Thank You, Fred Phelps, for Everything

Pastor Fred Phelps looks to the sky in April 1999 as he wields placards protesting homosexuality outside the Albany County Courthouse in Laramie, Wyo., where one of the defendants in the beating death of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard is standing trial. (AP/David Zalubowski)
Peter Z. Scheer
Managing Editor
Peter Scheer grew up in the newspaper business, spending family vacations with his mother at newspaper editors\' conferences, enjoying daycare in editorial departments and begrudgingly reviewing his father\'s…
Peter Z. Scheer

Now that the godfather of the hyper-homophobic Westboro Baptist Church is dead, it’s time to thank him for his years of service to the gay rights movement.

It’s not often one is handed an enemy so committed and tone-deaf that he makes all those even slightly inclined to his worldview squirm in their hate-by-association.

Phelps first came to attention popularizing the slogan “God Hates Fags.” His frequent public protests, extended family and supporters in tow, helped catapult his relatively tiny Kansas flock into the national spotlight. It was media catnip. Controversy drives ratings and traffic, and here you had a guy who couldn’t help but stir the pot with the most unabashedly hateful rhetoric.

Here’s a taste: “God hates America, and those calamities last Tuesday [September 11, 2001] are none other than the wrath of God, smiting fag America. … That wasn’t any accident. That wasn’t any coincidence. There’s only America to blame for those tragedies.” Oh … my. Welcome to “fag America.” Now worship Phelps’ extreme worldview or, as a more sane person might, challenge it instinctively.

The absolute nadir of the Phelps movement was an absolute gift — one we would have returned, happily — to gay rights. That was Phelps’ targeting of military funerals. Having not read my Bible recently, I won’t pretend to understand the link between veterans killed in foreign wars and … gay people. To hear Phelps describe it, America was being punished for its tolerance of the gay lifestyle.

What is it they say about the enemy of my enemy? A lot of hurt families, and people just watching in horror on cable TV, saw the unvarnished hatred of gay people for what it really was: not a defense of marriage, an attempt to protect children from unconventional parents or any of the other less overt forms of bigotry that have kept gays oppressed over the years.

Phelps was our villain in chief, and he played the role zealously.

He even went after popular icons like, and you can’t make this up, beloved children’s TV hero Mr. Rogers: “Mr. Rogers gave aid and comfort to homosexuals. He was a man who preached tolerance of all sorts of people in ways that directly contradicted the Bible. His syrupy teachings led millions astray. He was a wuss and he was an enabler of wusses.”

Every time Phelps opened his mouth, and there was a recording device there to catch it, he made a convert. Just not the kind he was hoping for.

Phelps was a human fire hose spraying peaceful protesters. He was napalm landing on a young girl.

Phelps was the thing that went bump in the night, and he’s dead. I don’t relish death for anyone and I won’t be throwing a ding-dong, the bigot is gone party.

Instead I choose to rise above Phelps’ almost comical, absurd hatred of everyone and everything modern and wholesome and loving that didn’t conform to his narrow worldview. He made the argument for us, unintentionally, and with a dedication difficult to match.

To quote the late Mr. Fred Rogers, “When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”

“Love conquers hate.” Now that’s something I can have faith in.


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