|Fred Phelps BBC investigative reporter Louis Theroux covered Fred Phelps' obnoxious antigay- or is that anti-human?- fundamentalist church in Topeka Kansas, recently. So, what is Phelps all about?
New Zealanders probably heard about Phelps for the first time when TVNZ screened an item on the toxic Topekan at the time the Human Rights Act was being debated, about fifteen years ago.
Phelps (1929- ) is fundamentalist minister at the independent Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka, Kansas. His church has seventy one members, and sixty are related to him either as biological relatives or through marriage, although several of his children have dissociated themselves from their father's activities.
In 1947, Phelps attended the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, before moving on to the Prairie Bible Institute in 1948. He then attended John Muir College (1951), before gaining a law degree at Washburn University (1962). Strangely, his initial legal forays were for the civil rights of African Americans, against police harassment of an African American American Legion (their RSA) venue, and then against Kansas Power and Light and Southwestern Bell over other civil rights litigation. He also tried to stop the US federal government when it dispatched a diplomatic mission to the Vatican, on the basis of church/state separation.
In 1977, Phelps was found to have perjured himself when involved in a case against a tardy court reporter, Carlene Brady, and was disbarred from practicing law in Kansas in 1979. In 1985, he was further disbarred from practicing in the federal court system.
To call Phelps a homophobe would be an understatement. According to him, one of his grandchildren was approached by a paedophile in one Topeka park, which unleashed his current vendetta against US LGBT communities, and anyone else who he views as supporting them. Phelps' theological views can be best described as extreme Calvinist predeterminist- he believes that God has preselected who he wants to be "saved," and the rest of us are going to be fried in our afterlives. Over time, it has become the case that homosexuality has become a litmus test, and if one doesn't agree with the Phelps entourage, then one is eternally damned.
Phelps goes too far even for most US social conservatives. He has been convicted of contempt of court charges and narrowly avoided jail on assault charges (1994). Over time, he has gradually expanded his vitriolic homophobic pickets and the scale of his opprobrium, adding public figures and countries who "enable" homosexuality to his list of the eternally damned. This includes the late widow of Dr Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King; Ronald Reagan; Ireland's Mary Robinson and Senator David Norris;Sweden and those nations afflicted by the South East Asian tsunami (2004); and the recipients of US military funerals in the context of the Iraqi War.
Indeed, it is the last activity which has incensed social conservatives as well as Phelps' usual liberal detractors. Phelps has now relegated the entire United States to the flames, and routinely pickets funerals of military personnel who aren't even gay. In response, the Bush administration banned pickets at military funerals, as have the states of Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, Virginia and Wisconsin. However, the Missouri and Ohio branches of the American Civil Liberties Union argued that this constituted an attack on Phelps right to free speech in those states. He has picketed law school graduations at the Universities of South Carolina and Kansas.
Phelps is not a total misanthrope. He applauded Castro's Cuba for its former hardline homophobia, and praised Swedish Pentecostal pastor Ake Green for his own episode of alleged antigay hate speech. Green was horrified at this, and hurriedly dissociated himself from Phelps. The late Saddam Hussein was also congratulated for being anti-American and anti-gay. However, he has used anti-Semitic abuse when faced with purported progay Jewish liberals.
Phelps is the quintessence of hate speech. His bitter war against "fags" is counterproductive, largely based on his own sectarian separatist fundamentalist rancor, which tends to be an attribute of extreme Calvinist fundamentalists (witness the late unlamented Christian Heritage Party in our own context). This can easily become cultic, and in the case of Phelps, it has. Craig Young - 7th February 2008