20 March 2014
RIP Fred Phelps
The pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, which made up with provocative fervor ("God Hates Fags") what it lacked in congregation size, has passed away at age 84. Fred Phelps was the man America loved to hate for his hatred. Even people on the Religious Right could denounce him readily -- it was convenient for many to do so, since Phelps made them look tolerant, or at least civil, by comparison. However sincerely he hated homosexuals, I suspect that some critics were right in seeing Phelps as ultimately a publicity hound, and to the extent that the publicity was ultimately lucrative for his church and family -- I can't say whether it was or not -- his survivors will likely carry on his dubious work. What amuses me today is the early commentary I see on news sites reporting Phelps's death. An assumption seems to prevail among many who boast of their tolerance that Phelps will or should burn in Hell for his homophobia. This really misses the point. Fred Phelps did not shuttle across the country carrying signs saying "I Hate Fags." His message was that God hates homosexuals, and there are two possible answers to that assertion. The more popular answer seems to be, "Of course God doesn't hate homosexuals," either because he only hates the sin but not the sinner -- a distinction many homosexuals seem to reject -- or because some people's more liberal notion of the deity precludes any hostility toward gay identity or conduct. But the more decisive answer would be, "Of course God doesn't hate homosexuals, because there is no God." In which case, also, Fred Phelps will not be burning in Hell. It may hurt his family's feelings to say he will, if that's what you're after, but I suspect that the Phelpses have grown pretty thick-skinned about such things, or else they could not continue their work. So why be vindictive toward the dead? The man was a jerk in life but probably helped, unwittingly, build a national consensus in favor of gay rights by becoming the reductio ad absurdam of homophobia in the flesh. Let him rot in peace.