Updated March 20, 2014: Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, died on March 19. He had been in hospice care in Kansas, the home state of his organization, which became notorious for its pickets of funerals and its harshly anti-gay language. He was 84.
The reports that Fred Phelps, who in 1955 founded what would become one of the most notorious anti-gay organizations in the United States, may be nearing the end of his life have prompted a certain amount of schadenfreude. In particular, there’s been some tittering over the news that Phelps was excommunicated last year from his Westboro Baptist Church for advocating ” kinder treatment of fellow church members,” apparently oblivious to the immense personal pain he and his church caused others, particularly with their countless funerals. There’s a certain raw moral justice in the prospect of an old man ending his life subjected to the kind of nastiness and exclusion he exposed others to. But for all Phelps devoted much of his life and ministry to making outrageous statements about gay people, I still find myself thinking of him and his church as significant cultural icons of the era in which gay rights have expanded rapidly.
For more than two decades, the Westboro Baptist Church has been the tin can tied to the tail of those who opposed the expansion of marriage equality and other legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, defining an extreme end of the spectrum of American thinking on gay people. Whenever conservative Christians tried to draw a distinction between their objections to homosexuality and outright hatred of gay people, there were Phelps and his followers cheerfully brandishing their distinctive striped “God Hates Fags” placards in a sort of intellectual photobomb.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson suggested that the hijackings had been punishment for America’s tolerance of abortion and homosexuality, prompting then-President George W. Bush to distance himself from their sentiments. (He’d later sign a law limiting protests at military funerals, passed in response to the church.) The Westboro Baptist Church responded by leaning into the narrative, celebrating the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Describing the September 11 attacks as retribution was “the strongest insult to the sinners and the one most certain to get a rise out of the people within earshot,” former Westboro Baptist Church member Lauren Drain writes in her memoir of her experience protesting at Bush’s second inauguration.
A continued dedication to rhetoric like that, as well as pickets at military funerals, set the Westboro Baptist Church apart during a period when public support for marriage equality is rising and when prominent conservative Christians like Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren are trying to find more politically palatable ways to talk about their objections to homosexuality. No matter how much distance other gay rights opponents tried to place between themselves and the church, Phelps and his followers acted as a kind of confirmation of the suspicions of the real feelings that lay behind less radical political language. And their consistent incivility highlighted the ways in which anti-gay sentiments don’t just function as expressions of private beliefs, but as acts of unkindness that disturb our sense of manners and proper treatment of our neighbors and fellow citizens.
Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church didn’t just attract political attention out of proportion to their actual influence on policy. The church’s protests prompted all sorts of creative responses, some of which became visually iconic. When the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the Wyoming funeral of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was murdered in 1998, counter-protestors dressed as angels, building wings big enough to obscure the church’s signs from view. College students have formed human walls to isolate Westboro Baptist Church members from their targets, including University of Missouri football player Michael Sam, who may become the first openly gay National Football League player, and the funeral of Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale, a graduate of Texas A&M. The Phelpses and the Westboro Baptist Church chose such a broad array of targets that standing up to them has become a sort of gateway activism, a way to demonstrate not just that you’re an ally to the LGBT community, but that you respect veterans and their families, or even just that you’re a Mizzou fan.
Not all the responses to the church were serious or solemn. Redditors played on the Church’s most notorious slogan to make a meme suggesting that “God hates figs,” basing their conclusions on a passage from the Gospel of Mark. The Westboro Baptist Church provided a rich vein of humor for comedians eager to pick apart inconsistencies in the practices of Christians who claimed to live by literal interpretations of the Bible. And the Church’s indiscriminate approach to picking enemies of the week made them easy targets.
Maybe this is too much credit to give a marginal organization from Kansas that for years has functioned mostly as a cult composed of Phelps’ extended family. But as the gay rights movement has worked to define lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans as people who want the same things as their heterosexual counterparts, including marriage and family stability, Fred Phelps and his followers gave organizers a perfect image to organize in opposition to. If Americans had to choose between getting comfortable with the idea of homosexuality or being seen as extreme, hateful, and rude, in increasing numbers, they seem to be choosing the former. Fred Phelps has caused many people enormous amounts of agony. But in doing so, he played a critical role in defining the choice between hatred and acceptance, and in accidentally expanding the tolerance of the very people he feared so much.