Fred Phelps was born in 1929 in Mississippi, the son of a railway policeman and a housewife. He was a failed lawyer, failed senatorial candidate, failed pastor and a successful pain in the ass until his death Wednesday. The true value in the life of any man, however, is what he is able to teach the world through example. I’m all but sure Fred Phelps taught the world more than he intended.
Before becoming the head of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, Phelps had an interesting career. As a lawyer, he took on civil rights cases almost exclusively, working hard to end Jim Crow in his part of the South. He sued then-president Ronald Reagan for appointing an ambassador to the Vatican, which he believed violated the separation of church and state. His career came to an end when he sued and harassed a court reporter, accusing her in open court of being a “slut” who engaged in perverted activities. He was disbarred in his home state and then in federal courts for continuing to harass judges and court personnel.
In the 1990s, Phelps ran in the Senate primaries a number of times but never advanced. He had supported Al Gore in the 1988 Democratic primary. The important thing to note about this moment is that Gore, at the time, was politically and personally anti-LGBT. In the ’80s, that position was still considered acceptable for liberal candidates who had a sanguine expectation in the election. Phelps withdrew his support when the Clinton-Gore ticket won in 1996 with a more affirming stance on the rights of LGBT people, bringing his Westboro Baptist Church to picket the inaugural ball and appearing again at the 1998 funeral of Gore’s father.
It was this practice of showing up at funerals to scream at people about members of the LGBT community and hell that earned Phelps and his church their notoriety. It was the only thing at which Phelps did not fail. These protests drew media attention and the ire of presidents, courts, veterans, advocacy groups and the LGBT community. Despite judgments by lower courts that deemed the WBC’s activities to be the kind of profanity or vulgarity that the First Amendment does not protect, federal appeals courts disagreed. As long as the WBC spews its hate from the sidewalk and doesn’t violate the buffer zone, its members are free to do what they do.
This appeals decision reversed a judgment against the WBC, their funds and their property. When all was said and done, the father of a fallen soldier was liable to the church for their legal fees. TV rage-puppet Bill O’Reilly promised to pay those fees in the grieving man’s stead.
This is the gift of Fred Phelps’ life, although he did not know it. O’Reilly is an immoderate blowhard and shameless pundit. He is no friend of the LGBT community and is not known for his niceness or decency, but for dog-whistle racism and making abusive statements about abortion doctors (“Tiller the Babykiller” was later shot through the eye by an anti-abortion activist). Yet, O’Reilly was the man who stood up here and said, “No, this will not stand,” made a hero by comparison to a greater monster.
Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church became the hard limit — the boundary at which archconservatives and rabid homophobes turned back, disgusted. This is largely due to Phelps’ choice to connect his hate speech to the funerals of fallen soldiers, but the reason is unimportant. What Phelps became was a flashpoint of hateful, anti-LGBT rhetoric that was distasteful to even the people who claim the LGBT community causes hurricanes or prey on children. Phelps’ life served as the best U.S. example of losing the choir while you preach.
As the leader of that church and its public face, Phelps leaves a vacuum of authority in the lunatic fringe. Despite the church’s recent foray into the world of Vine to reach new followers, it may not be able to recover from the loss of a charismatic and law-savvy torchbearer. Today, we say goodbye to a man who tested the limits of free speech, who held up a magnifying glass to the shriveled hearts of bigots everywhere, who existed as a shining beacon of what it means to go too far. His light has burned out, and his church will have to wander in darkness until it picks another star to follow. I suggest it directs its eyes to Bethlehem.
Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].