Fred Phelps: Death of a Dinosaur

April 10, 2014

Across the street from my home in downtown Toronto, there once lived a family in the biggest, grandest detached brick home on the block. Two lesbian mothers, one child each, fathered by the same gay man, a high school friend who lived nearby with his partner and the family dog. The men were involved parents and regular visitors, along with a passing parade of same-sex couples juggling strollers, baby seats and diaper bags, swapping tips on day care and swim classes. Each summer, the dads took the kids on a long canoe holiday. The mothers drove a Chrysler mini-van, which worked well for picking up lumber and bathroom fixtures at Home Depot, as the two busied themselves renovating the house. Every woman envies a neighbour who has a handy spouse. I was no different.

The whole scene was electrifyingly normal. The only discouraging word came from my cousin, an evangelical Christian who lived on the other side of the country. “I’d watch those two,” she said coldly, as I described my neighbours’ Brady Bunch existence. In her voice, I sensed more fear than hate. Fear, even terror, of anything different and beyond her own daily experience.

It was that same kind of fear, taken to its most hysterical level, that propelled Fred Phelps in his life’s work. Phelps, the Christian crusader who led his flock of evangelical nut bars from Topeka, Kansas, on anti-gay crusades, died last month at the age of 84. And that, perhaps, should be that. Any words, any analysis of Phelps, any dissection of his movement and its success or failure, it could be argued, lends oxygen to the kind of hatred he spread everywhere he went. Best to let his hatred die with him.

It is mortifying for many Christians that Phelps defined himself as one, as he stalked the funerals of gays and straights, raging against his own United States government and a democracy that tolerated homosexuality. Phelps and his family at Westboro Baptist Church took full advantage of their constitutional rights while blasting the civil rights of others. It was their right to openly celebrate the obscenity of a gay teenager beaten to death by cowards, to picket the funerals of American servicemen, laying down their twisted view that God was punishing the U.S. for protecting gay rights.

His death has given the people he hurt and offended a moral choice: Dance on his grave, and wish him every sort of burn-in-hell defilement possible — or simply wave goodbye to a social dinosaur and change the subject. “Sorry for your loss,” the signs read in the wake of Phelps’ death, a greeting to his congregants as they gathered for another anti-gay protest.

Phelps died an unremarkable death, elderly, isolated, reviled. He died with clean sheets pulled up around his shoulders – a death too comfortable in the minds of many for a man who spewed hatred towards people who died covered in dirt and blood.

He died at a time when gay couples in more and more jurisdictions are being allowed to marry, adopt children, claim spousal rights and just live their lives in peace. He died in the wake of the Sochi Olympics, which, triggered by tough anti-gay laws in Russia, turned into a cheeky celebration of LGBT pride.

But his hateful spirit lives on. It would be dangerous to assume that his twisted interpretation of Christianity has died along with him. He was an old man with old methods, leaning too heavily on the pitchforks-and-torches approach to political protest. A similarly distorted take on Islam, fueled by modern terrorist techniques, propelled planes into the World Trade Center, killed thousands of people and left a lot of innocent Muslims holding the bag for the extremist views of a few. Christians averse to the Phelps brand of extremism might do well to take notes and dig deeper, even in the aftermath of his death. The next Phelps might do more damage.

Phelps’ accidental achievement may have been to light the way towards tolerance and acceptance, by spotlighting what “hate the sin, love the sinner” looks like when taken to the extreme. That kind of parsing just doesn’t cut it any more. No one likes a bully. And in the end, that’s all Phelps was – a Bible-thumping, hate-spewing bully. Happily, he was recognized as such, even by his own children. The uplifting lesson of his death is that society is prepared today more than ever before to regard gay rights as the next big civil rights cause in North America. And to offer all of us a choice of where we stand in history

In the meantime, my lesbian neighbours say they aren’t interested in ‘gay rights’ any more. They have a new house to renovate now, just a few streets away, and are busy renovating.They want to talk about education for their kids, health care, transit, taxes. About the big issues that affect their lives daily as citizens. They aren’t asking to be let into the mainstream of Canadian society. They are mainstream.

So here’s your hate, Fred. What’s your hurry?

Copyright © Cheryl Hawkes 2014

Further reading:
Wikipedia page on the Westboro church:


Cheryl Hawkes

Cheryl Hawkes

Cheryl Hawkes is a journalist and writer based in Toronto, Canada. Hawkes has worked for more than 30 years in almost every journalistic medium, writing and reporting for magazines, wire services, web-based publications, and writing, producing and reporting for radio and television.




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