Fred Phelps’ questionable legacy: Westboro ‘Church of hate’

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Westboro Baptist Church members display their signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. The Church won its free speech case in the ruling issued in 2011. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Westboro Baptist Church members display their signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. The Church won its free speech case in the ruling issued in 2011. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Did anyone ever worship God at Westboro Baptist Church?

Did founder Fred Phelps, or anyone in his family who formed the core of the tiny congregation, ever bring the power and beauty of the gospel to life for Christian believers? Pray along with someone in need of spiritual support? Or bring food to the hungry? Or join community efforts to care for the least and the lost?

Or did Fred Phelps — now ill according to a church spokesman, perhaps dying according to his estranged son, Nate — devote all his days of strength and health to just one thing.


Westboro Baptist Church members display their signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. The Church won its free speech case in the ruling issued in 2011. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Westboro Baptist Church members display their signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. The Church won its free speech case in the ruling issued in 2011. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

For nearly two decades, Phelps and a tiny squad from Westboro, traveled to military funeral and every other event they thought might glean public attention, toting signs proclaiming God’s wrath against America for tolerating homosexuality. They would stand, in a designated protest area on public property with their well-worn signs: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” or “God hates fags” or “You’re going to hell.”

And, in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that they were within their Constitutional free speech rights to do exactly that. (My colleague Brian Pellot asks if gays should picket Phelps funeral.)

In the high court case, a father, Albert Snyder, argued that Westboro’s signs inflicted deep emotional distress at the funeral of his soldier son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty.  But the court found that the pickets did not disrupt or alter the funeral, however hurtful the speech or whether “its contribution to public discourse may be negligible.”

The majority ruling concluded:

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here— inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case…”

So, will Fred Phelps spend his days, possibly his last, with peace of mind that he has secured a safe corner for hate speech?

Does it worry him that no one else jumped on the Westboro hate bandwagon to bolster his ranks?

Is two decades of loathing, not loving, his country and those who serve it, this the legacy he will triumph in when he faces the judgment of God?

That seems to me a spiritual contradiction to believe in an almighty God of judgment and still assume that Lord expects puny humans to do His job.

Unlike Fred Phelps, I do not wish him illness or death. But I don’t mind if he’s silent now. Do you?

  • he played the devil’s advocate part splendidly.

    without him showing the logical conclusion of official christian teachings, the civilized world wouldn’t have awoken as quickly.

    unprecedented pace of social change in all of human history, and groups just like his were critical to showing the truly mostrous face of christianity.

    showing that face to *christians* who could no longer abide that face is the unsung hero of the equality movement.

    rest in peace, fred. well done.

  • Atheist Max

    Fred Phelps is criticized as “an extremist” but I reject this.

    Christians are weaseling out of their full responsibility for people like Phelps and the Westboro Church. They know he is immoral, but they dare not admit WHY.

    The Bible completely validated Fred Phelps.
    It is practically fascist manifesto:

    In an effort to “do as Jesus did” millions have been killed.
    Love your enemies? Yes!
    But NEVER love the Lord’s enemies. So that justifies all sorts of things:

    Jesus didn’t forgive his enemies – he sent them to Hell (Mark 16:16)
    Jesus cursed his enemies – “Thou Fools!”, “swine!”(Matt. 23:17)
    Jesus stole things – “untie them” “and bring them to me” (Matt. 21:2-3)
    Jesus wishes his enemies dead – “execute them in front of me”(Luke 19:27)
    He didn’t love most of his neighbors, – They are ‘Dogs’!(Matthew 15:26)
    Jesus told people to judge others – “Remove your blessings”!(Matt 10:14)
    He was bigoted – “They are swine” (Matthew 7:6)
    Jesus violently whipped people – attack on the temple (John 2:5)
    He didn’t want peace – “I do not bring peace.”(Matt 10:34)
    Jesus lied to people – “He went in secret” (John 7:8-13)
    Jesus prepared for war – “if you have money, buy a sword” (Luke 22:36-37)

    All is fair in the fight for Jesus.
    Instead of criticizing Fred Phelps why not consider a different question?

    Why is Christianity fundamentally wrong-headed?

  • WBC Ale

    Fred Phelps last words reportedly, “I’m a closeted Brooklyn Hipster and this was all a big art project” 🙂

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  • Ian Clark

    What Fred Phelps failed to understand, above all else, was Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”.

    While WBC may have been the most vitriolic and obtuse in dealing with its view of sin, this sort of mentality is pervasive in Western Christendom: the mentality that sin is exclusively a third party problem. Sin is something other people do, not us. WBC would wave the flag and spew the vitriol against homosexuality, but there was never an equally public revulsion at their own, personal, sin.

    We like to think that God works like a court of law, where some sin is big and some sin is small. But, no, to God sin in all forms is the falling short of “the glory of God”. And we all fall short.

    We so often find people prepared to blast the “immorality” and “sin” of others, but so infrequently find people willing to concede “I, too, am a sinner”.

    This is not to say that Christians should not seek to speak out on sin outside of themselves, but what they should do is approach it sensitively and with humility for they are just as ill as their patients.

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  • Lles Nats

    My take on the so labeled “church of hate”….you can legislate compliance, but you can never force true appreciation. If someone if going to hate you then you can’t stop it. You can only make them comply to the point they get so fed up they leave of turn around and fight you. Actually winning and changing the worldview of a individual, truly changing them, takes more than laws and rules. Those just annoy people.

    I’ve pointed this concept out before on thehumanist website as they are super quick over their to point out how christian thought is “bigoted” and archaic. Just automatically, it is if you are a humanist. Ironically they call themselves “free thinkers”. So when I pointed out this concept for never actually being able to force a persons appreciation, and cited how they had comic strips on their own website slandering a christian worldview…they got mad. Then I asked if I could submit a few comics making light of a secular worldview as seen from a pride parade scenario. They banned me.

    Christians scare them when they don’t have a pat rebuttal previously provided them by their handlers. So ban the christians = keep up appearances. No dissent = they are always right. HAHA.

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