I owe Fred Phelps a debt of gratitude.
He was more caricature than man, the ugliest undercurrents of white middle class midwestern America concentrated in a single body. An object not only worthy of hate, but meant to be hated. He was a monster in the classical sense.
Fred Phelps was used as a diversionary tactic by the Fox News/Worldview Weekend/general Christian Right types to justify/make reasonable their seemingly casual “biblically sound” homophobia: “Sure, we aren’t comfortable with the gays, but at least we don’t protest in the streets about it.”
Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church were the logical end of such “reasonable” homophobia. He took the root incoherence of the position and violently vomited it out into the world, presenting it in all of the ugliness it entails, the ugliness that befits it.
Phelps and the WBC are and always were a religio-political sideshow; a shocking spectacle that held no real power outside of its ghastly image. But the image did carry some cultural capital.
Myself, as a young person muddling his way towards adulthood in the care of the Evangelical Free Church of America, was constantly warned of the “gay agenda” and the moral evils of homosexuality, and their biblical bases. All the while, I had never (knowingly) met a gay person. Within the confines of that community, it all seemed so harmless and rational. There were even slight pangs of sympathy for the WBC, but always with the caveat “They’re going about it all wrong”.
Time wore on, experience was gained, and it became harder to make so stark a distinction between the antics of the Phelpses and the beliefs of the Right-leaning Evangelical establishment. Fred Phelps unknowingly served as the Thoroughly Reasonable Evangelical’s id, exposing the unsubstantiated hatred and anger at the heart of so many self-described “good” people, myself included.
He was no performance artist, as much as I hope he was.