Beliefs Culture

Atheist Nate Phelps on his father: I mourn ‘the man he could have been’

Nate Phelps, shown here with fiancee Angela Feldstein, has broken with his father's church, Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which is best known for protesting the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in action.

(RNS) Nathan Phelps, the estranged atheist son of anti-gay Kansas pastor Fred Phelps who died Wednesday (March 19), is asking people to look beyond his father’s legacy of hate.

Nate Phelps, shown here with fiancee Angela Feldstein, has broken with his father's church, Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which is best known for protesting the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in action.

Nate Phelps, shown here with fiancee Angela Feldstein, has broken with his father’s church, Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which is best known for protesting the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in action. Photo courtesy of Nate Phelps

“I ask this of everyone,” the younger Phelps said in a statement issued Thursday about his father’s death at age 84. “Let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.”

The younger Phelps, who is 55 and goes by Nate, is one of four of Fred Phelps’ 13 children who renounced their father’s activities, which included picketing the funerals of veterans, AIDS victims and celebrities and left his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The church of approximately 40 members of the Phelps clan is best known for its public protests and colorful signs declaring, “God hates fags.”

“Unfortunately, Fred’s ideas have not died with him, but live on,” Nate Phelps’ statement reads. “Not just among the members of Westboro Baptist Church, but among the many communities and small minds that refuse to recognize the equality and humanity of our brothers and sisters on this small planet we share.”

He says he will mourn his father, “not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been.”

The church has declined most media requests for comment, and in a blog post sought to put Phelps’ death in perspective: “God forbid if every little soul at the Westboro Baptist Church were to die at this instant, or to turn from serving the true and living God, it would not change one thing about the judgments of God that await this deeply corrupted nation and world.”

Nate Phelps moved far from his father’s theology, which holds that God is punishing the United States because of its tolerance of homosexuality. In fact, the younger Phelps has become an outspoken supporter of gay rights.

He left the Westboro compound where he was raised on his 18th birthday. In a 2010 interview, the younger Phelps said his father beat his wife and his children with his fists, a leather barber strap, or the wooden handle of a mattock, a tool like an ax. His sister, Shirley Phelps-Roper, accused her brother of trying to gin up publicity for a book, and said her church appreciated the attention he brought them.

Though he explored other forms of Christianity, Phelps eventually became an atheist. He is now the executive director of the Centre for Inquiry in Calgary, Canada, a skeptic organization. He issued his statement through the group Recovering from Religion, which assists people leaving abusive faith situations and where Nate Phelps is a member of the board.

“Even more, I mourn the ongoing injustices against the LGBT community, the unfortunate target of his 23-year campaign of hate,” the statement reads. “His life impacted many outside the walls of the WBC compound, uniting us across all spectrums of orientation and belief as we realized our strength lies in our commonalities, and not our differences.”

Nate Phelps announced that his father was near death in a Facebook post on March 16. He did not see his father before his death.

“My father was a man of action,” his statement concludes, “and I implore us all to embrace that small portion of his faulty legacy by doing the same.”


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • I wonder if Nate has or will write about (or if he understands enough to write about) what drove or brought his father to hold the positions/beliefs that he held and to act as he did. What were his motivations, underlying angst, how was he raised. We as in all of society need to figure out what drives some people to hate and what drives others not to! IF that is we ever hope to stop creating more haters.

  • How sorry I feel for people who hate for any reason. Hatred destroys the person who holds it and not the one hated. I wish all non-believers would read C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.” He didn’t only write “The Chronicles of Narnia!”
    Lewis started out as an atheist, too; he’ll tell you about it and what made him change.

  • Nate is one of my heroes. He knows faith is nonsense and he learned it the hardest way possible. But then, in our culture it takes a lot of courage to face this nonsense for what it is. Tragic story but Nate is a great man.

  • Sister – I’m confused by your remarks here. They don’t seem relevant at all. This item has nothing to do with atheists hating anything or anyone, but rather about a professing Christian – Rev. Fred Phelps – whose hate not only became his legacy, but also separated him from his children.

    Indeed, Nathan Phelps (the atheist) is showing a great deal of charity to his father’s memory. Why sully that by casting unwarranted aspersions on a group of people who simply do not believe what you believe?

  • That would indeed make for some interesting reading, Susan. I suspect that the answer lies in deeper understanding of human psychology, although admittedly I’m skeptical that we will ever stop haters from becoming so.

  • @Sister,
    Ah, yes. As Lewis said, “Jesus was either Liar, Lunatic or Lord”
    What an obvious flaw. Though the Jesus stories are probably based on some such figure, it is obvious that these stories have been embellished quite a bit.
    The missing word in Lewis’ analysis is “legend”.

    Look up Paul Bunyan and you will see what can happen when people start believing a bunch of nonsense made up out of thin air.

    Jesus is nonsense.

  • My irony meter just broke when I read that. This is a story about an atheist finding something to mourn about a person consumed with religious inspired hatred. You managed to criticize the person who acted with compassion. Why? Because they do not share your views of religion. I guess you found more in common with Fred Phelps than his son.

  • Thank you Nate, for your words, I wish you and the rest of the family the peace and love in your hearts that seemed to elude Mr Phelps senior.

  • The Holy Spirit is with you, Nate Phelps. Your words glorify God; your misguided father’s actions did not.