Q&A;: Notorious pastor’s atheist son speaks out at Reason Rally
In what has been billed as “the largest secular event in world history,” athiests will gather in Washington D.C. today to rally in support of secularism.
The event, known as the Reason Rally, also will feature a collision of estranged family members. Nate Phelps, the atheist son of Westboro Baptist Church Pastor Fred Phelps, will address the crowd as his father’s church pickets the event in protest.
The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., has become infamous for using military funerals as a backdrop to promote an anti-gay, anti-military message. The church believes that the United States is too tolerant of sin and that the death of American soldiers is God’s punishment.
The church was sued by the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder – a Marine killed in Iraq – after it staged a protest at Snyder’s funeral with signs such as “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates fags.” In a controversial ruling last March, the Supreme Court said that the church’s speech was protected and therefore it could not be sued for the offensive protest.
Nate Phelps is one of 13 children of Fred Phelps. A professed atheist, he is among four of Phelps’ children who have defected from the church. When Nate Phelps, who has not had contact with much of his family for decades, learned that the church planned to picket the Reason Rally, he decided to counter the protest by speaking out at the event.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Phelps discussed his childhood, the day he left the church, and his views on religion and free speech.
LAT: What was your religious training like growing up?
Phelps: The actual theology is called Calvinism. And at the centerpiece of Calvinism is this idea of absolute predestination, that God is the one that picks the saved, as opposed to us making that decision for ourselves. And it was, you know, the environment was such that whatever our father defined as the doctrines of the Bible was what we were required to believe. So there really wasn’t any choice in the matter.
I don’t know, I guess that’s probably it, in a thumbnail.
Have you always been an atheist or was it a personal journey that led you to your beliefs?
Well, no, I haven’t always been an atheist. You know, growing up in that environment, atheism was a frightening proposition. And, you know, everything pushed us in the direction of looking for – and I think at the age of 14 or 15, I actually declared myself saved, which was the necessary process for being in that church, and was baptized.
I will say that I always had questions centered around the behavior of my father and the ideas that he espoused there. But it wasn’t until years after I left, and I would say probably only the last five or six years, that I have been willing to finally let go of the idea of a god. So it’s been a journey.
How did you get along with your father as a child? And was he aware of your beliefs, or did you keep it to yourself?
It was not an option to openly discuss any doubts which you might have. It wasn’t safe, physically or otherwise, to even consider such a thing.
So I learned early on to keep my thoughts to myself. And, you know, plus there was a component, you know, we heard regularly that we were just dumb kids and didn’t have any idea what we were talking about. So that played a part in the amount of validity that I gave those thoughts.
As far as the relationship with my father, the best way I could describe it was I was afraid of him from very early on. That never really changed, growing up. But it never got to the point where it was a sense of having a, you know, father like you might imagine that was an educator, a helper, you know, that kind of father figure. So he was always the disciplinarian and a threat in my mind.
When did you leave the church?
I left on the night of my 18th birthday, literally at the stroke of midnight.
I bought an old car, used car from one of the people that worked at the high school, and I packed all my stuff up without anybody knowing about it. And on that night, when everybody was asleep, I went out and got the car and put it in the driveway and loaded the trunk with my boxes and then went back in the house and waited at the bottom of the stairs, watched the clock go up to midnight, and I left.
Where did you go?
The first three nights, I had a friend who was the manager of a gas station near the high school I went to, and he gave me a key to the front door and I slept in the bathroom of the gas station for the first three nights.
And then my brother’s girlfriend’s mother found out about it and she offered me a room in her house. So I went from there and then eventually getting a job and getting my own place.
When did you end up in California?
That was actually like five years later.
I went to work for a law office in the Kansas City area and then I later went to St. Louis, went to work for a printing company there that my brother was working at. And we eventually came back to the Kansas City area and started a printing company that would eventually bring us out to Southern California, where we opened eight different stores out there.
There are a couple of them (still around), but they’re owned by someone else now. I lived in California for 25 years.
Was that an older brother, the brother who had already left?
Yeah. That was Mark.
And how many years did he leave before you left?
I seem to recall – I think that I was 16 when he left, so he would have been 19 or 20. So it was a couple years before I left, that he left.
He was – Mark was, he was kind of the, in everybody’s mind, he was the one who was going to follow in my father’s footsteps. As it turned out, he had just figured out that that was the way that he was going to survive that environment, was by being, you know, his father’s yes man.
So he was still around when he was 19. I think he might have even been pushing 20. And his girlfriend, who had found favor with my father and was attending church regularly and was on the path to being accepted there, came to church one Sunday night and found my father upstairs beating my older sister. And everybody thought – some of the other church members were already there, and we were all just kind of standing around out in the auditorium while all of this screaming and yelling was going on upstairs. And Lueva (sp), who was Mark’s girlfriend, was – she was just freaked out by it. She was like, why isn’t anybody doing anything? And then they got upset at her for even suggesting such a thing.
So she turned around and marched out and Mark chased her and she basically said I’m not going to raise a child in this kind of environment and forced him to choose between her or that situation.
So that’s what drove Mark away.
How do you feel you are treated, as an atheist?
I mean, the general attitude amongst the Christian community is, as it has been for centuries now, that if you don’t believe in god, that you are the enemy and there’s something morally degenerate about you.
And you know, that attitude’s been around for a long time. It’s not going to go away. But I think if we’re ever going to change it, just like some of the other misperceptions throughout our history, we have to be honest about it and try to have dialogue with people. And eventually, that perception will change because it’s not based in facts.
What is your family’s view of evolution?
They are young Earthers. They believe the world is 6,000, 10,000 years old. And that evolution is nonsense. At least that’s what they believed when I was growing up there.
I don’t know how it’s possible to hold to that belief after as much information that’s come out.
Have you had any contact with the families of people whose funerals have been picketed by the church?
I had some email conversations back and forth with – I can’t remember his first name now, but the gentleman who sued my family in Snyder vs. Phelps. He and I talked back and forth.
I have had scores of emails from people who have had to deal with the presence in their town, not necessarily family members, but community members, talking about how upsetting it was for them to be there with the protests. But a lot of that, hundreds of emails, if not thousands, from young gay people who are trying to come to terms with the message that they’re hearing.
And so I’ve gotten tons of that over the last couple years.
What do you tell those people?
I just, you know, apologize, for one. And I try to express to them that that attitude isn’t consistently out there, and that, in my opinion, it’s not accurate. What else can I say?
Sometimes I get very specific questions asked about theology, and I’ll answer it as honestly as I can as far as what I believe today.
What are your thoughts on the recent debate over birth control and abortion?
I have changed my attitude about that a lot over the years. I started out in favor of abortion rights just because my father was against it. But that wasn’t a good reason.
I guess the bottom line for me is while I couldn’t condone it for myself, I feel very strongly that that is a individual personal decision for each woman to make for themselves, and that the government has no business being involved in it. And it’s frightening to see how quickly and destructively we’ve moved back that direction.
Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Snyder vs. Phelps case?
No. But I think I need to explain that a little bit.
A lot of people out there believe that the Supreme Court ruled that they have a right to picket at funerals. And that simply isn’t true. In fact, Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, very specifically in that opinion said that they were not addressing that question because they didn’t need to, that they were only looking at the details of the Snyder case and that their First Amendment rights prevailed over that idea of intentional infliction of emotional distress. But they deliberately avoided challenging those forty-some state and federal laws that are on the books right now.
So, that question hasn’t been answered yet by the Supreme Court. That’s one thing I would want to say.
The other thing I would want to say is that I think that it is a false dichotomy for Americans to see this as an either-or question, that either they have the free speech rights or they don’t. I think that we can find – because, in my opinion, the right to bury our loved ones in peace is one that we have lived with as long as humans have been around, just because it doesn’t appear in the Constitution doesn’t mean that we don’t have that right or haven’t behaved with that right.
So I see it as a question of competing rights. And I think that the idea that we could limit the place and time for people to express their free speech, in this instance, is legitimate.
We can still have a robust, healthy right to free speech in America and give people the time and place and proper decorum for burying their loved ones.
What do you think is the greatest misperception about atheists?
Well, the most common misperception is that to deny God is to deny a system of morality or to abandon a system of morality. And the fact is the vast majority of atheists – first of all, atheism is … it’s simply a rejection of the idea of a god. But most atheists embrace a humanist ideology…. Square at the center of that ideology is the idea that we treat humans with kindness and respect.
So there most definitely is a moral system inherent in the conclusions that atheists draw.