Rob Buchanan won’t be dancing on Fred Phelps’ grave, because he thinks the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church changed America for the good.
Fred Phelps’ early life was filled with tragedy and constant uprooting. There was the death of his young mother from cancer, then later the death of the aunt who raised him in a car accident. Young Phelps was constantly moving around, due to a chronic habit of destroying relationships and explosively leaving jobs and education. He could never finish anything on good terms, whether it was dropping out of one college after another after preaching about the evil and immorality of students and teachers, or becoming a member or pastor of various churches only to turn around shortly thereafter and condemn all his new associates to hell. He also stopped speaking to his father and stepmother in his early 20s.
But despite all this turmoil Fred Phelps showed some genuine promise that he might redeem himself as a decent human being. Very few people are aware that he used his firebrand intellect and passion for argument for some good when he became a civil rights lawyer, taking on cases of African-Americans fighting against the notorious ‘Jim Crow’ legislation. Sadly this too would implode when his dark side began to increasingly engage in bizarre personal legal vendettas against people.
He was disbarred for numerous gross episodes of misconduct both inside and outside the courtroom. The last phase of Fred Phelps persona as fire and brimstone, hate-mongering attention whore began with the formation of the Westboro Baptist Church.
We can speculate till the cows come home on what the wellspring for Phelps’ boundless homophobia was. Some ex members of his own church and family have speculated he was a closeted gay. Personally, I don’t think so. I read him as a man who had a desperate need to make some mark on the world, and someone whose arrogance and egomania required a constant enemy to rally against.
Fred Phelps needed a target for his stratospheric self-righteousness.
A brilliant self-publicist, he exploited any hot topic of the day to promote his cause – and more importantly, himself. The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and the subsequent growing visibility of gay people, proved his perfect storm. Gays were simply a handy target. He used the thorny issue of homosexuality to get himself international recognition, using marketing genius with his ‘God Hates Fags’ signs, and picketing funerals of fallen American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, knowing this would make primetime news.
I despised the man and everything he stood for, but you won’t find me dancing on this particular old monster’s grave.
Why are we repulsed by Fred Phelps’ ‘God Hates Fags’ signs? Because we know hate is wrong. So, why act like Fred Phelps and hate him in return? We are horrified by the picketing of funerals because we know it is inhumane and abhorrent, so why should we be reduced to rejoicing the death of our enemies? What greater act of defiance against the crude evil of the Westboro Baptist Church is there than to confront it with benevolence?
While fighting monsters it’s important to be careful that you don’t become one. Hatred, as a great man once said, is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Better to remember why we were so outraged by Phelps’ actions, and not repeat his hate mongering.
What’s more, I think we have something to thank Fred Phelps for. By being the disgusting, utterly irrational face of homophobia, he united right-minded people in a way that scores of civil rights leaders never could have. Arguably no one has done more for the cause of gay rights in the 21st century than he unintentionally did, by repulsing those who might have once beaten the homophobia drum, and galvanising those with sympathy for gay people into being real allies.
Fred Phelps made senseless homophobia in America impossible to take sides with, or ignore. Perhaps he was a great man after all.
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