The Tragedy of Fred Phelps: How Priggishness Poisoned Everything

By A.Z. Foreman
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

-Mark Antony in "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
The responses to Fred Phelps' death have, to say the least, not been forthcoming with much lamentation. Indeed, my own initial - and superficial-  response of "Ding-dong, the Phelps is dead!" could hardly be called much of a dirge. I was not alone in my sentiment, as my Facebook feed amply demonstrated.

Another common reaction, perhaps most riotously exhibited by this Onion article, has been to cast Phelps as an irrelevant pain in the ass who achieved little in his crusade of unmitigated hatred and contempt for the basic humanity of sexual minorities. Moreover, some point out, he was only one among many mouthpieces for such bigotry. Others will take his place in the legion of extraordinary homophobes. He was, at bottom, as powerless to stop the march of progress on LGBT issues as he was generic and interchangeable in his opposition to it.

Others, perhaps more to the point, portray Phelps as a complex man with a prophet-complex, neither fully good nor fully evil.

These responses, indeed all the responses I have so far seen, are sorely lacking in one respect. For Fred Phelps was not bigotry personified. Nor was he merely one of many homophobes. No, he was something much more disturbing.

Lend me your ears, my fellow Americans! 

Anyone who looked up Fred Phelps' life on Wikipedia while he was alive, or perused the legion of pieces now spawning on the cyberscape in the wake of his death (or written just before it), would, if they know only what the man was most known for in recent decades, be shocked.

Who knew the man was a democrat? Hell, who'd have thought this fag-flayer once made a pastime of running for elected office half a dozen times on the democratic party's ticket? And his civil rights record! What are we to think of that? 

This was not a hater like any other. Indeed, he seems to have rather been a hater unlike any other. And I'm sure he liked it that way.

Phelps started his legal career as a civil rights lawyer in the 60s defending black plaintiffs against the legal, cultural and institutional racist horror-show that was the Jim Crow south. And he was good at it. More than that, he was dedicated. Devoted, even - nay, devout. He seems to have been passionate to the point of moral crusader zeal about defending blacks against institutional racism. For some time, he was the only white attorney in the state willing to stick up for black folk. And he endured abuse at the hands of many a racist for it. "Nigger-lover" was a word he and his family were for quite some time on painful, intimate terms with.

Unlike many lawyers who prefer only to take cases they think they have a snowcone's chance on Satan's tongue of winning, Phelps seems to have fought for civil rights in the courtroom on principle, even when he must have known he'd lose. Even when defeat was certain, even when the victim had no chance of actually winning, Phelps seems to have gladly taken up the cause.  If you were a black person in Kansas getting screwed by institutionalized racism, and wanted to seek legal recourse but couldn't find anyone to take your case, the Phelps legal team was your last hope for some semblance of justice.

He won honors for it: the Omaha Mayor's Special Recognition Award,  an award from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government, and even an award from the NAACP praising him for his "steely determination for justice during his tenure as a civil rights attorney."

Had Phelps died 30 years ago (and, in a universe presided over by more benevolent forces than the caprice of our cosmos, he would have) his obituaries would have glowed with affection. His funeral, if he had one, would have been attended by a large and grateful contingent of black people. Black celebrities would likely have offered up kind words to honor him, and liberals of every stripe would have come out of the news cycle's woodwork to proffer their sincerest condolences to his family and their sadness at the passing of one of black America's most dedicated allies.

But he didn't die 30 years ago, much though I may wish he had. And I come to bury Phelps, not to praise him.

There is the question: Whence came such steely determination? Why did this white homophobe fight so hard on behalf of black people?

Back when Phelps was still alive and squawking, one explanation offered by some was that he must have just been taking civil rights cases to make money, that he must have been insincere about wanting to aid black victims of institutional racism if he could become such a hatemonger later on. As I hope to have shown above, however, this simply does not hold water. To the degree that these questions seem at all puzzling today, it is because the left has gotten far too much mileage out of the Good Ol' Boy stereotype of the homophobic racist misogynist as antistrophe in a chorus preoccupied with the straight white male Other. For the likely answer is simply: he believed it was the right thing to do.

I admit my first reaction, years ago when I first became curious about this curious man, was to wonder what breakdown of sanity occasioned this switcheroo from fighting against the evils of persecution to trumpeting it as a god-mandated imperative.

The truth, though, is that Phelps didn't change one bit. There is ample and obvious evidence that Phelps' animus against sexual "deviance" was not caused by his moral mainspring somehow breaking in the 80s. Rather, it was there all along. In 1951, over a decade before embarking on his frankly heroic campaign against white supremacy in the courtrooms of Kansas, Phelps - then a student at John Muir college - was profiled in Time for his habit of walking up to groups of students on campus and launching into fiery brimstone-rich jeremiads about "pandering to the lusts of the flesh" and sundry crimes of indulgence against sexual propriety which, he was appalled to see, didn't seem to others to be such a big deal. His conviction that disregard for sexual restraint crossed some sort of moral rubicon, the impulse to combat it in the fashion of a latter-day prophet speaking truth at the city gates to the uncomprehending licentious masses - this was always there.
The same authoritarian personality trait probably did black people some good. In the Kansas of the 60s and 70s, seeing all around him the ghastly effects wrought by his society's pathology of race, himself the son of a venomous racist, I cannot for a moment doubt that Phelps must have felt himself to be carrying out a moral mission of similar scope, taking a lonely stand for what he believed to be right and moral in the face of a world gone immorally wrong. The same rebel without a pause, and without fear.

He never changed. America did.

It was only when America began to show considerable signs of sexual emancipation, the very thing which had so troubled his prayers all those years ago as an undergraduate in San Diego, that Phelps turned a different shade of crusader. There was a shift in sexual morality - from his perspective - in the wrong direction. This seems to have brought out the Vader in his Anakin.

Phelps had always been unnecessarily belligerent. Some of the suits he filed showed him to be among the angriest, most capricious, most litigious and most cantankerous attorneys in his state's jurisprudential firmament. One such misadventure was a 6 year lawsuit over a mishap with the delivery of a TV set.

It was, however, his cruel and juvenile bullying of Carolene Brady in 1977 as a hostile witness, accusing her of all manner of things including being "a slut", reducing her to to tears on the witness stand, all as part of a vendetta over a comically minor punctilio of courtroom bureaucracy, which in the end got him disbarred.

Shortly thereafter, Phelps seems to have become ever more paranoid about sexual excess and wantonness. The Gage Park debacle, in which he and his family complained to the authorities that too many gay people were cruising for sex in a park near the Phelps' home and tried put up signs warning of homosexuals in the area when no action was taken - was sparked, according to Phelps' daughter, because his children were being "accosted" by homosexuals, including an incident where a homosexual tried to lead his 5-year-old son off into the bushes.

I do not in truth know whether Phelps' children were actually molested or harassed by someone sexually attracted to children. I'm sure Phelps believed that they were. But given his decades-old habit of making sexually-charged mountains out of relatively innocent molehills (witness his willingness to call Carolene Brady an unreliable slut for being a day late with a transcript), what Phelps perceived as harassment was probably nothing more sinister than a man in tight pants who loves kids smiling at the boy and saying "hey there little guy" as he walked past.

And so began "The Great Gage Park Decency Drive" which inaugurated the Westboro Baptist Church's campaign against fags.

I am not alone in having picked up on the common origin from which sprang both Phelps' civil rights work and anti-gay soapboxathon.

Matthew Rozsa puts it thusly:

...individuals who invest their life's work in larger social causes often do so for psychological as well as ideological reasons. Regardless of the exact beliefs of the movements in question — whether they are religious or political, left-wing or right-wing, intellectual or visceral — people who become "true believers" in those causes frequently do so to fulfill a variety of needs to both their egos and their ability to comprehend the dauntingly complex external world. Indeed, as Hoffer demonstrated, this fanatical personality type could be found behind causes ranging from Communism and Nazism to Christianity and Islam... with "true believers" able to flip from one point-of-view to a seemingly contradictory one precisely because their core psychological needs were still met.

Consequently, instead of viewing Phelps's earlier civil rights activism as an angel to his subsequent raging homophobe's devil, we should see them as different manifestations of a single root drive. We need to recognize that the same fervent conviction and inner belief system that can fuel the cause of justice can also be used to deny justice to others, even though the genesis of both those forces can sincerely hold that each is serving a righteous cause. While none of this excuses Phelps's irrationality or malevolence, it helps us see that everyone — progressives, conservatives, libertarians, centrists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists — is capable of being both a hero and a monster. We all believe what we do as much out of pride and the need to be swept up by a "greater cause" as we do out of detached intellectual and moral analysis.

As America looks back on the scope of Phelps's life, my hope is that it will spark introspection among idealists of all stripes. I say this not as one who claims to be above such impulses — indeed, I have been guilty of knee-jerk idealism before and will almost certainly be guilty of it again — but because liberty is threatened most not by those who care too little, but by those who never scrutizine what they care about and why.

This seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous. 

Sure, Phelps can be typologized as the fanatical true believer into whose mind any movement could be channeled and generate similar kinds of militantly rebellious behavior. Even if you believe that (and I only partly do) not all fanatical true believers become monsters. Some who leave a heroic legacy, like John Brown, probably were lucky enough to die at the right time in a way Phelps didn't. But you can't say that about Hugh Franklin, the man who was willing to starve in the name of women's political enfranchisement, can you? Countless other visionary fanatics and people with highly authoritarian personalities have had a largely positive effect in their lives. Is there a meaningful difference? Something that makes a fanatical mind less prone to hateful harm and more zealous justice?

Yes, there is. To wit - the things they believe.

What is being avoided in discussions of this aspect of Phelps' character on the internet is the fact that, had Phelps had a different set of premises on which to construct the belief-system that so animated him, he would have found different causes to push for. Contrary to what Rozsa intimates, with his reduction of people to stereotype - and contrary to a lot of the mealy-mouthed rhetoric used to answer criticism of religion about how bigoted believers are merely "using" a belief system to articulate a prejudice supposedly extraneous to it - it is only honest to acknowledge that the specific beliefs a person holds regarding morality and justice, especially someone like a Fred Phelps or a Hugh Franklin, will have specific consequences for what causes they pursue.

Fred Phelps' revulsion toward violations of his preferred sexual norms, ultimately regardless of the genders of those involved in the transgression as his campus and courtroom antics demonstrate, may have been transformed into a full-blown obsessive cause by specific factors. But had he not held such beliefs in the first place, he would at the very least have found something else to prophesy about during his college days in San Diego. Yes, he might have been just as unstable, belligerent, fanatical in his pursuit of his cause. But who's to say he wouldn't have been a tireless belligerent, fanatical advocate for gay rights? In the AIDS-petrified America of the 1980s and early 90s, it would have been quite possible for Phelps the straight man to position himself as a lonely prophet, hated and abhored by all around him for standing up for gay people. The man did love being hated, after all.

Fred Phelps' life was a tragedy, a tragedy that speaks not so much to the pervasiveness of religious  sexual bigotry, as to its toxicity, and its ability to turn potentially good and even great people into the most hate-filled specimens of malice. We should join Phelps' son Nathan and grieve “not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been.”

For we will never know that latter man, the one who didn't have the chance to acquire this kind of gross preoccupation with sexual propriety, and pietistic prudery backed by questions of Heaven and Hell. Would he have continued to fight for African-American dignity into the 90s and 2000s, in the courtrooms of West Baltimore, say, or East St. Louis? Who's to say whether he would have continued there his last-righteous-man-standing act by letting the public see him as protecting dealers of street drugs, whilst seeing himself as defending some of the most powerless people in America against the War on Drugs?

Counterfactual history is an oxymoron, so I don't know.

I do know that Matthew Shepherd would have been buried with a bit more dignity.

I began this post by quoting from Mark Antony's speech for Caesar, let me finish by doing it once again.
You all did love him once, not without cause.
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?


  1. A more nuanced portrait than I had previously glimpsed. I am actually quite surprised. I had assumed, not knowing better, that Phelps was a flatter character, more of a die-cut rigid thinker. I stand corrected. Written with compassion.

  2. Indeed many have crusaded for LGBT rights because of ethical convictions, even progressive people of faith-based conscience. Alas, too rare among us in the US...