But besides how cordial and gracious he found Phelps, Chu also records surprise at something most Americans might find astonishing: in pride of place in his church office, Phelps displayed a personalized award he’d received from a regional chapter of the NAACP. Before Westboro Baptist Church became notorious for its anti-gay vitriol, it was deeply involved in anti-racism and civil rights. Phelps’ brand of religious literalism, apparently, defies pat categorization.
Most Americans, of any religious or non-religious inclinations, might feel shocked by this revelation. I certainly was. I felt deep surprise despite knowing that Charlton Heston, renowned Republican activist and NRA firebrand, was formerly famous for marching shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Media portrayals of outspoken activists frequently circumscribe their opinions, making them equivalent to their most odious or least palatable statements.
Phelps himself didn’t help his isolation. He bifurcated his public life: his nuanced sermons and diverse awards remained behind church walls, while his interactions with the larger world often turned on vulgar language, ad hominem attacks, and shouting. Phelps, and his small but dedicated congregation, probably saw his confrontational style as like Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar. Outsiders saw him photographed waving nasty signs, mouth frozen open mid-scream.
Westboro Baptist Church existed for over thirty-five years before Phelps’ loathsome “God Hates Fags” campaign commenced. They expressed an iconoclastic Calvinist theology that alienated them from other churches—originally begun as a satellite congregation of another Topeka church, Phelps broke ties shortly after WBC opened its doors. But despite his liturgical lonerism, Phelps formerly made profitable, loving relationships with outside secular groups.
WBC was never large. By its own numbers, membership hovered around forty, mostly related to Phelps by blood or marriage. Chu reports meeting a few converts, including one who first attended hoping to film an anti-Phelps documentary, but was persuaded by Phelps’ sincere scriptural literalism. The congregation subsidized its exhaustive, international protest tours largely through lucrative anti-government lawsuits, which hastened some large paydays.
The transition from anti-racist progressive to anti-gay bombthrower boggles the mind. Having once been on history’s winning side, Phelps’ later attempts to freeze public morals seems like an essential reversal. He even registered his congregation’s web URL as godhatesfags.com. In his youth, Phelps reached across racial lines to help upend unjust power structures and spread justice. In old age, Phelps reinforced crumbling hierarchies and defended structures of privilege.
So what changed?
Fred Phelps hardly invented Biblical literalism. Many theologians through the ages have had diverse opinions on what it means to take the Bible literally, even though, as Nadia Bolz-Weber notes, it’s physically impossible to obey every Biblical dictum. Still, Phelps believed that upholding certain moral stipulations took priority. Reading the Levitical law or the Book of Ruth, Phelps found anti-racist morals. The same law called homosexuality “an abomination.”
Thus, Phelps’ opinions were theologically consistent. The way they cut across secular political alliances didn’t matter. Phelps wanted God’s approval, not humankind’s. Yet his latter career’s extreme verbal violence shows inconsistency. He stopped talking to anybody else. In his anti-racism, he allied with the NAACP. In his anti-gay activism, he flew solo. He became the sole arbiter of God’s will. Like Jim Jones or David Koresh, he became his own religious idol.
Six months before Phelps’ death, Westboro Baptist Church, the congregation he founded, formally excommunicated him for suggesting that their protests reverse the brutal confrontational tone. Not that they stop protesting; evidence suggests Phelps’ fundamental views remained unchanged. He just couldn’t remain angry that close to the Pearly Gates. The all-male board that excommunicated their own pastor had six members. Four were Phelps’ sons and grandsons.
The monster Phelps created ultimately devoured him.
If Fred Phelps were the mere caricature media portrayals have shown, it would be easy to piss on his grave. Before reading Jeff Chu, I’d have forgotten Phelps before he was cold. But one brief interview forced me to evaluate my prejudices. We mustn’t condemn Phelps on his passing, or we’ll become his equals. Like the Pharisees, Fred Phelps self-righteously damned perfect strangers. To save ourselves, we must first know our neighbors.