Washington • Fred Phelps, the 84-year-old founder of Westboro Baptist Church and media master of hate-speech campaigns, died late Wednesday after devoting decades to damning Americans for tolerating homosexuality.
"God Hates Fags" was the Westboro philosophy, detailed in vile slogans on signs that a tiny band of relatives toted to 40 sites a week around the country. All told, the church in Topeka, Kan., claims to have staged some 53,000 protests.
Whenever there was a newsworthy death — be it Matthew Shepard, the gay teen murdered in Wyoming in 1998, or a soldier killed in action, a movie star, or an innocent child victim in a mass murder — Westboro would add it to the church’s picketing calendar.
By the time of his death, though, Phelps had lived long enough to see American public opinion soar in exactly the opposite direction — in favor of gay rights, including marriage.
The message he spread across the country never took root, and in fact helped galvanize the gay-rights movement and put other Christians on the defensive. The image of Christianity he painted was a hateful, judgmental collection of rabble-rousers — an image that, paradoxically, did more to help his targets than advance his message.
Experts say Phelps’ ultimate legal and social impact on the American religious landscape will be a footnote. Religious leaders lament the damage they say he did to Christians who preach God’s love and mercy.
Free speech icon
Born on Nov. 13, 1929, in Meridian, Miss., Phelps reportedly quit West Point to study at Bob Jones University and became an ordained Southern Baptist minister in 1947. But he left the Southern Baptist Convention for a more fundamentalist theology and launched the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka in 1955. While once considered a champion of civil rights, Phelps turned to focus lifelong enmity toward gay rights and began his notorious picketing campaign in 1991.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that Westboro’s picketing was "free speech however hateful," said Steven Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend of the court brief on Wesboro’s behalf. Free-speech advocates uncomfortably embraced Phelps’ cause, if not his message.
"That’s how protest buffer zones and picket pens" came about, said Shapiro. They allow for free speech so long as protesters do not impede the event or harass the mourners. Phelps’ lasting legal impact may be the 2006 Fallen Heroes Act and similar laws in 20 states that drastically limit where, when and how people can protest at military funerals.
Kansas acted years earlier. In 1991, Westboro began daily picketing at a city park that was reportedly a hot spot for gay meet-ups. In 1992, state legislators passed laws against funeral picketing, banned stalking and outlawed telephone and fax harassment — early tactics of the church, said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
Phelps and his congregation of "mini-me people just as vicious as he was" claimed to picket 40 sites a week. But it was the 1998 Westboro presence at the funeral of Shepard that brought the church to the national spotlight, said Potok.
The cascade of outrage stories continued in 2001, when Phelps said the 3,000 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks deserved to die. He called a co-pilot of one of the planes hijacked on 9/11 the "filthy face of fag evil."
"He specialized in being impossible to ignore in the modern media climate," Potok said. "No one could pretend if he was ignored, he would go away, not when they showed up at funerals of little girls killed in a school bus crash.
"Still, I think his lasting impact was on the other side of the debate. He turned people off from the far right to the far left."
A skewed gospel
Phelps drew no new followers to Westboro’s ways and he lost generations of children and grandchildren. According to The Topeka Capital-Journal, Phelps had 13 adult children, nine of whom remain in the church and four of whom left, along with about 20 of his grandchildren. His son Nathan, who first told news media last weekend that Phelps was dying, became an outspoken atheist.
Ties of Christian faith were no stronger than family ties for Phelps as fellow Christian faithful — mainline, evangelical or Catholic — faced his wrath.
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, made a souvenir of the time Westboro picketed Lifeway’s Nashville offices. His desk nameplate is taken from a sign calling Stetzer a "Lying whore false Prophet."Next Page >
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