Fred Phelps, 1929–2014

The preacher who embraced hate

As a 21-year-old student at John Muir College in Pasadena, Calif., Fred Phelps made a name for himself by publicly lecturing his fellow students about “promiscuous petting, evil language, and pandering to the lusts of the flesh.” When he was kicked off campus, which happened on more than one occasion, he resumed his preaching from across the street. Phelps went on to found the Westboro Baptist Church, and over the years, he and his small band of followers gained international attention by picketing outside the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carrying signs bearing slogans like “God hates fags” and “Thank God for IEDs,” the protesters proclaimed that all of America was damned by God for enabling homosexual behavior and that the soldiers who fought and died under its flag were therefore destined to burn in hell.

Phelps, who in 1955 founded the WBC in Topeka, “was a much-loathed figure at the fringe of the American religious scene,” said The New York Times. His congregation, which consisted almost entirely of members of his immediate family, first gained notoriety in 1998, when they picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming whose death from a brutal beating sparked a national debate about hate crimes. Phelps relished the criticism and thrived on confrontation. If no one were offended, he once said, “what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the Gospel?” But Phelps’s outrages knew no bounds. His group demonstrated at the funerals of Sandy Hook Elementary students in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre. His methods were all but universally rejected. Even the Ku Klux Klan condemned his teachings and staged counterprotests in an effort to drown out his vitriol.

A 2011 Supreme Court ruling upheld the WBC’s right to protest at funerals under the First Amendment, said, but that did not prevent ordinary citizens from coming together in opposition, effectively rendering Phelps and his followers irrelevant. A motorcycle group called the Patriot Guard Riders began arriving in force at military funerals to create a human shield between mourners and WBC members. Even the group itself appeared to be fraying, said At least four of Phelps’s 13 children and many of his grandchildren broke from the church and cut all ties with its patriarch. There were also allegations of severe dysfunction within the family, including mental and physical abuse. Some reports indicated that Phelps himself had recently been excommunicated. In the end, it was his unyielding message of hate that defined his life and led to his isolation. “You can’t believe in the Bible without believing that God hates people,” he said. “He hates the sin, and He hates the sinner. He sends them to hell.”

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