He started out by demonstrating at the funerals of AIDS victims. He demonstrated at the funeral of the young homosexual, Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in Wyoming. For reasons somehow relating to homosexuality, he demonstrated at the funerals of Frank Sinatra, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, William Rehnquist, and children’s program host Mr. Rogers. He warned Senator Pat Moynihan beforehand that he would be demonstrating at his funeral, too.
Now he is demonstrating at the funerals of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq to celebrate the deaths of those killed while defending a "fag" nation. He also demonstrated at Coretta Scott King’s funeral, not for reasons relating to race, but because she agitated on behalf of "queers."
In response, several states are now considering legislation banning demonstrations at funerals. He is their main and probably only target.
He is Pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. And his "God Hates Fags" theme has earned him an unending stream of media attention over the last 15 years.
Media have commonly described Phelps as a "Baptist pastor" and "anti-gay activist," with the implication that he was simply a more aggressive component of the Religious Right. Nation magazine included Phelps in a profile about the "The Radical Right After 9/11."
Phelps celebrated the 9/11 attacks and the more recent al-Qaeda strikes in London as the just recompense of Western decadence. He supported Saddam Hussein and has been appreciative to Fidel Castro. Phelps is probably more appropriately described in psychiatric than political terms. But his political roots are in the Democratic Party, having run for office in Kansas five times, and actively supported Al Gore in 1988 and 1992 before turning against him.
More careful media coverage acknowledges that Phelps’ ostensibly Baptist church is "unaffiliated" and comprised of only his family members, whose compound of houses is assembled around the church and its swimming pool used for baptisms.
Phelps, now age 76, has demonstrated outside the Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas. He has demonstrated against conservative religious activists James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. He has demonstrated against the Southern Baptist Convention. His targets span the full political and theological spectrum. Anyone who does not share his insistence that God reserves a special hatred for homosexuals is worthy of the Phelps treatment.
Such a calling in life might be lonely. But Phelps himself is aggressively patriarchal, with 13 children and at least 50 grandchildren. At least 10 of his offspring are lawyers, like him (though he has been disbarred). Legal challenges to his campaigns of hate are met with aggressive and litigious responses, which often earn the Phelps’ rich court-awarded penalties from their targets. The Phelps family is quite insistent on their First Amendment rights. Thanks to their legal prowess, Westboro Church does not accept contributions from outsiders. They are not needed.
The white-haired, Mississippi born-preacher often rants and shakes before hanging up on reporters or pushing away their microphones. With authentically hateful rhetoric, large brood and shag-carpeted Kansas church, he is almost the perfect embodiment of what some isolated Manhattanites in their most fevered dreams might imagine a red-state zealot to be. But Phelps, with dreadful consistency, exceeds even the worst stereotype.
Phelps’ story merits a file cabinet full of psychological analysis. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors "hate groups," among which Phelps proudly numbers, he was ordained at age 17. He rejected his mild Methodist upbringing, cut-off his family, and dropped out of both West Point and Bob Jones University. Time magazine profiled him only a few years later because of his street ministry against sexual vice in California. Phelps married young and moved to Topeka to pastor a Baptist congregation, where his violent behavior ended his pastorate. So he founded Westboro Baptist. But that congregation quickly melted away and Phelps resorted to door-to-door sales work.
After fathering his 13 children, Phelps became a lawyer and specialized in nuisance law suits. He also compelled his children to sell candy door to door every day to fund the church and the family, which are basically interchangeable. The Kansas Supreme Court eventually disbarred Phelps because of "little regard for the ethics of his profession."
But in the 1980’s Phelps won several civil rights-related cases, earning him three awards from civil rights groups, including a local chapter of the NAACP. He also supported the 1988 presidential bid of Al Gore, whose campaign used Phelps’ family office space. Son Fred Phelps Jr., who had hosted a fundraiser for Gore, attended the 1993 Clinton-Gore inaugural. When invited to the 1997 inaugural, the Phelps clan came to Washington, but this time to demonstrate against the Clinton-Gore administration for betraying them. The Phelps family would also demonstrate at the funeral of Gore’s father in 1998. In 1990, 1994, and 1998 Phelps ran for the Democratic nomination for governor of Kansas, getting 15 percent of the primary vote in his last try. In 1992, he ran for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, getting nearly 31 percent of the primary vote. He also ran for mayor of Topeka in 1997.
In the early 1990s the Phelps clan began its picketing at the funerals of AIDS victims. Their protests at the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepherd earned Phelps his first international notoriety. His website, www.GodHatesFags.com, also made a splash.
Phelps wrote Saddam Hussein in 1998, opposing U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq and offering to visit Baghdad. Saddam accepted the offer but must have been perplexed when the Phelps clan showed up in the streets of Baghdad with placards denouncing anal sex. Phelps has also commended the anti-homosexual policies of Fidel Castro, who declined Phelps’ offer to come to Havana.
After the 9/11 attacks, Phelps celebrated that God was rightly punishing America for not hating homosexuals. The subway attacks in London persuaded Phelps that Great Britain also was being justly damned. Sweden has likewise become a special target. The 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of Swedish tourists was divine retribution, Phelps surmised, and he started up www.GodHatesSweden.com.
"WARNING!!! To God's Elect: Leave Sweden NOW!!!," the website warns about a country that Phelps perceives is especially permissive about homosexuality. Sweden’s monarch Carl XVI Gustaf is called the "King of Sodomite Whores." Phelps’ Sweden-focus got him Swedish media attention and the threat of litigation from King Carl, which Phelps eagerly reported on his website.
Age is apparently catching up with Phelps, and he does not attend all of the demonstrations now. His children and grand-children fly around the country taking care of that. Several of Phelps’ children have turned against him, claiming physical abuse during their childhoods. But the rest of the offspring seem to have remained dutiful.
Phelps professes a unique form of Calvinism that insists on God’s "perfect hatred" for the unrighteous, among whom homosexuals are chief. It is a brand of Calvinism, not to speak of Christianity, that would be foreign to anyone outside of the Westboro Church compound.
At his funeral demonstrations, Phelps insists his targets are now justly in hell. "God is not mocked," the old firebrand declares, himself now approaching the age when the warning might be instructive.
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