The Confused Legacy of Westboro's Fred Phelps

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Nine-year-old Daniel Phelps (R), grandson of Westboro Baptist Church pastor Fred Phelps, joins family members while demonstrating outside the Supreme Court.
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Fred Phelps, the founder and anti-gay preacher at Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS, died on Thursday at the age of 84.

Phelps gained national attention for holding protests outside of military funerals, claiming that the soldiers had died because God was punishing the nation for its acceptance of homosexuality. His group also picketed the funerals of LGBT people and Jews, as well as the funeral of Bill Clinton's mother and Al Gore's father. 

Phelps was a disbarred civil rights lawyer who was active in politics and ran for local offices several times as a Democrat. After several unsuccessful runs, he shifted his focus to mostly protesting. 

The preacher founded the Westboro Baptist Church in 1955, and today the congregation is made up almost entirely of members of the Phelps family, though four of his 13 children have left the church and come out in opposition to its principles and tactics. Recently, one of his estranged sons said his father had been excommunicated from the church.

"He really pushed far the boundaries of just how vile and unpleasant you could be in terms of public speech," says Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "He was so aggressive, so filled with slurs and ugly things to say that, in fact, he probably did the movement against gay rights more harm than anything else."

Potok says that at one point, others on the Christian right actually wondered if Phelps was some kind of "plant" or purposeful distraction instituted by their enemies to cast a negative light on the anti-gay movement. His movement drew national attention when congregants from Westboro picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man beaten death in 1998.

"The funeral pickets were so nasty," says Potok, who adds that the congregants held signs with things like "Matthew Shepard is Burning in Hell" and "Thank God for AIDS." Because of the controversial nature of the Westboro Baptist Church, Shepard's funeral launched the group into the national spotlight.

"I think of Fred Phelps of being a kind of cult leader," says Potok. "If you listen to some of his estranged children—four of his 13 children have completely broken with him—they talk about being beaten with Mattock handles, a kind of ax handle, as kids. They were forced to do things like sell candy in the streets in order to raise money for the church at a time when it had very little. This was an extremely authoritarian family, and Phelps was very much the boss of that family until very near the end."

Though the Westboro Baptist Church reportedly refused to discuss Phelps's excommunication, Potok says that Phelps was tucked away from the public eye and away from the Westboro compound.

"Essentially, what went around came around in terms of Fred Phelps," he adds. 

The vicious attacks instigated by Phelps, which took hold of a large portion of his adult life, have deep roots. 

"This was a man that was obsessed with sexuality going back more than 50 years," says Potok. "In 1952, Phelps was profiled in TIME Magazine for doing street ministry work against petting—against people making out in the backseats of cars. The man has been fixated on sex and human sexuality for almost his entire life."

Potok adds that the legacy of Phelps and that of the Westboro Baptist Church will likely be the exact opposite of what the troubled leader hoped to accomplish.

"I think to a large extent, if Fred Phelps and his followers did anything they helped to push revulsion against the extremes of the anti-gay movement because their language was so foul, so off-putting," he says. "In the latter years of his life, people who went to funerals in order to protect the funeral go-ers—the families of the person who died and so on—ranged from people very much on the left to people very much on the right. In a sense, Phelps had the effect of uniting people from the rather far left to the rather far right in opposition to everything that he stood for."