By Jon Michael Bell
Introductions All Around
A TIME magazine article from 1950 hangs framed on the wall. It's about a college student's crusade against necking on a campus in Southern California.
That student's office in Kansas today is aclack with fax machines and ringing phones, but the chair behind the great mahogany desk is empty.
When the former campus evangelist finally bursts in, he is trailed by grandchildren-so many sixth-grade secretaries-gophering, sending faxes, fetching papers-and a glass of water for the reporter.
Thoughtful. It's 93 outside.
"Sit down," says Fred Phelps, rumored ogre, with an effusive Southern graciousness. "But I got to tell you, you know we're going to preach the word, the same thing I've been preaching for 46 years, and it's supremely, supremely irrelevant to us what anybody thinks or says. "You get a little bit of this message I'm preaching, you can't ask for anything more. God hates fags-that's a synopsis."
Phelps, 63, a disbarred lawyer and Baptist preacher from Mississippi, is on a mission from God. His face lights up like a kid's on Christmas morning when he talks about how the nation is reacting to his anti- homosexual campaign. He contends the Bible supports the death penalty for sodomy:
"I'm not urging anybody to kill anybody," he adds, then matter-of-factly explains how his interpretation of the Bible calls for precisely that:
"The death penalty was violently carried out by God on a massive scale when the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire and brimstone," says Phelps. "I am inclined to the view that the closer man's laws come to God's laws, the better off our race will be."
Phelps has found the national spotlight by disrupting the mourners' grieving at the funerals of AIDS victims. His followers carry picket signs outside the services with such stone-hearted messages as GOD HATES FAGS and FAGS=DEATH.
Last spring, he and his tiny band traveled to Washington, D.C., to taunt the gay parade, creating a near-riot. Since then, Phelps has been the subject of a 20-20 segment, appeared on the Jane Whitney Show twice to mock homosexuals, and is now regularly interviewed on both Christian and secular radio across America.
Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in the Kansas capital of Topeka, since 1990 has also been an unsuccessful candidate for mayor, governor, and United States Senator. Currently he is negotiating his own radio show-one that will be heard throughout the Midwest.
His message is simple: God hates most everybody and He's sending them all to hell. Makes no difference how they lived their life.
For the Pastor Phelps, except for a handful of 'elect', the human race is composed of depraved beasts. God hates these creatures and so do His favored few. The world is divided sharply and irreversibly between the multitude of the already-damned (called the reprobate or the Adamic Race) and those chosen by God to attend Him in heaven. Those selected to be elect were tapped, not for the rectitude of their lives, but by what could best be described as the Supreme Whim of the Deity.
While this is the theology of predestination, one that in less vengeful minds is a mainstay of many Protestant sects, in Fred Phelps' mind it has become a green light to hatred and cruelty.
Recently, Pastor Phelps has added a corollary to this thesis that God hates the human race: God reserves His most pure and profound hatred for the homosexuals among the Adamic race.
At 63, Phelps is a triathlon competitor who bikes or runs every day. The strongest thing he drinks is what he calls his 'vitamin C cocktail', consisting of Vitamin C, Diet Pepsi, and water.
The pastor basks in the heat of the outrage triggered by his campaign against homosexuals.
"If you're preaching the truth of God, people are going to hate you," he grins. "Nobody has the right to think he's preaching the truth of God unless people hate him for it. All the prophets were treated that way."
Phelps delivers this with all the drama, fire, and brimstone of a man who used to be a trial lawyer and is still a preacher. His voice and tone are spellbinding and chilling. He doesn't stumble over his words. Clearly, he believes he is a modern day prophet.
Phelps says he and his family have been hated and persecuted almost from the time they arrived in Topeka in 1954. "The more opposition we get, the more committed we get," says Liz Phelps, one of the pastor's daughters. "Nothing, short of the elimination of homosexuality in the world, will make us stop," announces the pastor. In an unexpected reprieve from the anticipated 'sodomite' label pasted on all who disagree-especially the press-the former vacuum cleaner salesman gives his visitor a warm smile and immediately takes to calling him warmly by his first name. He leads a brief tour through his church. It adjoins his office: a long room, with a low ceiling and a rusty red carpet and dark, oaken pews. It has enough seating for twice the current congregation of 51.
The reporter asks to go to the bathroom. A stocky teenage grandson with training in judo is sent along. He waits outside, no dummy, for the reporter to finish. Then it's upstairs to the study, a high, spacious room filled with books of biblical exegesis dating back to the Reformation. Fred is eager to prove his Bible scholarship, and perhaps frustrated, even contemptuous, when he realizes he is talking to a Bible-ho-hum humanist. Downstairs, the pastor leads to the garage where their wardrobe of picket signs is kept. Stacked high against the walls are messages for every occasion-all of them gloomy. No good news here.
Outside, one would never guess they were at a church. Westboro Baptist is actually a large home in a comfortable Topeka neighborhood. In fact, Phelps and his wife have lived in the house for almost 40 years, and raised their 13 children within its walls. For many years, his law office was also located in the residence Fred Phelps insists is still his 'church'. The pastor's large family has always composed nearly all of his congregation and loyal following. As his children grew up, they bought the adjoining houses on the block, creating a tight compound around the church. Today, one finds a citadel of modest homes joined by fences, sharing a common backyard.
In a small revolution in urban design, the space behind their houses has not been sub-divided, but made into a wide grass park, complete with swimming pool, ball court, and trampoline. The grandchildren wander from their separate houses to play together. The effect on the nervous reprobates outside the walls is a sense of Waco in the air.
From his compound, like a knight sallying forth from the Crusaders' citadel of Krak, Pastor Phelps and his child band make war on the Adamic race. When not doing TV talk shows, radio interviews, or appearing on the cover of the national gay magazine, The Advocate, Phelps lays siege to his hometown, nearby Kansas City, and local universities.
The Westboro congregation pickets public officials, private businesses, and other churches, many of whom have had only tenuous connection to some form of anti-Phelps criticism. Until a city ordinance was passed against it, the Westboro warriors even picketed their opponents' homes. For the last two years, this tiny group, by virtue of their tactics, dedication, and discipline, have held the Kansas capital hostage. Fred Phelps has been able to intimidate most of the residents of Topeka into a fearful silence, though he himself is a shrill and vigorous defender of his own First Amendment rights. Those who would disagree with his brutal remedies to his perception of social ills face a three-fold attack:
- Lawsuits: If the rest of America has justly come to fear the anonymous lone nut with a gun, it has yet to experience a community of eccentrics stockpiling law degrees.
- Picketing: One prominent restaurant in Topeka is now failing after being picketed daily for almost a year. "Patrons just got tired of the harassment," sighs the owner. The cause of the pickets? One of the restaurant's employees is a lesbian.
- Faxes: Phelps has gone to court and won on his right to fax daily almost 300 public officials, private offices, and the media with damaging and embarrassing information from the private lives of his opponents-most of it false, wild, and unsubstantiated. One city councilwoman was called a "Jezebelian, switch-hitting whore" who had sex with several men at once. A police officer saw his name faxed all over town as a child molester, one who had lured young boys to a park outside the city and had sex with them in his patrol car. Despite his daughter Margie's assertions that Phelps has the evidence to prove such accusations 'big time', no such proof has ever emerged.
Over the weeks, one learns about the family. Of Fred's 13 children, nine remain in the community. Five of them are married and raising 24 grandchildren. All of the members of Westboro Baptist-children, in-laws, and grandchildren- participate in the pastor's anti-gay campaign. Despite their image from the pickets, most of the adults are friendly and socially accomplished. Each of them has a law degree, and some have additional postgraduate degrees in business or public administration. The adults pay taxes, meet bills, and obey the laws. The grandchildren are perhaps less demonstrative than most children, but in an earlier day that was called well-behaved. Many of their parents hold or have held important jobs in local and state agencies. The pastor's first-born, Fred, Jr., and his wife, Betty, were guests at the Clinton inauguration. The former northeast Kansas campaign manager for Al Gore in 1988 has a stack of VIP photos, such as the one of him, Betty, Al and Tipper, and even soon-to- be Kansas governor Joan Finney smiling and yucking it up at the Phelps' place just a few years ago. Clearly these are not streetcorner flakes taken to carrying signs. The only discordant note here is the Pastor Phelps, pacing about in his lycra shorts and windbreaker, looking like a triathlon competitor who made a wrong turn, ended in a bad neighborhood, and had his bike stolen. But he can easily be discounted while listening to his wife reveal just exactly how she managed to raise those thirteen kids. How? Well, for starters, the woman born Margie Simms of Carrollton, Missouri, had nine brothers and sisters herself. Her own tribe she raised by the same five rules she grew up under: keep their faces clean, their hands clean, and their clothes clean; keep the house clean and keep 'em fed. No Game Boys, college funds, and cars on sixteenth birthdays. She did most of the cooking at first, and her grocery bill, she estimates, would be over two thousand a month today. Many of the 24 grandchildren still spend time at Gramp's house, she said, and their food costs are over a thousand a month, even now.
Mrs. Phelps smiles. Before the kids got old enough to be finicky, she could fill one tub and bathe them all, then line them up to brush their teeth and clean their fingernails. They had six bedrooms furnished with bunkbeds, and everyone wore hand-me-downs. Her laundry pile was so huge, she needed two washers and two dryers: "I'm afraid that Maytag repairman wasn't lonely with us. He was always out at our house. We went through washers and dryers every three years. They worked all day long. "The part I dreaded most about raising so many children? When they were sick. Then you had to pay all your attention to that one-and hope the others would make out all right." Later, she adds, the older kids took over most of the chores and her job became considerably easier.
The children used to listen to their father preach twice on Sunday, says daughter Margie. Once at eleven and again at seven that evening. "But there's too many conflicting schedules now. So we only have the one sermon at eleven-thirty," Margie tells how their household was abuzz with political bull sessions. All the candidates and wannabes came through there: "My dad was complete activity and whirlwind. My mom was the calm at the center of the storm. She's the one who inspired our closeness. Getting us to look out for our brothers and sisters; bond with each other." Mrs. Phelps describes how everyone had to take piano lessons. They had two pianos in the garage and three in the house. (Chopsticks in fugue-five as a backdrop to any childhood might explain why the adults seem so tense today.) Margie tells of their family choir. How they practiced a cappella and harmony. Even today, their counter-protestors grudgingly admit the Phelps sound good when they raise their collective voice in hymn from across the street. Once for their father's birthday, says Margie, the children learned to harmonize "One Tin Soldier", the theme song from the film, "Billy Jack". She laughs at the memory. "He was of two minds about that: flattered that we'd done it. And not too pleased by the lyrics. ("...go ahead and hate your neighbor...go ahead and cheat a friend...do it in the name of heaven...you'll be justified in the end...") "We had good times...lots of good times," says Mrs. Phelps. "I would not have had any other childhood but that one," adds her daughter.
If they're not holding harassing signs saying, 'God Hates Fags', calling deaf old dowagers 'sodomite whores', or bristling at startled churchgoers, Fred's kids are back at home being model parents and neighbors, attending PTOs and Clinton coronations. The stark contrast of the two masks-decent and repulsive, hateful and considerate, forthright and devious, stupid and clever-creates a polarity that begins to weigh on the observer. Contrasts frequently are the visible edge of contradiction. And contradictions sometimes arise from very deep and secret undercurrents. Currents of pain. One day in the pickup with the pastor and his wife, driving the signs to the picket line, Fred suddenly jams on the brakes and pulls over.
"Why'd you do that?" asks the mother of 13. "We're gonna make sure those kids are safe," the pastor replies. The objects of his concern are in the yard across the street. There is absolutely no chance he could have hit them. It's odd and unnecessary and exaggerated behavior.
His wife knows it; even the children know it-they've pulled back and are watching the truck suspiciously. Mrs. Phelps gives her husband a strange look. As if she had some secret knowledge. It's obvious Fred intended this as an awkward display of altruism for the press. The message is: "The pastor loves kids". But the message one gets is a warning from Hamlet: "The play's the thing wherein we'll catch the conscience of the king." Because that boy, now a man, ran home to his father's house. The house of Fred Phelps. Where all good things end.
Where any family counselor will assert that a child who strangles pets has almost certainly been brutalized as well.