The Magnetic Poetry of Fred Phelps
The Westboro Baptist Church compound in Topeka, Kansas, looks like the deck of a battleship in distress. A two-layer gunwale—a hedge outside a wooden fence—protects the property, and three flagpole masts rise from the front yard inside. The largest pole, closest to the street, flies a tattered Canadian flag above a tattered American one. Closer to the side of the property where the entrance is, two more poles fly the humble Kansas and Topeka flags. All four flags are upside-down. The only thing right side up is the twenty-foot “www.godhatesamerica.com” sign on the side of the building, arranged like George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln.
Westboro’s astonishingly long-winded SOS, abbreviated as “God Hates Fags,” is the apotheosis of our shrill political rhetoric these days. You might describe it as a poetic shit-fit. For decades now, for the Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers, the threat level has been at red if not infrared. It’s the purest form of the language of death panels, of the zoo’s African lion and the White House’s lyin’ African, of stem cell research portending the Final Solution. I don’t mean to tar the teabaggers with God Hates Fags as a cheap shot because both are pro-life and anti-gay marriage; liberals use this paranoid, turned-up-to-eleven language too, though perhaps not as successfully. In 2004, a Democrat warned me that if Bush was reelected, there “might not be any more elections.” This rhetoric is absurd and empirically lazy; at the same time it’s emotionally irresistible, whether you find it appealing or appalling.
I visited Westboro one Sunday morning a couple of years ago, walking up to the side of the property near the Topeka flag (a faded green, gold, and white banner with a seal for the “Golden City”). A preadolescent boy scurried from an emerald minivan to the building and back. The van’s sliding door was still open when I reached the padlocked gate. The boy was in back, and two women sat up front. Both were plain in a way anachronistic Christians often are—stocky, old world, anti-glamorous. The younger woman in the passenger seat wore a headscarf that reminded me of Hutterite uniforms in other parts of the Great Plains. The boy was noticeably uncool for his age.
“Do you, um, know where the entrance is?” I asked, peering into the van.
“The entrance is usually here, but it’s locked now,” the driver replied helpfully. “Sorry.” I backed away, waiting for the church elders to arrive and unlock the door. I was still ten minutes early for the 11:30 service.
I stood shifting my weight in the half-shade of their trees, little Jacob’s ladders of light dropping between the leaves. The day was already over ninety degrees. I left a reporter’s notebook sticking out of my back pocket to reveal the fact that I was a writer without actually saying so. After a moment, the green minivan’s door slid shut, and inexplicably my hatemonger friends sped away. I kept waiting in the heat.
With a few dozen members and a fax machine, Reverend Phelps and his church began making headlines in the early 1990s, picketing the funerals of gay AIDS victims with messages like “AIDS Is God’s Curse” and “Fags Die, God Laughs.” In 1994, a dozen Westboro members lasted about thirty seconds outside the San Francisco funeral of gay journalist Randy Shilts (author of And the Band Played On) before being escorted away by police in a hail of eggs and fruit. In 1998, the church upped the ante—in a triumph of First Amendment over Sixth Commandment—by celebrating the murder of Matthew Shepard at his funeral in Laramie, Wyoming. Soon, with the advent of the Internet’s arms race of outrageousness, in which visitors link and flock to the bizarre, Westboro assembled one of the most fearsome fleets: God Hates Fags, God Hates America, God Hates Canada, God Hates Sweden, Priests Rape Boys, Signs of the Times, and Smell the Brimstone. Dot com.
In time, the anti-gay protests lost their novelty. Not content to be a freak show, and facing a protracted drought of gay AIDS funerals, the church changed course, and through a leap of logic comprehensible only in the distorted gravity of publicity-making, began in 2005 a campaign picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in the Iraq War. They now aimed to disgrace some of the last sacred cows in America, proclaiming “Thank God for IEDs,” “Thank God for Sept. 11,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The soldiers, they preach, are dying in retribution for our modern Sodom’s tolerance of gays (“They turned America / Over to fags; / They’re coming home / In body bags.”), and for its intolerance of God’s “anointed” and His “prophets” at Westboro Baptist. In May 2006, Congress passed and President Bush signed the “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act,” prohibiting demonstrations within an hour of a funeral at a national cemetery. At least twenty-two states have passed similar laws. In October 2007, a federal jury in Baltimore awarded $10.9 million in damages to the father of a Marine whose funeral Phelps and crew had picketed. A federal judge later limited the damages to $5 million, and in September 2009, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the case, ruling the demonstrations protected free speech.
More recently Westboro has expanded its targets to include New York synagogues and even Barack Obama’s daughters—in November, church members picketed outside the Sidwell Friends School because, according to a statement reported by Talking Points Memo, it had allowed “the most bloody, deceitful, evil, murderous bastard and his shemale sidekick to place their satanic spawn within [its] four walls.” Their invective, in innumerable press releases, memos, and picket signs, has a radioactive wrath that, sincere as their hatred is, is not unselfconsciously funny. It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz’s booming, alliterative insults to scare the Tin Man—“you clinking, clanking collection of caliginous junk!”—and the Scarecrow—“you billowing bale of bovine fodder!”
Westboro’s endless temper tantrum does nothing good for civic debate. It’s the gospel of insignificant egomaniacs who want to be significant. And directly or indirectly, it’s the model for other rhetorical stuntmen and -women angling to get on cable television. “You can’t describe it, your adrenaline’s going,” Fred Phelps Jr. once told a reporter. “It’s almost like you could get hooked.” How many news cycles have been given over to providing the Phelps clan (almost all church members are relatives) with the erotic jolt of staking out the most outrageous position possible? We (ahem) should deny them any more airtime.
Still, it’s hard not to be drawn in by their language, both as shocking, stifled-laugh comedy and as fight-picking. I can’t deny the appeal of a line like “For all eternity, Liz Taylor will be tormented with fire and brimstone, everlasting fire, eternal punishment, shame and everlasting contempt, the resurrection of damnation, tribulation, wrath, indignation, anguish…” Or the elegant Calvinist antimetabole of “God does not hate them because they are homosexuals; they are homosexuals because God hates them.” Fred Phelps is Walt Whitman’s evil twin, generating an overflowing word count of hate-filled, exclusionary, overwrought, antique, hyperbolic, unedited provocation. Glenn Beck is a poseur, a Hallmark card, by comparison.
American art brut poet Fred Phelps grew up Methodist in Meridian, Mississippi. He graduated from high school at sixteen and secured a place at West Point, but wasn’t yet old enough to attend. During his year off, he heard the Call at a tent revival. Within six months, in early 1947, the honor student, Eagle Scout, and Golden Gloves boxer had traded West Point for Bob Jones University and Methodism for Baptism. On a mission trip to Vernal, Utah, after his first semester, Phelps was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister and baptized in a mountain stream. In Vernal, he was trying, at times in physical danger, to convert small-town Mormons to Baptism. Before long he tasted media publicity as an evangelical tool. In 1951, at age twenty-one, Phelps [described as “a tall (6 ft. 3 in.), craggy-faced engineering student”] appeared in Time magazine after drawing large crowds—and ultimately the police—outside a college in Pasadena, California, by protesting students’ “promiscuous petting” and “teachers’ filthy jokes in classrooms.”
Phelps, his wife, and the first of their thirteen children moved from Pasadena to Topeka in 1954 and soon set up Westboro as a Primitive Baptist church. (The Topeka Capital-Journal published the fullest biography of Phelps in a weeklong series in 1994.) Ten years later, still preaching every Sunday and on the radio besides, Phelps earned a law degree. For many years, he seemed content to antagonize local institutions and enemies from his pulpit and often in the courtroom.
His legal career was simultaneously quixotic and petty—dare I say nobly so? He had a vicious, intelligent courtroom manner and was inclined to take on cases for poor clients against the government or institutions. Indeed, he says he went to law school to fight against the kind of racial injustice he saw growing up in Mississippi. Westboro’s short monograph on the God Hates Fags site emphasizes how Phelps represented “longsuffering” Kansas blacks in civil rights cases in the years just after Topeka’s famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. He won a $19,500 settlement against the Topeka school board in 1978 for providing an inferior education to a black student and thus failing to honor the Brown ruling. The next year he represented several victims of a police raid on a black American Legion hall, in which over fifty women were strip-searched for drugs and weapons. He received civil rights awards into the 1980s, including one from a small-town Kansas chapter of the NAACP that noted his “steely determination for justice.”
However disappointingly, Phelps is not above using racist rhetoric in other fights; a number of subsequent Westboro faxes cited by the Captial-Journal referred to miscellaneous Phelps enemies as “black trash,” “black thug,” and “incompetent black whore.” In February 2009, the church wrote in an open letter to Barack Obama, “You are a Muslim. Your mother was a promiscuous white female tramp, and your father was a run-of-the-mill, black, deadbeat dad who abandoned you and your mother and fled to more fertile breeding grounds in Africa.”
In 1983, Phelps sued the local Washburn University when some of his children were denied admission to the law school there. First he sued on the grounds that they should be admitted as minorities because the family law firm (eleven of the thirteen children ultimately became lawyers) represented black clients in civil rights cases. When that argument failed, he sued for reverse discrimination, claiming that less qualified black students had been admitted before his white children. Phelps also sued President Ronald Reagan for breaching the wall between church and state by appointing an ambassador to the Vatican. (His respect for this wall only goes so far: the church demands that “All nations must immediately outlaw sodomy,” and, according to Mosaic law in Leviticus, “impose the death penalty,” presumably by stoning.)
In 1973, two of his teenage sons sought to purchase a $184.59, twelve-inch color TV set on layaway from the local Sears. When, after two months, they made their final payment, Sears had sold the TV to another customer and ordered another. Phelps promptly filed a $50 million class-action suit against Sears Corporation, claiming to represent a million layaway customers. After six years of litigation, he ultimately settled for $126.34. In 1974, a county court reporter in Topeka failed to deliver a trial transcript to him on time. Phelps sued the court reporter for $22,000, declared her a hostile witness and grilled her on the witness stand for three days. As a result of this case, and a pattern of witch-hunt courtroom behavior leading up to it, he was disbarred from Kansas state court in 1979. Ten years later he was barred from federal court.
He promptly ran for governor of Kansas in 1990, receiving 6 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, and unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 1992 and governor again in 1994. Not long after his law career ended, in 1991, Westboro members first picketed against gays trysting in Topeka’s Gage Park, and they haven’t let a week go by since without displaying their “God Hates Fags” signs there.
How did a civil rights lawyer come to advocate mass executions of a small minority group? Poking the eyes of the powers that be in the name of justice was not an unthinkable prelude to Phelps’s God Hates Fags work. He embodied and still embodies the fearlessness and righteousness and self-righteousness that characterize many political activists, both right and left wing. His is an iconoclastic and, as the NAACP award put it, steely Christianity. Here are celebrated traits in their purest form, distilled beyond practical use to the point of being either ridiculous or poetic, or both.
Fred Phelps’s personal volatility is not what one might expect from the leader of God’s elect, unless one expects a terribly wrathful God. When his children were young, Phelps allegedly beat them in Old Testament-like fits of fury, with a belt or with the handle of a mattock grub-axe. One Christmas, according to two of his sons who later defected from the church, Phelps beat them with the mattock for two or three hours. “Mark was about to pass out a couple of times, and my mom would take him over to the bathtub to wipe his face off,” Nate Phelps told the Capital-Journal in 1994. The boys’ crime had been to unscrew Christmas light bulbs from a neighbor’s house and toss them to pop on the street. Beyond the crime of vandalism, the boys had indirectly supported the “pagan” holiday of Christmas (“never, ever, ever, ever even one time mentioned in the Bible,” says godhatesfags.com).
Nate and Mark Phelps described their father becoming possessed by anger—“It wasn’t the same human”—and smashing dishes and jars of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise across the kitchen, pushing their mother down the stairs, dislocating her arm, or beating her with the mattock stick because he “wasn’t happy about her weight.” After the Capital-Journal printed Mark and Nate Phelps’s accusations, five siblings still loyal to the church publicly refuted the abuse charges, though they acknowledged that they were spanked with a belt and a hairbrush.
In 2006, an Associated Press journalist described Phelps’s contradictory nature as one of abrupt changes: “He laughs, then looks sullen. Calls a granddaughter ‘love bug,’ but is then set off in a brief tirade on Jews.” Though God’s true list of the chosen never changes, Phelps’s divining of that list may; in 2005, according to the AP story, a 52-year-old man was voted out of the elect and permanently cut off from his wife and children. After Mark Phelps left the church of his own free will (so to speak), he told the Capital-Journal about a time he ran into his father at the Topeka YMCA. Fred Phelps said to him, “I hope God kills you.”
Westboro’s theology is essentially sixteenth-century Calvinism with an obsessive homophobic bent and a strain of Branch-Davidian cultism. Virtually God’s entire predestined “elect” worldwide just happen to be the seventy-five or so members of Westboro Baptist Church, almost all of whom happen to be Phelps family members. Mainstream members of the Religious Right are “lukewarm cowards” and “Pharisees.” The website declares, “The maudlin, kissy-pooh, feel-good, touchy-feely preachers of today’s society are damning this nation and this world to hell.”
I waited well past 11:30, ringing the doorbell a few times and hearing occasional phantom noises inside. A white quarter-ton pickup truck with a teenage boy at the wheel slowed nearby, and I noticed a stack of colorful signs in the bed. “Fags Doom Nations.” “God Is Your Enemy.” The boy looked toward me and the church, shook his head, and drove on. Then I saw a couple walking across the far side of the churchyard, having entered through a tiny entrance in the opposite corner of the fence; a woman and a teenage boy followed a minute later.
“Excuse me!” I called out. They didn’t turn their heads. Finally, fully sweaty at 12:15 pm, I gave up and walked back to my car.
Two days later, I called to ask why there was no service. The woman on the phone, I assumed, was Shirley Phelps-Roper, Fred Phelps’s daughter, who in her father’s advanced age has taken the helm as spokesperson for Westboro. Church was held earlier in the morning, it seemed. Several church members had traveled that day to Wolf Creek, Montana, to celebrate God’s retribution against Senator Max Baucus. (“Sen. Baucus voted twice recently to condemn WBC’s funeral pickets. ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’ Romans 12:19,” said a Westboro press release.) Marine Corporal Phillip E. Baucus, the senator’s nephew, had died in combat in Iraq a week earlier, and his funeral in Montana coincided with my visit to Topeka. “You need to be there when the service is happening,” she told me. “We’re not going to go to extraordinary lengths to help someone who is just curious. That’s not our job.” (Westboro’s incorporation papers as a tax-exempt organization state that “all persons whatsoever are wanted, welcome and invited.”)
As I listen to the MP3 recording of the sermon I missed, I am surprised at Phelps’s measured speech. He has the professional tone of an old-time radio newsman, with only a trace of his Mississippi drawl remaining. But he works himself into a quiet tirade addressing his flock (“ye seed of Israel, his servants…ye children of Jacob, his chosen ones”). He winds the congregation through an encyclopedic recall of scripture and his own nearly biblical language in slow, serpentine sentences:
We’re not just whistling Dixie when we say to these people that jump on us that they’re playing with fire, and that they are in fact pouring gasoline on the flaming fires of God’s wrath that’s presently being poured out on this evil nation, and is guaranteed to get worse and worse soon and with each passing day. We have a message for this evil country, and at their peril do they continue to not only ignore it, but to retaliate against us for even daring to preach it.
Sharp declarations punctuate this speech: “They shall fall. They’re going to hell. They’re going to reap destruction. They’re going to reap nothing but misery.” Finally, his voice becomes grandfatherly and gentle, and he says, “And everybody will know that it’s for thy sake, it’s for the sake of Westboro Baptist Church that those guys keep getting slaughtered and sent home in little pieces from Iraq.”
I imagine myself in a pew, hypnotized by the queered tent-revival clichés (pouring gasoline on the flaming fires of God’s wrath, which is itself being poured on America? Um, amen to that), and at the same time wanting to leap up and start shaking people as hard as I can (Are you serious?! Wake up, you fucking morons!). This is the Eagle Scout’s integrity and self-regard, the American bard’s gluttonous, unedited style, and the firebrand’s jaw-dropping rhetoric for which we have such an appetite, all taken to the violent frontier of sanity. I hope Phelps’s oeuvre can be anthologized someday, or put in a museum, so the timber in his eye can reveal the splinters in our own.
Josh Garrett-Davis is a writer and musician living in New York City. He has written for High Country News, the Denver Post, and South Dakota History, and plays bass in the punk rock band Krylls. He is writing a book about the Great Plains.