The controversial and fiery pastor Fred Phelps has passed away, and to many, his death is a sigh of relief. Surprising to some though is that Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church did not in actuality hurt the targets of its hate the most. Rather, Christians were most negatively affected by Westboro’s message.
The preacher, who passed away at the age of 84, was most infamously known for his “God Hates Fags,” rhetoric. Furthermore, his “church,” moved to protest funerals, 9/11 memorials, and virtually anything that they could find reason to hate.
In doing this, Phelps made a name for himself. A very, very bad name for himself. And, as he branded his vitriolic sewage sputtering as theologically inspired, he made a name for Christians. A very, very bad name.
Anti-Westboro movements and ideas started springing up quickly, as would be expected. The general mantra was that the so-called “church,” was despicable and condemnable on all levels (which this author has yet to find an individual who disagrees).
However, more than that, it became assumed that Phelps and friends were in fact preaching legitimate theology. It became easy to imagine that his brand of hatred was actually rooted in Biblical teaching.
This erroneous assumption lingers and is entirely damaging to the actual message that Christians truly forward. Of course there is room to legitimately criticize Christian institutions on a variety of levels, but equating them to Westboro is simply wrong, and it is for that reason that Phelps was so damaging to Christians as a whole.
Take for instance the absurd amount of hate shown towards Muslims. It is true that the individuals who perpetuated the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were self-defined Muslims and that Al-Qaeda is a self-defined Muslim group. However, it makes no sense to assume that they are acting in a way that the Qur’an teaches. There are well over a billion Muslims in the world and the number of militant extremists that are self-defined Muslims is so fractional by comparison that is impossible to consider the two as equals. Yet regardless, the Islamaphobic hate rhetoric that some people espouse does not recognize this stark distinction.
In the same sense, Fred Phelps and Westboro hurt Christians the most. People resonated with the idea that Christians were hateful and intolerant as a whole due to the absurd protests by Phelps and his band of lawyers working under the guise of a religious group. However, on the bright side, love wins in the end of this story.
Virtually in tandem with Westboro’s hate antics, America saw a rise in support for gay rights and gay marriage. Furthermore, a growing number of Christians have come to support gay marriage on the premises of liberty and equality. It seems as though the hate that was exclusive to Westboro and Phelps solidified the idea that society ought to be free of those sorts of notions.
It is unlikely that Phelps considered that his actions would be entirely counter-intuitive. However, it is also unlikely that he cared. From the start of their radical protests, their ploy was simply to make money; they had no interest in maintaining a congregation nor spreading the gospel in a meaningful way. Simple greed drove Phelps so it would seem, and simple hate was the outcome.
At the same time, despite the negative press that Westboro’s dimwitted and counter-intuitive hate rallies brought to Christians everywhere, it did open up a time of considerable dialogue within Christian communities.
First of all, congregations were able to more clearly articulate their positions on social issues as Westboro brought them to the forefront. Furthermore, countering Phelps’ message of hate with a message of love resonated with both believers and non believers alike.
Finally, although Fred Phelps and Westboro did whatever was in their power to spread vitriolic hate wherever they went, and although they certainly tarnished the image of Christians everywhere, the end result was a true demonstration of what it means to be Christian. Love, openness, and acceptance even where there is disagreement are important, but even on top of that Christian leaders are taking it upon themselves to apologize for the hate that Phelps brought. So with his death, it is good to reflect on the idea that whether religious or nonreligious, gay or straight, love wins.
Opinion by Brett Byers-Lane