Tony Norman: Westboro pastor won't find place in heaven

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The Rev. Fred Phelps, the founder of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., died this week.

Having spent many of his 84 years on this planet making life as miserable for other people as he possibly could, it is likely that only a handful of blood relatives will mourn his passing.

The hardest core members of the church he founded decades ago won't be among the mourners, though. Westboro Baptist excommunicated its founder last year after, in a burst of uncharacteristic charity, Mr. Phelps urged the bickering congregants (who are 95 percent blood relatives and family by marriage) to "love one another."

The congregation, accustomed to picketing the funerals of soldiers and celebrities, considered the exhortation to love anyone for any reason so alien that they wasted no time in consigning Mr. Phelps' body and soul to the predations of Satan.

The moment he was kicked out of his own church for insufficient hatred was the moment the patriarch of what is arguably America's strangest family understood how much he had in common with Dr. Frankenstein, who, after lovingly stitching together a monster from stolen body parts, was cast aside in a fit of rage.

No, there probably won't be many mourners in attendance when Mr. Phelps is lowered into the hard Kansas earth still cold from the longest winter in decades. There won't be many tributes to his memory by fellow homophobes in positions of power and influence in elected offices across the country.

Mr. Phelps did not cultivate political influence or friendships outside his congregational family, even with like-minded haters. He and his congregation operated like lone wolves answerable to nothing except their own rabid dreams.

If nothing else, Mr. Phelps was an equal-opportunity hater. It didn't matter if you were black or white, Republican or Democrat -- he hated your guts with an unholy passion if he suspected you were at odds with his theology or world view. He hated the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who was no friend of gay people, as much as he hated Matthew Shepherd, the young man crucified in Laramie, Wyo., for being gay.

Eleven years ago, Mr. Phelps sent a hateful delegation from his congregation to picket Fred Rogers' funeral. Mr. Phelps considered Pittsburgh's Mr. Rogers a "mocker of God" because he was easygoing, non-judgmental and accepting of everyone -- a sure sign of spiritual derangement.

"Mr. Rogers gave aid and comfort to homosexuals," Mr. Phelps told me when I interviewed him by phone on the eve of his church's protests in Pittsburgh. "He was a man who preached tolerance of all sorts of people in ways that directly contradicted the Bible. His syrupy teaching led millions astray. He was a wuss and was an enabler of wusses."

When a handful of Westboro Baptist members arrived in town, they included the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette among institutions they picketed. They targeted the newspaper for being excessively "gay friendly" because of the newspaper's comprehensive coverage of Mr. Rogers' death. Talking to these glassy-eyed protestors in person was enough to convince me that whatever the clinical definition of "demon possession" is, it applied to these folks shouting at the tops of their lungs while jaded journalists laughed at them.

Still, no one is 100 percent evil. Few people realize that in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Phelps was considered an effective civil rights lawyer who worked for racial equality in Topeka. He did so at a time when it could cost a white man his livelihood and his life. Though real, his bigotry has always been highly selective.

Re-reading a column I wrote 11 years ago about Fred Phelps and Fred Rogers, I came across a few paragraphs that resonate with me now:

"Phelps deserves as much pity for his fanatical silliness as anger. He suffers from the kind of blindness that would've compelled him to picket Jesus on the cross at Golgotha. After all, there was no bigger enabler of the despised than the Nazarene Mr. Rogers patterned his life after ...

"Would Fred Rogers have dignified Phelps' hate by returning it? I doubt it. Why debate a noted anti-Semite, racist, Catholic-bashing homophobe about the intricacies of love, especially someone who openly embodies the spirit of anti-Christ with such a vengeance?"

Now Fred Phelps is dead, but he left a legacy of hate. The best response to his passing is not to picket his funeral as part of some ironic gesture, but to let him be buried in obscurity. He died alienated from much of his family, his congregation and the world.

If God ever "hated" anyone, he surely hated the Rev. Fred Phelps.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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