Just to be clear: he was a horrible man.
Fred Phelps was the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, a tiny Kansas congregation whose notoriety astronomically exceeded their relevance. For decades, Westboro Baptists traveled across the United States picketing Gay Pride parades, welcoming congregations, military funerals, any event or organization that, in the twisted theology of their pastor, promoted treating gay men and lesbians like human beings. This was, quite literally, hate speech, with the word "hate" ascribed to God's feelings toward whichever epithet Phelps preferred for persons whose orientation differed from his own.
Toward the end of his life, Phelps was excommunicated by his church. I have no idea why. I have read that he was estranged from his son, Fred Jr., for more than thirty years. He lived to be 84, long enough to see the beginning of the end for his cherished cause of religion-infused bigotry, as a growing avalanche of states legalize same-sex marriage.
The religious right is going to miss Fred Phelps, but not for the reasons you might think. For decades, Phelps provided cover for bigots who disguise their hatred as piety. "He's a terrible extremist," they could say. "God doesn't hate homosexuals, he loves them! He just wants them to stop sinning."
And therein lies the rub, because the difference between this high-minded homophobia and the sign-waving hatred of Westboro is cosmetic. Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Assembly of God Pentecostals et al hold a belief virtually identical to those of Fred Phelps: homosexuality is a choice, a willful act committed by sinful humans that is a perversion of God's plan for human relations and reproduction, and the only right way for homosexuals to be accepted by the church and society is to turn away from their sinful behavior. They may not picket, their web sites may not be filled with hate speech, but they are cut from the same cloth.
Without Fred Phelps to kick around, the hypocrisy of clothing bigotry in "love" becomes more obvious to the rest of us. "I'm just not ready for gay people to get married" can be seen as grounded in ignorance and prejudice rather than caution. The religious exemption so many bigots are seeking this year is revealed for what it is: Westboro without its "God hates fags" signs.
In fact, Fred Phelps has done us a service, showing up the well-dressed bigots for what they are: just a few steps removed from hate-mongering clowns. The same service was provided for racism by the Ku Klux Klan, and for antisemitism by the Nazis. Take any philosophy to an extreme and you will find a Fred Phelps there, espousing that philosophy in language that is just a heightened version of its more generally accepted lesser versions.
This is the point at which I get uncomfortable. I've been in a few peace marches, and in every one, I found myself disturbed by the presence of young anarchists, people who could not be content to quietly walk through town, but insisted on pushing buttons, burning effigies, getting in the faces of admirably composed policemen and trying to get themselves arrested. I found this behavior excessive, attention-grabbing, and wondered if it actually had anything to do with the cause we were promoting with our otherwise well-mannered demonstration. How does screaming at a public servant further the cause of pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan? How does violence against property and, occasionally, people make a statement for equal rights?
I tell myself that the presence of these anarchists had more to do with the liberal approach of the march organizers whose preference was not to turn anyone away, however questionable their tactics. It's an admirable principle. I hope it's true. But I wonder.
I wrote recently about the tolerance spectrum, a framework I developed for classifying different levels of acceptance or rejection of otherness. What if, I wonder, it's more a loop than a spectrum? What if anarchism and fascism are just different sides of the same coin? The tactics employed by Westboro bear a startling similarity to those of the anarchists who so irritated me. Both strike me as pitiful efforts at getting on TV through bad behavior, nothing more, in the end, than creating one's own private reality show.
For my part, I genuinely believe that any religion claiming truth must demonstrate that at its heart it promotes the greatest good for the greatest number, and that their can be no ambiguity about how its adherents are to act in the face of diversity: embrace it, affirm it, celebrate it. To the extent that religion rejects others, it ceases to be true, rendering itself, instead, a vehicle for justifying innate prejudice.
I initially left United Methodism for personal and professional reasons, but in the years since I last stepped into a Methodist church, I have found a deeper disconnect between myself and the denomination that formed me. Methodism's inability to fully accept its gay members, and the constant refrain of "We have no choice" from superintendents, bishops, Annual Conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, church agencies and commissions and boards and any institutional structure within the church that could make a difference but chooses not to--and yes, they all have a choice--has convinced me the church is just a bigger, politer version of Westboro Baptist. Fred Phelps is alive and well, delighting in every church trial, every defrocked minister, every gay couple giving up on their church home and joining the UCC instead.
He'll cling to life just as long as bigots continue to claim a religious exemption, to mask their hatred with clerical collars and Bible readings. Only when churches have truly renounced his beliefs, have erased the hateful restrictions from their law books and sanctioned the pastors who continue to espouse them, and have turned to their gay members and atoned for all the centuries of prejudice, inviting them to come, study, be ordained, get married, be a full part of this church as you never could have before; only then will Fred Phelps finally rest in whatever semblance of peace a bitter angry bigot can find in the next world.
The sooner the better. I've really had quite enough of him.