He was married since 1952 and worked a distinguished legal career. He fought Jim Crow laws in the 1960s and sued Ronald Reagan when he appointed an ambassador to the Vatican. After being disbarred in 1989 over an unfortunate difference of opinion with a few federal judges, he spent the rest of his life patriotically practicing his freedoms of speech and religion.
Over a 15-year campaign of freedoms and patriotism, he forever changed America, giving voice to an ideology that has always felt oppressed and that couldn’t make its voice heard in the face of a constantly changing world, popularizing funeral protests and the phrase “God hates fags.”
Fred Phelps was the patron saint of getting those young whippersnappers off his lawn; the angry, inappropriate grandpa to end all angry, inappropriate grandpas.
Every family has one. The sexual revolution was 50 years ago, but there’s always that one old-timer who can’t stand the thought of a woman doing a man’s work.
Since the AIDS epidemic propelled them into the spotlight in the 1980s, the LGBT community has rapidly become an accepted part of everyday life, but everybody has that one uncle who holds on tight to that one Leviticus verse.
Most families put that guy in a home and only bring him out for special occasions, but Grandpa Freddie would not be silenced. He started a church. He gained followers. The church’s blitz of public protests regularly enthralled the nation, capturing headlines as they found lower and lower blows to deal to the LGBT community and grieving military families.
Since its first protest in 1991, the Westboro Baptist Church has never been far from the spotlight.
How does a country lend credence to such wild protests? How does a man with 13 children and 54 grandchildren not end up silenced by embarrassed relatives? How did he get so much attention, and most importantly, why did anybody care what they thought?
Everyone in the world has come into contact with Westboro’s nonsense at this point. Everyone in the world has come into contact with someone who shouted their differing beliefs just a little too loudly. Everyone in the world has come into contact with a regular playground bully.
They’re not allowed to go to Canada or the U.K., they’re regularly outnumbered at their own protests and public perception has shifted from shock and disgust to awe, as if at a zoo or a historical museum.
There’s been question about how to treat Phelps’ funeral – should people protest it like he and his church protested so many others? Should they do as some have done, holding up half-sarcastic compassionate signs of condolence?
Maybe the better option would be to just not think about it. In the end, Phelps and the 40 remaining Westboro church members were only ever playground bullies. Maybe we should treat them like it.
Joshua Knopp is a journalism junior. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature photo: Pastor Fred Phelps, 76, talks during an interview at his Westboro Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas, March 5, 2006. The founder of a small Kansas church who drew international condemnation for outrageous and hate-filled protests that blamed almost everything, including the deaths of AIDS victims and U.S. soldiers, on America’s tolerance for gay people, has died, March 20, 2014. He was 84. Photo courtesy of Kelly Glasscock/Wichita Eagle/MCT