Thursday, October 05, 2006
From Kansas: Who the heck is Fred Phelps?
By Diane Silver
Actually, the true question should be: Who are Fred Phelps and the Westboro Church, and why are they so bent on causing emotional anguish to so many people?
That question seems particularly relevant today given that the Topeka, Kan., family has extorted its way onto Mike Gallagher's national radio program. As the Topeka Capital-Journal Reports, the family will get one hour on air in return for not picketing the funeral of the Amish girls who were killed earlier this week.
I live 30 miles from Phelps, used to cover him as a newspaper reporter, once worked in a political campaign where he was one of our opponents, have been the subject of one of his attacks and have generally bumped into him for the past 20 years.
Oh, and when my life partner died of breast cancer 13 years ago, we received police protection just in case he showed up at her funeral. (That's one of the prices you pay for advocating for fair laws for lesbians and gays in Kansas.) Phelps and his minions, by the way, did not appear.
I can't say I have all the answers, but I do have some.
I first met Phelps about 20 years ago after I arrived in Kansas to cover the Kansas Legislature for The Wichita Eagle newspaper. I was sitting in my office in the Statehouse when Phelps showed up at my door.
In those innocent, pre-9/11 times, the Statehouse was open and often severely disabled mental patients from a nearby hospital would wander through. When I looked up and saw Phelps standing at my door, I honestly thought he was one of them.
People usually laugh at this point in my story. I guess it is funny. Hah, hah, Phelps is so crazy, he even looks crazy, but I'm not making a joke.
To me, the folks from the state hospital always looked sad. They looked lost, and they were in so much pain.That's what I saw when I glanced up from my desk and saw this tall, gangly man in a jogging suit. He clutched a can of diet soda like it was a life preserver and even though he spoke confidently enough, Phelps looked like he was boiling inside. In my entire life, I have never seen anyone as uncomfortable in his own skin as Phelps.
Remember, at that time, I was an unknown to him. I'd only been in Kansas a few months. All he knew about me was that I was a reporter who might be able to get him a story. Our interaction ended that day when he gave me his paper news release (it was 1985, very pre-Internet) and then went on his way.
When I looked at the release in my hand, I saw chaos, pain, screams of anger. Even the layout was chaotic with different sized fonts, pictures cut from newspapers or magazines. Nothing lined up on the page. It was as if an hallucinating Jackson Pollack had thrown Bible verses, furious curses and bizarre photos up in the air and allowed them to land helter skelter on the page.
I don't even remember the object of his fury. At that point in time, though, it was usually about how the federal court, which had just disbarred him, was composed of "fags."
Here's what I think is the bottom line about Fred Phelps: He is a man in enormous pain. He has dealt with his pain by creating a theology of a vengeful, petty God, who looks to me like nothing more than an abusive father. Phelps passed his pain onto his children by allegedly abusing them. The only way he and they have to deal with their pain is to abuse others.That's why they picket funerals.
Oh yes, it gets publicity for their anti-gay cause, but lately the funerals they picket are not those of gays or anyone ever involved in the fight for fair laws. Their picketing seems to be designed for two things. First, get maximum publicity. Second, inflict maximum pain. (Of course, pain + conflict does = news, so maybe it's all one thing.)
The best coverage of the Phelpses can be found at the Topeka Capital-Journal, which did an amazing series on him.
I've also posted frequently about Phelps and his church, and have battled on this blog with a Phelps family member. The core of his philosophy, by the way, is that "you can't understand God's love until you understand God's hate."
Abuse as Theology: Fred Phelps' son tells his father to stop venting his rage
Love and Fred Phelps
Yet another Fred Phelps commentary
Saga of the Rainbow Flag: A note about Fred Phelps & the REAL Kansas