Fred Phelps and Goodness

The Rev. Fred Phelps claims to speak for God, and today the Westboro Baptist Church preacher gets to make his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. A friend noted this morning that all the media attention is probably a dream come true for Phelps.

I suspect she’s right, but I’ve watched Phelps and the Westboro Church for 25 years now. I live quite close to them in Kansas. Whatever joy today brings, I think their dreams and their lives must be hell on earth. Let me explain.

Phelps claims to know the path to goodness — a path that in his church twists through rage, hatred and delight over death and suffering. Phelps’ fury at gays knows no bounds. His rage at anyone who disagrees with him is equally savage. His theology — such as it is — was once summed up on another blog of mine by one of his followers:

You cannot understand the love of God until you understand His hate. You must understand that certain (most people) people will be cast into Hell, and some (a very small remnant) will be saved.

This is the theology of God as a violently abusive father. Pitiful humans must learn the rules, toe the line, sit up straight, eat all their vegetables, never speak unless spoken to, never talk back, ignore their own experiences and life lessons and do whatever Daddy says, or face a righteous beating. The ultimate beating, of course, is Hell. This is theology stripped of all compassion, all love.

Can you imagine living like that? What terror that must spark. What if you misunderstand the rules? What if you can’t force your mind into this narrow hole in the ground? What if you were, perchance and by God, born gay or transgendered or in any way different from what Phelps defines as right? And what if you retain compassion for the grieving families at the funerals you picket?

The Westboro Baptist Church is so tiny because it’s largely Phelps family. People are born into this church, and to leave it is to leave one’s family behind and be shunned. Several of his children have done so. I’ve been told that at least one had to climb out of a window to get away. I suspect that some of his grandchildren have also left.

Consider the choice facing a loving child or grandchild in this family. Forever walk away from your mother and father and the only life you’ve known, or stay, picket funerals and knowingly inflict suffering on others. Be shunned by your family or live in a slough of hate, fury and fear.

Phelps says he’s doing right. As his follower explained to me:

You say we missed what Jesus had to say about love. Well, you are wrong. He said to love your neighbour as yourself, but you don’t have a clue how to truly do this. You think this means to coddle people in their sins, don’t you. It really means that you are supposed to rebuke your neighbour of his sins and warn him that his sins are taking him to hell if he doesn’t repent…

And do as much as possible to bash your neighbors into submission? So they don’t sin? As you sin by trying to torment them into goodness? How exactly does that work? Is it like a father who tries to beat the gay out of his son? And if that father doesn’t use a baseball bat, but instead resorts to words by ridiculing, shaming, harassing, attacking, is that right? Is emotional torture OK?

I believe the First Amendment right to free speech is one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed. I have no idea what right and good decision the Supreme Court should make. All I know is that goodness isn’t found in screaming at a grieving father that you’re thrilled his son is dead. Even a quiet picket line has no speck of goodness in it. I don’t think anyone’s funeral should be picketed, not even that of the preacher Phelps.

This man and his followers claim to preach goodness. They claim to do good, but this isn’t any goodness I recognize. All I see is tragedy. For the people Westboro pickets. For the people trapped in Fred Phelps’ hellish church.

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7 Responses to Fred Phelps and Goodness

  1. Having crossed a Phelps picket line a time or two in my day, I have to say my usual reaction is to shake my head and dismiss them as the kind of crackpots that the Kansas soil occasionally grows. (Evolution, anyone?)

    It never occurred to me to think about them with compassion. But you’re right. What an awful world they’ve made for themselves, a more hideous hell on earth than even an Old Testament God would dream up.

  2. Amber Fraley says:

    There’s a GREAT documentary called, I think, “The Most Hated Family in America” about the Phelps. What was fascinating is that it’s not just that the Westboro Church preaches that you must hate homosexuality to get to heaven; they honestly believe that THEIR church is the ONLY path to heaven. That’s right! They think that their tiny little church are the only people on the planet who will escape eternal hellfire.

    What’s really sad is that a couple of the Phelps granddaughters who have fallen for their grandfather’s rhetoric hook, line and sinker are in their late teens/early twenties, and neither bothers to date. For one thing, they say, “Who would ever date a Phelps?” and for another, they figure the rapture is nigh so why bother?

  3. Your ability to show some compassion for haters like Phelps is a definite sign that you’re on the path to goodness.

    I really wish the court hadn’t decided to review this case, since the court of appeals threw out the verdict. I think it would be tricky to craft a First Amendment exception for their behavior, and I hope the court isn’t going to try — I can’t really see any good coming of that. But if they find this is free speech, Phelps and crew will just crow about it and feel energized to do even more of this nonsense. And they’ve already been given way too much publicity.

  4. dianesilver says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments!

    Nancy, can we call on your legal expertise? Can you explain why it would be so hard to craft a First Amendment exception that says, in legal language of course, something like idiots won’t be allowed to picket grieving people?

  5. With the caveats that I didn’t hear the oral argument, haven’t read the briefs, and am not a constitutional scholar but only someone with a legal education and a passion for the First Amendment, here are a few thoughts:

    1. There’s no way to ban them on account of the content of their message. Once you start saying some people are too offensive or crazy to be listened to, you open the door to regulate what people say.

    2. From what I read about the facts, they complied with legal requirements to stay a certain distance away. I believe that’s the kind of regulation that has been permitted with respect to people who demonstrate outside abortion clinics.

    3. Once you start saying that no demonstrations are allowed at certain kinds of events, you provide room to expand the definition of those events.

    I should add that I’m leery of any limits put on the First Amendment, which I personally believe is the cornerstone of freedom in the U.S. The right to speak out about your beliefs, the right of a free press — which includes the freedom to publish things on the Internet — and the separation of religion from the state make it possible for Diane to pursue her own definition of goodness, to give just one example.

    It is somewhat ironic that the Phelps rely on the freedom of speech under the First Amendment to preach their gospel of hate, when if they had their way they would establish their religion as the official religion of the US (a definite violation of the First Amendment). But then, Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan have relied on it, too.

  6. Amber Fraley says:

    I’m with you, Nancy. As abhorrent as they are, I still believe in their right to express what they think. The way we benefit by living close to them, I think, is that over the years (at least this is my experience) they’ve become far less … intimidating? I’m not quite sure if that’s the right word; but their power to shock has basically gone away for me over the years. Now I just view them as clowns with brightly colored signs.

  7. dianesilver says:

    Agreed to both Nancy and Amber.

    Nancy, thanks for your thoughts. I knew you’d clarify things for me! The point I wasn’t getting was your #3. How do we figure out how to draw the line on when protesting an event is wrong?

    Oh and Amber, I love your image of the “clowns with the brightly colored signs.”

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