LYNCHBURG, Va. — From his perch on a cracked sidewalk, the Rev. Fred Phelps looked upon his handiwork and found it was good.
The Kansas preacher brought his traveling theater of hate here for two days last month to flay a most unlikely sinner: Christian evangelist Jerry Falwell.
Burly white supremacists from Texas bellowed at Falwell from sloping lawns across the street. Phelps' daughters trilled "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" in sweet, ethereal voices. And towering above them all was Phelps, a gaunt, pale-eyed avenging Jeremiah in a jogging suit, mittens and cowboy hat. The 69-year-old Baptist pastor from Topeka said little, but the placards he held aloft succinctly conveyed the three-word credo of his ministry: "God hates fags."
Phelps is a man out of his time, a Bible-spouting fundamentalist at play in the field of 20th-century media manipulation. A preacher whose following amounts to little more than his extended family, Phelps leads an anti-homosexual ministry across the United States, a land he calls a modern Sodom.
Gay activists have reviled him for years, but it is only in recent weeks that Phelps made an impact on the roiling national debate over religion and homosexual rights. It came as Phelps suddenly expanded his withering attacks on gays to target some of the religious right's most influential evangelists--Falwell, James Dobson and
Angered by what he described as "kissy-poo" efforts by evangelicals to minister to homosexuals, Phelps riled Falwell by accusing him of "foggy sophistry" and projecting a more moderate face to "troll for filthy lucre." As Falwell welcomed 200 gay activists into his Thomas Road Baptist Church, the Christian conservative leader lashed back at Phelps as a "hatemonger" and "emotionally unbalanced"--broadsides that lent gravity to Phelps' fringe crusade and set the Kansas preacher cackling with glee.
"He's saying I preach hate?" Phelps snorted. "You can't preach the Bible without preaching hate! . . . Looky here, the hatred of God is an attribute of the Almighty; it is not an evil passion as it is with men. But it is nevertheless a word he uses. It means he's determined to punish the wicked for their sins!"
Even amid the byzantine underground culture of American hate groups, Phelps' roving ministry stands apart. He makes no effort to expand his flock, a small tribe of a few dozen relatives and hangers-on. He echoes the apocalyptic ravings of survivalists, but forbids his congregation to stockpile guns. "He's with the nuts and flakes," says Joe Roy, director of intelligence for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate watchdog group.
Phelps sneers at "rich Jews" and once preached on a Florida-based shortwave radio network that features broadcasts by anti-government conspiracy theorists. Yet he once led a thriving civil rights law practice in Topeka--representing poor black clients in school- and employment-discrimination cases--until he lost his law license in 1979, disbarred for allegations of abusing witnesses.
The Mississippi-born Phelps has been a public irritant in Topeka for nearly half a century, adept at finding issues and sparking feuds. He has run and lost several times for elective offices--always as a Democrat, he says, because Kansas has "enough Republicans."
Phelps and his followers say his civil rights advocacy in the early 1960s was "the Lord's work." They insist it arose from the same strict reading of the Bible that propels them to savage homosexuals. Daughter Abigail Phelps, one of several children who live near their father in the Westboro Baptist Church compound in Topeka, says Phelps "isn't flip-flopping" from one extreme to another.
But Topeka civic leaders counter that Phelps' metamorphosis from civil rights lawyer to anti-gay scourge was motivated by his craving for publicity and gadfly's obsession with stirring up trouble. "He's made himself an institution in town by attacking people," said Bill Beachy, an official with the Concerned Citizens of Topeka, a local civic group.
Phelps' obsession with homosexuals blossomed in 1991, when he demanded that Topeka leaders crack down on gays who congregated in Gage Park, an urban oasis near his church. Unsatisfied by officials' responses, Phelps churned out vitriolic handbills accusing them of being "Sodomites"--and took up picketing anyone who objected to his harsh tactics.
Corruption, in Phelps' eyes, ripples from anyone tainted by homosexuality. Likening himself to the stern 18th century Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards, he picketed dozens of Topeka churches. As the campaign grew, Phelps moved out across the county to castigate anyone who consorts with the enemy.
He picketed the 1997 funeral of Rep. Sonny Bono to carp at the California Republican's lesbian-activist daughter, Chastity. And although he once provided rooms for
Attention is what spurs Phelps on, according to Jerry Palmer, a Topeka lawyer. "He's in love with his own image," said Palmer, who pursued criminal disorderly conduct charges against Phelps after the preacher screamed at him as he accompanied First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to a luncheon in 1992.
A Kansas judge recently dismissed that case against Phelps, who promptly derided Palmer as a "fat, ugly Sodomite" and said he would demand $47,000 in court fees from the city of Topeka.
Phelps can barely utter a sentence without using the derogatory slang for homosexual. The church's Web site, brimming with apocalyptic warnings to Phelps' enemies, is so reviled among gay activists that a hacker briefly took control of it earlier this year.
"What he does is beyond the pale," said Cathy Renna, spokeswoman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "He may not be violent himself, but his words can clearly be taken as a pretext to violence."
When Christian groups first launched a $500,000 media campaign in 1998 to try to persuade homosexuals to abandon their lifestyle, gay activists accused Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and other evangelists of using the campaign as a thinly veiled attack on their movement. Phelps said there is no point in even talking to homosexuals.
But Phelps turned up in Kansas City late last year to protest at a dinner attended by Falwell and other local church leaders. When the televangelist dismissed Phelps as a "loony," the war was on. Phelps marched on Falwell's church in
Phelps' greatest danger, in the eyes of Christian groups, is his ability to freeload on media coverage. "People see his offensive signs and they think that's the face of Christianity," said Amy Tracy, a spokeswoman for Dobson's
Falwell contends that Phelps "needs to be taken seriously. I can understand why gays and lesbians would be afraid of him."
But gay activists complain that Falwell and Dobson take private delight in Phelps' attacks because they end up appearing more sympathetic each time he lambastes them.
"Phelps is Falwell and Dobson without the nice wrappings," said
In Phelps' ever-shifting strata of loyalties, that sort of suspicion makes sense. When Phelps heard the gay activists' criticism of Falwell, he laughed so hard he almost dropped a placard depicting Falwell with a pink triangle--a gay movement symbol--pasted on his forehead.