Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Reverend Fred Phelps, 1929 – 2014

by John Shelby Spong

 “I believe that all homosexuals should be castrated with rusty barbed wire.” Those words came at me from a television screen a number of years ago. The spokesman was identified as an ordained Christian minister, who headed a Baptist Church in the mid-west. I then learned that this church’s website was “” It was in this manner that the Rev. Fred Phelps, founder and recently deceased pastor of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, first entered my consciousness. During the following years, we would confront each other many times.

Westboro Baptist Church was not a typical Christian community. Not only was it founded on hate, but its membership barely stretched beyond the bloodlines of a single family. Fred Phelps was the father of 13 children, the grandfather of more than 50 and the great-grandfather of an ever-rising number. At the time of his death about two weeks ago the Westboro Baptist Church claimed only about 70 members. It could be and was characterized as a fundamentalist church, by which I mean that its members clearly resisted any new ideas and quoted a literal Bible as the ultimate source of authority for their version of truth. This justified in their minds their visceral hostility toward homosexual people. They had apparently memorized the nine verses out of the entire Bible that have been regularly used to justify a virulent homophobia.

First there is the Sodom and Gomorrah story from Genesis 18, which together with two later references to it, one in II Peter and one in Jude, constitute three of the nine aforementioned biblical texts. The Sodom and Gomorrah story is basically about a violation of the hospitality code of the Middle East, but it has been incorrectly interpreted to have been a story about rampant misbehavior thought to be homosexual in character. This was the “sin,” homophobic people have said, which brought down the wrath of God in fiery destruction upon these cities. From this biblical story, the pejorative terms “sodomy” and “sodomite” have their origin. If those who quote this story to justify their prejudice ever took the time to read it in its entirety, they would find it very strange.

It winds up defining Lot, who at the end of this story impregnates his two daughters while in a drunken state, as “righteous.” It seems that an incestuous orgy is OK! Homophobic prejudice has had a way of relativizing any other moral weakness. I recall a television interview in 1992 when candidate Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, won a sweeping victory in the Georgia Democratic primary, even while allegations about his sexual indiscretions with more than one female were dominating the media. A reporter asked a voter from rural Georgia, that conservative, Bible-quoting, church-attending state, why it would give its vote to a candidate of questionable moral character. The answer given by this Georgia voter was: “Well, at least we know he ain’t no ho-mo-sexual!”

In addition to the Sodom story, these people quote two verses from Leviticus, which brings the count to five. These two verses define homosexuality as “an abomination” and prescribe the death penalty for those who practice it. This is the text (Lev.20:13) that inspired Fred Phelps’ best known poster: “God said, fags should die!” Fundamentalists, who like to cherry pick their proof texts, fail to recognize that Leviticus also prescribes the death penalty for those who have sex outside of marriage, those who worship a false god and even those who have sex with their mothers-in-law! Another book in the Torah, Deuteronomy, prescribes the death penalty for disobedient children. Fundamentalists never quite get around to quoting these verses for few of them would still be alive if society took them literally!

Three other verses of the Bible (that brings us to eight) are equally flimsy when examined, since the word that has been translated “homosexual” in those texts now appears to refer to male prostitutes in Pagan Temples. The final of the nine texts, and the only verse in the authentic writings of Paul that clearly condemns homosexuality, is found in Romans 1. It is probably the weirdest verse in the entire Bible. There, Paul calls homosexuality a God-given punishment imposed on those who do not worship God properly. When one notes how passionate Paul was before his conversion about keeping the law and worshipping properly, one has to suspect that when Paul wrote this verse, he was being autobiographical.

Fred Phelps’ church had as its primary “outreach ministry” the task of picketing any church or Christian leader who gave support to the cause of justice for gay and lesbian people. This “ministry” was not always rationally exercised. For example, when the national Episcopal Church began in the 1990’s to take a non-condemnatory stance on gay issues, Fred Phelps and his friends decided to retaliate by picketing the Episcopal Cathedral in Topeka. At that time, the Episcopal Bishop of Kansas was a very fine, but deeply conservative, man named William Smalley. The Phelps’ picketers were so constant, so hostile and so offensive that Bishop Smalley, in reaction, became more and more liberal on the issue. Insensitive prejudice is frequently not just revolting, but it is also counter-productive.

I endured and engaged this man and his picketers physically on four different occasions. The first time was in Rockford, Illinois, where one of his operatives placed his face within one inch of mine, while he shouted obscenities and assured me that hell was my ultimate destination. Phelps was also a lawyer and his strategy was to elicit a physical response so that he could bring a personal injury lawsuit against his victims. One learned strong personal discipline in the presence of his abuse. The second occasion was at Lee’s Summit, Missouri, at the national headquarters of the Unity Movement. The third was at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis in 1995, where I joined with twelve other bishops to celebrate the Eucharist at a gathering for Integrity, the Episcopal organization for gay and lesbian Christians founded by Dr. Louie Crew. I had incurred Fred Phelps’ wrath when the diocese I served as its bishop, passed tradition-shattering resolutions in favor of gay equality in both ordination and marital status in the 1980’s. On December 16, 1989, in Hoboken, New Jersey, I had, quite deliberately and publicly, ordained an openly-gay man living in a publicly acknowledged partnership, to the priesthood. At that service I introduced the two of them as a family.

At that 1995 Indianapolis General Convention, the picketers and the Indianapolis police were both out in force. The Integrity service had a police barricade around it, yet no one was prevented from worshiping. Hostility and even fear was in the air, but the church was packed. My wife, Christine, was seated in the congregation as the bishops processed in to begin the service. She noticed that the people in the pew in front of her were not participating in the worship, displaying hostile body language in the process. One of them held a note in his hand. Christine moved close enough to be able to read it. It said, “Which one is Spong?” The man next to him identified me to him. A few minutes later this note-bearing man left his pew and went out of the door. Somewhat anxious, Chris spotted one of our diocesan clergy, a bright, attractive, athletic priest, named Edward Hasse, who had been a member of the Ithaca College football team and who is today a regular marathoner, and she asked him to follow that man, He did so, notifying security of the possible danger. The security in that church tightened perceptibly. Nothing happened, but in that atmosphere of violence it was almost expected.

My final picketing experience with Fred Phelps and his church family came at the 1998 General Convention of my church meeting that year in Philadelphia. It was my last General Convention as an active bishop. On this occasion Fred Phelps bestowed upon me one of my highest compliments. The poster these demonstrators carried through the streets of Philadelphia announced: “Spong and Tutu are fag lovers!” Desmond Tutu had been a friend of mine for years. I, indeed, was one of the bishops who laid hands on him in 1976 in Johannesburg, South Africa, to make him an Anglican bishop. I admired both him and all that he had endured in the struggle for justice in that country. Fearing for his life and health, I had on several occasions made arrangements to get him out of South Africa to come to the Diocese of Newark.

Ostensibly he came to serve as “assisting bishop,” but in reality, those trips were designed to give him a chance to escape for at least a brief time the threats and hostility, which were his “daily bread.” When his Apartheid government revoked his passport, I personally called on the South African ambassador in Washington to make my protest known. I recall to this day the contempt in which that ambassador held this great human being. For me, to be linked on a poster with the name of Desmond Tutu while fighting against prejudice, was an occasion of both joy and pride. In 2000, when Harper-Collins published my autobiography under the title Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality, I insisted that among the photographs included in that book would be Fred Phelps and his picketers carrying that sign.

Fred Phelps later picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the young Wyoming man who was beaten into unconsciousness, hung on a fence post in sub-zero weather and left to die. It was that incident, the Republican Senator from Wyoming, Alan Simpson, told me later that changed his attitude on homosexuality. Then Phelps began to picket at military funerals to protest the revoking of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the armed services. Now with his death this twisted voice of hatred has been silenced for ever. I am not moved to celebrate his death for I carry no animus toward him for the things he did, not just to me, but to my gay and lesbian friends. In the last analysis, I think Fred Phelps probably did more good than harm. Sometimes overt prejudice creates its own even more powerful counter-negativity.

So my prayer for Fred Phelps is that he will rest in peace and experience the unbounded love of God, which he obviously never felt in his earthly pilgrimage.


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