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Tuesday 13 October 2015

Obituary: Fred Phelps Sr (1930-2014)

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 21st March 2014

Fred Phelps: Westboro Baptist Church Founder: 1929-2014
This hatemonger needs no introduction to our readers. But apparently, he was 'excommunicated' by his Westboro Baptist Church sect in August 2013 and has died in a Topeka hospice, reportedly suicidal beforehand. So who was this virulently homophobic and indeed, misanthropic, fundamentalist demagogue?

Phelps was born in Meridian, Mississippi, in a working class family, to a railroad worker and housewife. He seems to have had a turbulent childhood, due to the early death of his mother, being raised by an aunt and his father's subsequent remarriage. For whatever reason, he was estranged from his family of origin as long ago as the fifties. He was a Boy Scout and although qualifying for the prestigious West Point military academy, he decided to become a fundamentalist Methodist preacher, attending first fundamentalist Bob Jones "University" in the late forties and then the Prarie Bible Institute in Alberta, Canada after he dropped out of the latter. He didn't particularly like Pasadena Community College, where he achieved his first tertiary qualification in 1951.

What about Westboro Baptist Church? Originally, it was established as a branch of Topeka's East Side Baptist Church in 1931. In 1954, Westboro Baptist Church hired Phelps as a minister, but in 1955, soon after, Phelps broke all ties with the East Side Baptist Church. Over the years, his offspring and extended family have come to dominate the sect. Its activities are funded by lawsuits and donations from church members and it receives no outside support whatsoever.

In 1964, he graduated from Topeka's Washburn University with a law degree and established the Phelps Chartered law firm in that city. Ironically for someone who would later become a virulent opponent of LGBT rights, he was on the positive side of African-American civil rights cases, taking frequent litigation against racist and segregationist white business owners and rental accomodation providers in the state. Indeed, he received awards from the Greater Kansas City branch of Blacks in Government and Bonner County National Association for Acceptance of Coloured People (NAACP) precisely for that reason.

In 1977, his life took a darker turn as he was examined and then disbarred by the Kansas State Board of Law Examiners for his conduct during a lawsuit against a court reporter named Carolene Brady. Brady had failed to have a court transcript ready for Phelps on the day he asked for it; though it did not affect the outcome of the case, he demanded $US22,000 damages from her. Subsequently, in the ensuing trial, Phelps called Brady to the stand, declared her a "hostile witness" and then accused her of "promiscuity and perversion." According to the state Kansas Supreme Court, he lost that case. He was found to have misled the court on a matter of alleged non-existent affadavits and was struck off from practising law in Kansas, although not in courts under federal US jurisdiction. However, in 1985, several federal judges filed a further disciplinary action against Phelps and two of his children, so he then agreed to stop practising in federal courts as well in 1989.

In theological terms, Phelps describes himself as a "Primitive Baptist", which means that his church has a strong religious separatist orientation and refuses to co-operate with others, even other fundamentalist churches, in trying to convert people to fundamentalist religious beliefs. Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church also practise a set of beliefs known as the "Five Points" of conservative Calvinist fundamentalist Protestantism. They include belief in the "total depravity" of humanity; predetermined "elect" status for those that God foreordains for "salvation;" 'limited atonement', which means that Christ died to 'redeem" only this "elect;' irresistable grace, which means that fundamentalist conversion of the eventual 'elect' is preordained; and "perserverance of the saints", which means that the "elect" are "fated" to continue in their path. Taken together, these beliefs may help explain the pressure-cooker intensive cultist and sectarian subsequent behaviour of the late Fred Phelps and his entourage of offspring, grandchildren and others within his sect.

That is, those children and grandchildren who didn't subsequently break away and flee from the sect, subsequently accusing Phelps and other sect members of brutal child battery under the guise of "discipline." Did Phelps have anger management issues? He was charged with assault and battery in 1995, but the charges were dismissed due to anomalies involving prior pre-trial preventative detention that was judged to be too excessive. Forty members remain in the sect.

What about Phelps' homophobia? According to Phelps, sect children were being harassed and propositioned by pedophiles in Gage Park and in response, when the local council didn't respond to complaints about their presence there, or adjacent gay cruising grounds, the sect produced warning signs. Westboro Baptist's antigay protest activity began there and escalated. In 2005, he engineered an attempt to repeal Topeka's inclusive anti-discrimination civic ordinances through a petition and civic referendum with several fellow traveller fundamentalist churches- and failed.

He didn't only hate LGBT people. Sickeningly, at a time when grieving parents and family members were mourning their slain military personnel sons and daughters from the Afghan and Iraqi War tragedies, Phelps and his sect began to picket funerals of military personnel. One bereaved military family took retaliatory court action against the sect but failed to have them stopped due to upheld "free speech" defences; however disgusting and inhuman people might find such inappropriate attacks on slain service personnel and their families, Phelps and his sect were haranguing these individuals and their families on public land. However, as a consequence of this disgusting abuse of grieving families at military funerals, President Obama and individual US states such as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan and Missouri have established protest-free buffer zones around military and other cemeteries to prevent this reprehensible behaviour. The American Civil Liberties Union defended his right to free speech and thus far, the courts have upheld his right to picket military funerals.

Unbelievably, he tried to run for Democratic Party Governor of Kansas and Topeka Mayor in the eighties and nineties, failing both times. Although he initially supported former Democrat Presidential candidate Al Gore, he later turned against Gore, Bill and Hilary Clinton when the latter senior US Democrat political figures embraced LGBT rights. Perversely, he supported Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the late nineties, before the tyrant was deposed and executed after the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2004. He also believed that current US President Barack Obama is the Antichrist and that the end of the world was therefore "imminent." In 2009, Phelps and daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper were banned from entering Canada and the United Kingdom as risks to public order. Several evangelical organisations supported the British government decision.

In one desperate publicity stunt after another, the Westboro Baptist sect then harangued numerous individuals for non-compliance with its virulent brand of homophobia, including some social conservatives such as former US President Ronald Reagan and Fox News host Bill Reilly, as well as Princess Diana of Wales, Sonny Bono, US Supreme Court Judge William Rehnquist, the Mormon Church, Heath Ledger, gaybashing fatality Matthew Shepherd, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Swedish and Irish people. They have also regularly protested University of Kansas Law School graduation ceremonies as well as the US Holocaust Memorial Mueseum, Jewish Anti-Defamation League, and other organisations tangentially related to LGBT rights.

Phelps cause of death appears to be unknown at present. In March 2014, his estranged son Nathan reported that his father had been excommunicated from the sect in August 2013 and was residing in Topeka's Midland Hospice. Apparently, his daughter now runs the forty-member sect, which still intends to continue its abhorrent activity with no respite despite its founders death.

But can it? In the Christian Science Monitor (17.04.2014), Mark Guarino questioned whether this would be the case. Although it seems to have managed without him since August 2013 when he was deposed and "excommunicated" as sect leader, might it encounter problems now that he has finally passed away? According to Barry Crawford, a religious studies professor at Topeka's own Washburn University, the sect might either disintegrate now, or else survive, albeit in an even more reduced form than its current forty members. Unfortunately, however, most of the sect now consists of Phelps remaining children, their spouses and his grandchildren. It may be the case that his remaining sect member male children are now church elders and directors after a reported power struggle with his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper after Fred Phelps advocated more thoughtful treatment of church members before he was desposed and excommunicated.

Despite its notoriety, neither Phelps nor his sect have attracted much serious academic analysis or interest. There have been two contributions to general collections on US local "culture war" animosities, only one within a religious studies journal and one communication and media studies journal article. There are also broader references to the aforementioned Snyder v Phelps (2011) US Supreme Court decision, which upheld the late demagogue and his circus' "right" to torment grieving US military families in the name of "free speech." Finally, there is former sect member Lauren Drain's biographical Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church (2013).


Brian Britt: "Curses Left and Right: Hate Speech and the Biblical Tradition" Journal of the American Academy of Religion: 78:3: (2010): 633-661

Daniel Brouwer and Aaron Hess: "Making Sense of 'God hates Fags' and 'Thank God for 9/11': A thematic analysis of milbloggers responses to Reverend Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church" Western Journal of Communication: 71:1: January-March 2007: 69-90.

Gerhard Casper and Kathy Sullivan: Snyder versus Phelps: Bethseda: Proquest: 2011.

Lauren Drain: Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church: New York: Grand Central: 2013

Mark Guarino: "Could Westboro Baptist Church survive without founder Fred Phelps?|" Christian Science Monitor: 17.03.2014:

Rick Musser: "Fred Phelps versus Topeka" in Elaine Sharp (ed) Culture Wars and Local Politics: Lawrence: University of Kansas Press: 1999.

Craig Young - 21st March 2014

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