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WBC founder Fred Phelps’ death reveals need to combat hate

Last week, the founder of the infamously hateful Westboro Baptist Church passed away. Fred Phelps, 84, died of natural causes on March 19, and his daughter claims there will—unfortunately—not be a funeral service for his enemies to vengefully picket. The Westboro Baptist Church, she said, does not worship their dead.

Created in the 1950s as an offshoot of a different church, the East Side Baptist Church, WBC and the newly hired pastor Phelps quickly cut ties with the older organization. The WBC resides in Topeka, Kan., and now consists of roughly 40 members, most of whom are Phelps’ family. In the last six decades, the Westboro Baptist Church has made a name for itself by loudly protesting and picketing the various things they condemn: homosexuality and Islam, to name just a few. And through it all, Fred Phelps—a man who fought zealously for civil rights in 1960s Kansas—was their faithful leader, urging them on.

The WBC frequently shows up at funerals and memorial services, provoking people at their most vulnerable with (already incredibly offensive) signs that proclaim “GOD HATES FAGS.” (This is also the name of their website.) They protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the 21 year old who was tortured and beaten to death in 1998 for being gay. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, led by Phelps, arrived to protest homosexuality at the funeral, and were subsequently blocked from view by many of Shepard’s friends, dressed as angels with massive fake wings.
The church attacks politicians for supporting the “fag agenda” and refers to the president as “Beast Obama,” an antichrist who will lead the Muslims and other “false religions” in war against Israel; they burn American flags and Qurans. In an open letter to Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the church wrote, “You’re going to hell. Repent or perish.”

They claim that the horrible things that have happened in America—the Sandy Hook Shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing and a 2013 tornado in Oklahoma, for example—are evidence of God’s punishment because Americans have supported homosexuals and other “sinners.” They’re known by many as a hate group, and Phelps has always been their figurehead.

Should we, therefore, celebrate Fred Phelps’ death? On one hand, it seems like a victory. He was a hateful man whom many claimed made a mockery of their Christian faith. He and his followers saw damnation in the things that we call progress: marriage equality, to him, was the “fag agenda” and the reason for so many catastrophes. With Phelps gone and a pope who accepts homosexuality, it appears as if the Christian community may be taking a big step toward tolerance.

Moral and ethical implications aside, though, being happy that the WBC leader is dead may be jumping the gun altogether. Part of the reason for this is that Phelps, allegedly, was not the leader of WBC at the time of his passing. The ailing leader had been excommunicated from his own church in 2013, shunned by his own children and grandchildren after proposing a kinder treatment for church members.

According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, ex-WBC member (and Fred Phelps’ son) Nate Phelps said, “According to one of these board members, the WBC has for a long time been operating without one single leader.” After Phelps’ dismissal, his son countered, “The Lord Jesus Christ is our head.” It seems, then, that vigilance, not waiting, is necessary to combat bigotry and hate.

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WBC founder Fred Phelps’ death reveals need to combat hate