When word came out last week that Fred Phelps was on his deathbed, much of the public reaction was, unsurprisingly, as scathing as it was justified. Phelps, who died on March 19, was the founder of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and patriarch of what is often called the most hated family in America. Led by the Phelps family of Topeka, Kansas, WBC is notorious for publicly embracing their hatred of homosexuals and protesting the funerals of American soldiers. They are usually associated with the slogans that appear on their signs, which historically have included “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God for 9/11,” “God Hates You” and, of course, “God Hates Fags,” the core message behind all the others and the domain name of WBC’s website. The organization has become almost universally despised as a result of its stated position that homosexuals are hellbound, that anyone who doesn’t join WBC to actively persecute homosexuals is a “fag enabler” and thus also hellbound, and that tragedies such as the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the deaths of soldiers are America’s righteous punishment for being a nation in which homosexuality is tolerated.
As a result, the explosion of online rancor before and after Phelps’ death was only to be expected. On Facebook, a “Fred Phelps Death Watch” gleefully counted down the days to Phelps’ final demise. Facebook also featured a “Protest Fred Phelps’ Funeral” page, though the Phelps family ultimately decided not to hold services – perhaps out of a desire to avoid the spectacle that such a funeral could easily become. Twitter, meanwhile, featured comments such as “I can’t imagine how big the queue to piss on [Phelps’] grave will be” and “Fred Phelps is dead, thereby proving that even pure, concentrated bile has a limited shelf life.” Another tweet, reported by The Baltimore Sun, was hopeful that “his final hours were filled with immense physical pain and horrifying hallucinations.”
The day after Fred Phelps died, the Westboro Baptist Church held another protest. The pop artist Lorde performed in Kansas City, Missouri, and WBC was there to confront her for “serving herself and teaching other young people how to be indolent rebels.” The activities of WBC almost guarantee the presence of counter-protesters – in recent years, the counter-protesters have often outnumbered the WBC faithful – and the Lorde concert was no exception.
The counter-protesters, however, displayed none of the hatefulness that characterized both Fred Phelps and the vengeful online community. Instead of reveling in Phelps’ demise, they held a large sign that read “Sorry For Your Loss,” in additional to other signs with positive messages such as “Live Your Life and be Awesome.” The “fight hate with love” mentality of the counter-protest was in keeping with another side of the public reaction to Phelps and his ideas, one that might be smaller, but that has always been more effective. Many people used social media not to “grave-dance,” as the hostility has been denounced by some, but to express compassion for Phelps and his family – though in several cases, even the well-wishers had to put a little bite into their comments. “Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps has died,” wrote one person on Twitter. “Sending love & compassion to his family, because he would have totally HATED that.”
Fred Phelps was a bigot and a homophobe who used the fear of eternal damnation and communal ostracization to indoctrinate others, notably his own children, into joining a religious movement openly based around hate. He was a truly horrifying specimen of what religious zealotry, as well as humanity itself, can become at its worst. And yet, his death doesn’t really matter. Phelps hadn’t been a driving force in WBC for years before he passed, and there have been posthumous reports that he was, in fact, excommunicated from his own church in 2013. WBC will go on without him. What matters about Fred Phelps is not his death, but what his death means to us. A fellow human being is gone from this world. Let’s grieve for him, and show the surviving members of the Phelps family that death is an occasion for compassion and reflection, not malevolence and rage.
Originally published in The Lumberjack (http://www.jackcentral.org/opinion/death-of-fred-phelps-should-be-a-commiseration-not-a/article_5f9758ea-c3d6-11e3-bb1a-001a4bcf6878.html)