A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Tragedy of Fred Phelps

With the rumours of Fred Phelps' impending demise the Internet (or at least the tiny corner I haunt) has been buzzing about what to do and how to do it. Fred Phelps is, after all, the founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church who go out of their way to provoke people until they react in such a way that the church members can sue. This is their primary source of income:

Fred Phelps and his small congregation provide WBC's funding; the group neither solicits nor accepts outside donations. In addition to this income, the church makes money by winning or settling civil lawsuits involving the church. During the 1990s, the group sued Topeka multiple times for failing to provide sufficient protection during its protests. Although they lost most of their cases, WBC did win $43,000 in legal fees in 1993. According to Shirley Phelps-Roper, they also won more than $100,000 in 1995 in a lawsuit against Kansas' Funeral Picketing Act, which they claimed violated their First Amendment rights. Because the Phelps family represents WBC in court, they can put the fees they win towards supporting the church.

While it seems that their primary purpose is to make money by suing people, I don't think it's fair to say that they don't genuinely believe in their mission which is to tell the entire world that they're all doomed to Hell. They especially target homosexuals and those who suppport homosexual rights. They've earned a widespread reputation for bigotry and intolerance to the point that the UK banned them from entering the country. They're an easy target for anti-theists like myself because their beliefs are so extreme and yet justified by the same sources and belief systems held by more liberal believers. Sure, you can tell me that you don't believe your god hates fags the way the Phelps and associates claim but you can't prove it to me with the same arguments that Phelps uses. One of you is mistaken and neither of you have any better to support your claim than personal bias.

Fred's son Nate broke with the group almost forty years ago and has been trying to counter their hate speech as much as possible as well as reveal the hypocrisy within the family. He claims that Fred Phelps abused his wife and children to maintain his authority through fear, and based on the message of hate he preached through his church I don't have much reason to doubt Nate. Now Nate is reporting that his father is near death although the church elders deny it. Furthermore, he revealed that Fred and his daughter Shirley had both been excommunicated from the WBC for the crime of suggesting that church members be nicer to each other. Fred was forced to move out of the church quarters where he'd been living and into a separate house in the same complex. As Nate puts it, “They took the one thing that meant everything to the man. That old man and his reason to exist have gone away.”

This brings me to the tragedy in Fred Phelps' story. The man built his life on fear and hatred. He was so successful at it that his name and church are both synonymous with it. He let it tear his family apart and now it's come back to bite him. I don't believe in karma except in the vernacular, and this is it. Even his own book told him "you reap what you sow."

There have been men like Fred Phelps throughout human history. In the last forty years we've been plagued with Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham who preached similar messages of hate and bigotry but had more influence to spread it. All Phelps achieved was to make himself a laughingstock and further discredit the idea that there's nothing wrong with faith. Everything Phelps has done has been based on faith just like every other action taken on faith in human history. Sometimes it inspires people to do good things. Sometimes it inspires us to neutral actions. Sometimes it inspires us to horrible things. All of them are convinced that they're doing the right thing because they value faith over reality. There's no way to guarantee that faith will lead you in the right direction because they're using faith to measure the validity of their actions rather than reality.

Fred Phelps is probably going to die soon. I don't recommend picketing his funeral the way he disrespected others. I don't plan to dance on his grave. I have sympathy for his family whom I don't doubt love him very much. But I will breathe a sigh of relief when another purveyor of hatred finally ends his campaign of evil.

No comments: