I used to write columns about Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell every time they did something stupid.
I was, in fact, grateful for the chance to verbally smite them when Robertson said hurricanes would strike Disney World because of its “Gay Days” celebration or when Falwell said that Tinky Winky, one of the characters on the PBS children’s show Teletubbies, might be gay. The two knucklehead televangelists were such easy targets.
But I realized – belatedly – that I and all their other detractors were giving them what they most wanted: attention. I finally realized that if things quieted down and no one was shaking a fist at these two characters, they’d come up with something new and outrageous that would stir the pot and make the critics start fulminating again.
So I quit writing those columns.
But another figure, another self-proclaimed preacher, easily eclipsed Robertson and Falwell in both his hunger for publicity and the vile nature of what he was willing to say to get it. Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., died Thursday at the age of 84.
He was the scum of the earth. Despite their shared disdain for gays, even Falwell denounced him as a “hatemonger” and “emotionally unbalanced.” His own family “excommunicated” him from his church last year.
It’s possible that, by the time he died, Phelps had achieved something approaching universal loathing.
He became a local pariah in Topeka, where he had been disbarred from practicing law, by picketing against homosexuals. His church, which preached an anti-homosexual theology, was infamous for adopting controversial slogans, including “God hates f---,” which remains the name of the church’s main website.
His notoriety grew beyond the confines of Topeka in 1998, when he led a protest at the Caspar, Wyo., funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old, who had been tied to a fence post and beaten to death. Phelps later returned to Caspar with intentions of building a monument inscribed: “Matthew Shepard Entered Hell Oct. 12, 1998.”
But Phelps might be most reviled for his picketing of the funerals of troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, claiming that their deaths represented divine retribution for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality. Phelps and his followers carried signs with slogans such as, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates the USA.”
The picketing spurred efforts to outlaw the protests. But in a case heard by the Supreme Court regarding the picketing of a funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, a Marine killed in Iraq, justices ruled that such demonstrations, no matter how offensive, were legal as long as protesters obeyed state and local laws about keeping their distance from the funerals.
Familes of the dead, however, complained that despite the required buffer zone, they still could see the demonstrators as they proceeded to the burial sites. This prompted members of the motorcycle club The Patriot Guard to assemble their bikes between the picketers and the mourners.
That effort to build human shields against Phelps and his followers later spread to high schools, college campuses and legitimate churches.
Membership in the Westboro Baptist Church, which isn’t actually affiliated with any Baptist organizations, was swelled by family members. He had 13 children and 54 grandchildren.
Many have now disowned him. Others have tried in vain to keep the the movement alive, but apparently they lack Phelps’ particular skills at fomenting outrage.
Some Christian groups might use Phelps’ death to reflect on the need to find forgiveness in our hearts for even the most debased among us. The best I can muster is that soon he will return to dust and, with luck, memory of him will vanish.
James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.