The truth is, Fred Phelps made a lot of us feel pretty great about ourselves. No, not the families of AIDS patients, gay men, American soldiers and celebrities whose funerals he relentlessly picketed along with a few dozen members of his Westboro Baptist Church. As journalist Donna Minkowitz chronicled almost twenty years ago in Poz magazine, “harassing bereaved families is Phelps’s specialty.” “I love to use words that send them off the edge emotionally,” he told her, “There’s nothing better than that.”
Phelps’s early victims included not just AIDS advocates like Nicholas Rango (1993) and Randy Shilts (1994) and gay men of modest fame like composer Kevin Oldham (1993), but also anonymous individuals like Kenneth Scott, a Topeka graduate student who died in 1992. Scott’s sister Sue Mee told Minkowitz, “When Kenny died, they came to the funeral with a sign that said ‘Fags=Death’ with a big smiley face,” and that years later, Scott’s family would still receive phone calls from random individuals asking, “Is this the house where fags live?”
Later, Phelps would broaden his ghoulish trolling to include the funerals of slain US soliders, whom he reckoned God had killed as punishment for America’s sexual immorality. Those families, too, suffered real harm. I think the Supreme Court reached the right decision in Snyder v. Phelps, the 2011 case that concluded that the First Amendment protected even hateful public protesters from tort liability. But it is impossible to read the testimony of Albert Snyder, the father of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, whose funeral Phelps and family bombarded with signs that read “God hates you,” “Fag Troops” and “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and not be utterly devastated. “I want so badly to remember all the good stuff and so far, I remember the good stuff, but it always turns into the bad,” Snyder recounted to the court. The lone dissenter in that case, Justice Samuel Alito, reasoned that open and vigorous public debate need not allow “the brutalization of innocent victims.” One can disagree with Alito’s ultimate conclusion, as well as parse whether or not his sympathy for “innocent victims” would have extended to gay men with AIDS, but the fact of the brutalization is undeniable.
Likewise, Phelps attempted to drive from public life local politicians like Topeka city councilwoman Beth Mechler, whose confidential blood records Phelps published in 1992 in order to falsely suggest that she had AIDS, and district attorney Joan Hamilton, whose private e-mail to her husband acknowledging a one-night stand Phelps also published (see Minkowitz and Kerry Lauerman’s profile for Mother Jones). Mechler, a Republican for whom Phelps had once canvassed, lost her re-election bid; Hamilton won.
For all these people, Phelps was not just some Jerry Springer–ized cartoon. He was a very real menace. But for the rest of us, he was a useful bigot. The left sometimes deployed Phelps as a facile synecdoche for the perils of religious extremism, even though his church was largely composed of his immediate family and isolated from organized conservative movements. It’s probably impossible to quantify, but I bet Phelps was direct-mail gold.
For the right, he was the ideal foil. As People for the American Way fellow Peter Montgomery, who has studied the religious right for decades, put it to me, “Phelps allowed other anti-gay leaders to posture that he was the face of hatred, not them. But the substance of their message to gay people is similar: repent or be damned—it’s just that Phelps framed it as ‘God hates fags,’ while people like Bryan Fischer [of the American Family Association] say God loves them and wants them to abandon their demonic lifestyles.” In the end, Montgomery argues that other anti-gay religious leaders were nonetheless tainted by Phelps’s rhetoric: “His protests at military funerals may have accomplished the most in terms of making anti-gay bigotry seem more broadly anti-American.”
For the media, Phelps was irresistible bait. And on the occasion of his death, we should ask why that was. Especially in recent years, he possessed almost no followers, no influence, no allies. What distinguishes him from any other raving street-corner prophet is the simple-mindedness of his message. In the place of the modern religious emphasis on God’s love, Phelps ranted on about God’s hate—for fags, for America, for Muslims, for Catholics, gun massacre victims and US troops. If American exceptionalism is in some way an attempt to sacralize the profane (America is blessed, its soliders and citizens blessed), Phelps merely reversed polarities, swapping in eternal damnation. It was a juvenile substitution. And to discuss Phelps as if he were a morally vexing and profound evil is to dignify him with a complexity he lacked. His hatred was banal.
In the end, he was only sound and fury. On his own merits, he accomplished nothing. He was a nobody.