Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Should we rejoice at the death of America’s most hated bigot?

3/21/2014

Reaction to the recent death of Fred Phelps Sr., 84, the fanatical leader of his family’s Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, has run the spectrum from joy and glee to relief. Sadly, Phelps and his family trampled on American flags, as well as the honor of military veterans, gays and lesbians, and just about anyone who didn’t belong to their unaffiliated quasi-church with its unfiltered and largely profane ministry of hate. “Church” members’ intolerance reached epic levels through the years — to the embarrassment of most Kansans. And while many people might believe those seeds of hate will be buried with the group’s founder, that seems unlikely.

Phelps and his wife raised 13 children — eight girls and five boys — who birthed many more children — all raised to believe as Phelps did, with a certainty about their hatred and intolerance for those who didn’t live in their family’s Topeka compound or attend what they deemed a church. A 2007 documentary, “Fall From Grace,” examined the family and showed the next generation of the Phelps clan to be even more rabid than their founding father. They carry on his intolerance, but interviews with church members forecast perhaps more extreme protests — including violence — to come now that the elder Phelps is dead. It’s difficult to imagine anything worse than the awful, mean-spirited slurs at the funerals of gays, soldiers — including at least one such event in Ottawa — and any other American whose death might be used to put the spotlight on their cause.

Reaction to the recent death of Fred Phelps Sr., 84, the fanatical leader of his family’s Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, has run the spectrum from joy and glee to relief. Sadly, Phelps and his family trampled on American flags, as well as the honor of military veterans, gays and lesbians, and just about anyone who didn’t belong to their unaffiliated quasi-church with its unfiltered and largely profane ministry of hate. “Church” members’ intolerance reached epic levels through the years — to the embarrassment of most Kansans. And while many people might believe those seeds of hate will be buried with the group’s founder, that seems unlikely.

Phelps and his wife raised 13 children — eight girls and five boys — who birthed many more children — all raised to believe as Phelps did, with a certainty about their hatred and intolerance for those who didn’t live in their family’s Topeka compound or attend what they deemed a church. A 2007 documentary, “Fall From Grace,” examined the family and showed the next generation of the Phelps clan to be even more rabid than their founding father. They carry on his intolerance, but interviews with church members forecast perhaps more extreme protests — including violence — to come now that the elder Phelps is dead. It’s difficult to imagine anything worse than the awful, mean-spirited slurs at the funerals of gays, soldiers — including at least one such event in Ottawa — and any other American whose death might be used to put the spotlight on their cause.

But comments from Phelps’ son, Timothy — detailed in the documentary written and directed by K. Ryan Jones — should give Kansans and others cause for increased concern rather than less. “This ministry will continue unabated,” he said.

“I do chuckle sometimes that some people say if he dies we’ll just scatter,” Timothy Phelps said. “If, God willing, my father dies and another person becomes the pastor of the church, that just means that we are going into another leg of this. Things are going to get amped up to a fevered pitch. You’ve got a group of siblings and children that are battle-worn and battle-tried. My father was not battle-tried when he was young. We were weaned on this. You’ve got some rabid, compared to my father, generation of children here. We will turn this nation every which way but loose. So they think they are going to get somewhere if my father dies? No, it is going to multiply.”

One of the Phelps grandchildren solidifies this sentiment, seen in the documentary saying he hates non-believers in the Phelps’ brand of Christianity enough to kill them. Clearly, this intolerance, as well as the vitriol exhibited during tens of thousands of Westboro pickets hasn’t died with the child’s grandfather and shouldn’t be ignored as an issue of yesterday.

Phelps was a disbarred attorney who also recently was ex-communicated from his own family’s hate-filled church because of an internal spat. No funeral will be conducted for him. Despite all his faults, obviously things could have been worse if Phelps had endorsed violence. If his descendants don’t agree with his practice of relatively peaceful protests, the amped up version of the Phelps clan could be worse than anyone would have imagined.

Celebrants of Phelps’ death should be cautious. His hate lives on.

— Jeanny Sharp,

editor and publisher

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