When I was in college in the 1990s in St. Louis, I remember getting a bunch of bizarre anti-abortion fliers faxed to our student newspaper office. That was my introduction to Fred Phelps, his family, and the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas (and also, to a lesser degree, the frequent experience as a journalist of being sent strange screeds). If I recall correctly, they were in town picketing something, so it was part of their effort to scrounge up some press. They were still crafting their image as far-right extreme religious conservatives, blaming all of America's ills on homosexuality and abortion and other things they defined as non-Christian. I remember seeing Fred Phelps sometimes showing up on daytime talk shows (anybody remember Ricki Lake?), but the Westboro Baptist Church was not yet a household name.
They most certainly are now, and today a family member has revealed that former patriarch Fred Phelps died last night at the age of 84. Fred Phelps had been out of the public eye for some time now, and over the weekend, a son who had broken away from the family said the man was in bad physical shape and had been moved into a care facility. He also, allegedly, had been excommunicated from the church during a power struggle over leadership.
I encountered the Phelps family and Westboro Baptist Church members in person in 1999 as attention on them started ramping up. I was covering a meeting between a group of gay Christians and Jerry Falwell's followers at Liberty University in Virginia. By agreeing to meet with the gay Christians, Falwell was deemed not anti-gay enough, so Westboro Baptist (and another extremely anti-gay church) showed up to picket Falwell. I decided to acknowledge their appearance in my reporting (for an alt-weekly I was working at and for a freelance piece for the gay magazine The Advocate) but I declined actually trying to interview them. Even back then, their shtick was well-worn, at least to the audience I was writing for. They had nothing new to say. Other journalists couldn't wait to get some crazy, nasty quote for them.
They had been picketing the funerals of people who had died of AIDS for years, but after 9/11 they started picketing funerals of soldiers, blaming their deaths on America's failure to believe the same things that the Phelps family believed. Well, now that they were being bipartisan in their cruelty, the coverage took off. Even as they started getting more and more attention, and people across the spectrum started getting repulsed, I found it easier and easier to tune them out. I always wondered why it was such a struggle for others. The federal government passed a law blocking protests near military funerals (and only military funerals, again showing what people were really upset about). The church won a Supreme Court verdict in 2011 that they couldn't be sued for monetary damages by the family of a slain soldier they picketed.
Given that Fred Phelps has already apparently been purged from the church, it's unlikely that his death will change the family's behavior in any recognizable way. On a fundamental level, Fred Phelps is not really responsible for the family's fame—we are. The Westboro Baptist Church is a scab we keep picking at. Americans have grown more and more accepting of gay people, and the church's actions grow more and more desperate to get attention. Yet so many people find it hard to look away from them. They couldn't be any less relevant to the direction the country is moving, and yet they bother us so much that we pass laws to try to stop their protests, arrange elaborate plans to block said protests from public view, and essentially continue to perpetuate their fame by continuing to let the church's actions draw outraged responses.
Like I said, the death of Fred Phelps probably won't result in any changes from the family, but it's a good excuse for the rest of us to move on. I'm sure that right now some dreadful editorial cartoonist is sketching Phelps being met at the pearly gates by all the soldiers his family picketed. It's true that the solution for bad speech is more speech. But the solution to crazy obsession is not becoming obsessed right back at them. Stop picking at this scab. The attention the Westboro Baptist Church received was always much greater than their actual influence or import, except perhaps as a bad example. They were the Kardashian family of religious activism.
Read about Fred Phelps' secret origins as a civil rights attorney who fought racial discrimination in the 1960s here and speculate about what the heck happened.