I know that many were happy with the news of Fred Phelps’ death but when I first heard, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt. On one hand, a man who protested at the funerals of men and women who died in combat would no longer be able to do so. On the other, one could feel sorry for a man who could never get over his anger. He was once a noted civil rights lawyer in Kansas and won an award from the local NAACP, but even back then there were signs he was troubled. The obituary in the New York Times notes
He earned a law degree in 1964 from Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, but his legal career was troubled from the start. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which describes Westboro Baptist as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” Mr. Phelps struggled to find people to attest to his good character when he wanted to be admitted to the bar, was temporarily suspended for professional misconduct, and was even sued for failing to pay for candy his children sold door to door.
He succeeded in winning settlements in discrimination cases he filed as a civil rights lawyer.
“Most blacks — that’s who they went to,” the Rev. Ben Scott, president of the N.A.A.C.P.’s Topeka branch, said in an interview with CNN in 2010. “I don’t know if he was cheaper or if he had that stick-to-it-ness, but Fred didn’t lose many back then.”
Phelps was disbarred in 1979. While he has said that his anti gay crusade began because a grandson was propositioned he showed a predilection for child abuse. Amy Davidson writes in the New Yorker piece titled “The Two Freds” about Fred Rogers and Fred Phelps
One unpleasant thing about Fred Phelps was the way in which he and his church members brought children to their protests and had them hold placards like the ones that Roberts quoted, and repeat slogans slurring gay people and praising divine killings. They tended to be Phelps’s own children or grandchildren—how else would you find an eight-year-old to damn Mr. Rogers?—and the bulk of his parishioners were his relatives. The obituaries refer to complicated loyalties and estrangements, but then, those of some very good people do, too. But one can see, in the hanging of hateful signs on children, the very opposite of Fred Rogers’s life’s project, which was to treat young people both morally and as serious moral actors. Mr. Rogers spoke of the intense drama of one’s earliest years, Supreme Court cases or no, and the way that friendship, above all, was orienting. Of the two Freds, he’s the one who endures. Phelps, and all his vitriol, will spin away.
Phelps and his congregation at Westboro Baptist Church (composed primarily, if not entirely of family) demonstrated everywhere. They spread Phelps angry message at thousands of funerals of the well known and of ordinary people as well as at many events. Phelps represented an angry God. The New York Time obituary again
In 1998, he explained his view of a wrathful God in an interview with The Houston Chronicle.
“You can’t believe the Bible without believing that God hates people,” he said. “It’s pure nonsense to say that God loves the sinner but hates the sin. He hates the sin, and he hates the sinner. He sends them to hell. Do you think he loves the people in hell?”
So in the end, I feel sorry for a man filled with so much hate and anger. I hope he can find peace in another life.
Photograph: Jed Kirschbaum/Baltimore Sun, via Associated Press