I wear black because FRED PHELPS, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, has kicked the bucket.
Actually, I wear black every day. I live in New York and am an old punk rocker, so OF COURSE I wear black. Today, I have an additional reason.
According to CNN, Phelps was often called “the most hated man in America.” I bet he loved the label.
“If I had nobody mad at me,” he said, “what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the Gospel?”
There is more to it than that. Phelps had an additional reason.
Fred was probably most famous for picketing the funerals of US servicemen. He and his followers claimed the soldiers’ deaths were related to increased tolerance of homosexuality, rather than…oh let’s say…increased US belligerence and aggression against the rest of the world. Wacky, huh? I don’t think so.
I say Fred Phelps was a punk. I’ve written before about Asperger’s Syndrome. Victims of A.S. lack empathy for others. They can’t tell what other people think, so they say and do inappropriate things. They’re not aware of what will offend.
I also described a variant. I call it AsburgerKING Syndrome. In that one, people say and do things BECAUSE they’ll offend. AsburgerKing is punk.
Now let’s take a look at Fred Phelps:
He moves to Topeka, Kansas on May 4, 1954. In these pre-preacher times, he’s a practicing lawyer. He moves the day the Supreme Court decides the case of Brown v. Board of Education. The court says that school segregation is illegal. The idea of separate-but-equal is not viable. Separate cannot be equal, they decide.
It’s the beginning of desegregation…and busing. White people are furious at the prospect of their little Johnny or Mary going to school with little LeRoy or Kesha!
So in his new home in this white state in the near south, what would the most annoying, hateful job be…especially for a lawyer? Yep, INTEGRATION LAW! Suing white schools on behalf of black constituents. Let the colored folks in! Now!
And guess what Fred Phelps, Esq. takes it on himself to do…at discount rates? You guessed it! Be a lawyer against the white schools! Push the colored folks on them!
Rev. Ben Scott, president of the NAACP’s Topeka branch, talks to CNN.
“Fred Phelps?” He says, “Most blacks—that’s who they went to, I don’t know if he was cheaper or if he had that stick-to-it-ness, but Fred didn’t lose many back then.”
Sounds pretty punk to me.
The nineties brought a change in attitude. Many saw it as a liberalization of thinking. For me, it was a new quest for normalcy…but that’s a different column…several of them.
In any case, Negritude became less of an issue. Most people either didn’t care, or they supported Fred in the integration effort. The new controversy was Homotude.
It’s the early 90s: Homo movements are noisy enough to encourage a “hands off” attitude by the locals. Fred tests the homo waters in 1991. He appears as the new pastor at Westboro Baptist Church, most of whose members are in the Phelps family. Using the church pulpit as a stage, Fred publicly complains about the city of Topeka’s “refusing to stop homosexual activity in a public park.”
He makes a few waves, and is soon forgotten.
1998: Matthew Shepard is murdered in Wyoming. Though there is now some controversy surrounding his death, in 1998 the world was convinced Shepard was murdered because of his sexuality. Even conservatives are shocked by the brutal slaying.
America’s homosexuals jump on the murder, using Shepard as a poster boy for homophobia. Every objection to homotude is met with “that’s just what Matthew Shepard’s murderer said.” Even the Catholic Church shuts up for a while.
In steps Rev. Phelps and the Westboro crew. They assemble…all dozen or so of them…and picket Shepard’s funeral. Pictures of their notorious GOD HATES FAGS posters are in every newspaper from here to Timbukthree. It’s Sid Vicious with his swastika shirt, singing “My Way”—yet again. Westboro is the Filth and the Fury. Labeled up and down as HATERS, they instantly become the HATED.
Outrage pours from Americans like beer from Oktoberfest taps. Left and right shake in their collective boots: army, cowboy, or recycled imitation leather. This guy is EVIL!
The hate-baiting Southern Poverty Law Center calls Westboro Baptist “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”
Over on the other side, Jerry Falwell, not exactly Mr. Tolerance himself, answers those who accuse Westboro of giving right-wing religious zealots a bad name. He calls Phelps “a hatemonger” and “unbalanced.”
“Fred Phelps does not give the religious right a bad name,” says Falwell, “because nobody claims kin to that guy.”
Damned right! Nobody would.
When Falwell dies, there’s Fred and his crew at the funeral.
“Falwell split Hell wide open” says Fred…at the cemetery…and he’s there…with another great sign: GOD IS AMERICA’S TERRORIST. I don’t get it, either, but I love it.
Fred knows if he sticks to picketing religious right-wingers and homos, he’ll again be shuffled off to the side, ignored. Most Americans are neither religious maniacs nor fudge packers.
Opportunity knocks in 2003. The Supreme Court strikes down anti-sodomy laws. The homo movement turns from Homotude as exceptional…and legalizing the right to be exceptional…to Homotude as just like everybody else. The right to marry replaces the right to screw in the park bushes. Gay people abandon punkdom for white picket fences.
Fear not; Fred will pick up the slack.
Phelps understands that the glue holding America together is…well…Americans. And the glue that holds Americans together is the love of people in uniform—American uniforms.
From the VFW to Veterans for Peace, Americans love soldiers—especially dead ones. Arlington Virginia Military Cemetery has as many visitors as Disneyland. Let some veteran into a ballpark…and there’ll be a ceremony. An incalculable number of minutes-of-silence® have been spent on people who did nothing more than murder their fellow human beings—and in turn get murdered by them. Americans can’t get enough of flag-draped coffins.
So where do Fred Phelps and the Westboro dozen go? You guessed it, to MILITARY FUNERALS. And not with just any picket sign. What’s gonna offend most? Would you believe THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS? Or PRAY FOR MORE DEAD SOLDIERS?
This is what makes Phelps so punk rock. He takes the most precious idea…the thing Americans hold dearest…almost all Americans…and he pisses on it.
There are trials…arrests. Fred’s case goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Amazingly, in 2011, the court upholds Westboro’s right to picket military funerals. Unhappy at that, Congress and several states pass laws requiring some distance between the pickets and the funeral. Other states try more obstructionist tactics. Everybody hates Fred.
In 2013, more than 367,000 petitioners ask the White House to legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as A HATE GROUP. The White House calls Westboro’s protests “reprehensible” but says, “As a matter of practice, the federal government doesn’t maintain a list of hate groups.” Yeah, right.
But that’s not the point. What IS the point is that Phelps chose his targets to maximize offense—not to make a statement. I doubt he believed half of he said. Check it out:
Denmark legalized gay marriage long before the US did. Was Phelps out there damning the Danes? Where were the GOD HATES DENMARK signs? How ’bout HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN WAS A PEDOPHILE? Pickets at the funerals of anybody whose last name ends in SEN? It didn’t happen. Denmark has five million people. Most of them don’t give a little mermaid’s ass what happens in the US. Attack Denmark? Why? There’s nobody to offend.
Fred wasn’t against homosexuality any more than I’m against fellatio! He was an agitator, a rabble-rouser, and a troublemaker. A punk.
When the band Guest Shot filmed a “porno” (actually just a girl clit diddling herself) on Westboro church grounds, Fred could have called the cops. This wasn’t picketing. This was trespassing. But there was NO reaction from the Westboro crew? Why? Because that too was punk. It was something Phelps could understand and appreciate.
So at 84, Fred Phelps is gone. And with his death, I’m afraid, will go the spirit of the church. The spirit of punk.
If I can get Fred’s kind of reaction when I’m his age, it’ll be a dream come true. In the meantime, I just sit in front of my Toshiba laptop, typing this column—wearing black for a good reason.