished many when she told LGBTQ Nation’s Brody Levesque: “Oh, we love Freddy. If it wasn’t for him there would be no Matthew Shepard.” I think she was saying that Phelps helped make her son a national symbol of the fight against that hate.
I’ve also been on the receiving end of Phelps’s ire. In 2001, I was vice president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association when Westboro Baptist protested outside our convention. The experience proved terrifying (What if there’s violence?) and yet galvanizing (How could we not step up our mission of fostering fair and equal coverage for LGBT people?). More than a decade later, I am still haunted by the protesters’ hate-filled slogans.
Not surprisingly, many in the LGBT community have let their own inner hate rip as the news of Phelps’s impending death circulated. On Facebook a gay man wrote, “The world will be a better and more loving place without this human garbage.” Another suggested making any funeral for Phelps into a “ridiculous, frivolous spectacle” — even going so far as to suggest carrying signs that read, “God hates Fred Phelps . . . and he’s about to find out how much.”
Yes, I understand what drives many to such extreme emotions (and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a vein of it myself); after all, it’s only human to want to fight back against hate.
Instead, what if those on the receiving end of Phelps’s ideology did the opposite, which is to say, let him go quietly — and without protest — into that good night? Imagine the karma lesson that would be to all those who have supported Westboro Baptist.
Revenge against Phelps — or, frankly, any hateful or toxic person — doesn’t really allow for healing. Joseph Burgo, a psychoanalyst and an author, told me this week: “For those of us who have felt hated and shamed by people like Phelps, the temptation is to turn tables and triumph over their demise. You might think of it as ‘giving back’ the hatred and shame that was inflicted upon us, but this reaction binds us to the other person as long as we continue to feel that way.” He then added that we need to “break the hold of these destructive emotions and move on.”
So, with Phelps’s passing, I suggest we bombard Westboro Baptist with sympathy cards and prayers. Or, as a friend of mine tells me, “Drive your enemies really crazy: Love them.” Okay, maybe not love, but at least not hate. Never hate.
Steven Petrow is a former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the author of five etiquette books, including “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners.”