Fred Phelps, Sr. -- the 84-year-old founder of one of the most-hated churches in America and possibly the world -- has been placed in hospice and could be at “the edge of death,” according to an estranged son.
The lack of public sorrow over this news has been frequent and unapologetic, for reasons obvious to anyone who has been forced to pay attention to Phelps and the legacy he is expected to leave behind.
Since 1991, under Phelps’ direction, the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church has held anti-gay demonstrations that would eventually include picketing the funerals of soldiers and praying for the death of more, with church members holding up signs saying “God Hates Fags.”
This year alone, church members -- manning a characteristically fast-moving PR operation with an eye for buzzy news -- have taken the time both to protest a popular gay football player and to praise the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 as “a righteous work of God.”
Fred Phelps is “on the edge of death”? Well, lemme see if I can find the world’s smallest violin...— Brian (@BKudron) March 16, 2014
That jet had 239 lives aboard, but no matter. In fact, that’s part of the church’s point. Phelps, a former civil rights attorney who fought for African Americans in the 1960s before leaving law, spent the 1990s and 2000s perfecting the art of trolling before the term developed its current meaning -- intentional provocation for the sake of getting attention.
From a modest white church building in Topeka, outrage itself was harnessed in tens of thousands of protests to evangelize for Phelps' rigid and unforgiving Calvinist ideology and to spread his fears that God might destroy mankind for its tolerance of gays. “WBC believes this gospel message to be this world’s last hope,” the church says on its website.
Apparently Fred Phelps is on his deathbed. He could probably use your prayers. *crickets chirp*— Michele Catalano (@inthefade) March 16, 2014
The demonstrators have tested the boundaries of the United States’ relatively radical free-speech laws, with some success. As a result, Phelps’ church has become a background noise many Americans have gotten used to tuning out.
Some of that boiled-up resentment began to emerge on Sunday, when Phelps’ estranged son, Nathan Phelps, who himself became an LGBT advocate after running away from the church, revealed that his father was not only dying, but had been excommunicated by his own followers.
Can’t say am sad to hear Fred Phelps is dying.— Michelle Dean (@michelledean) March 16, 2014
“God may forgive Fred Phelps Sr., but society doesn’t have to,” read the headline of a Kansas City Star editorial from Yael T. Abouhalkah, who wrote: “It will be difficult to forget the legacy of Fred Phelps Sr. Some people will do exactly as their god commands them and forgive Phelps for his wayward behavior. Others won’t, and for good reasons.”
Over at Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams added, “There’s a saying that goes, ‘Live your life so the Westboro Baptist Church will want to picket your funeral.’ But when the time comes, who will be there for Fred Phelps’?”
The answer, it turns out, might be nobody. “We don’t worship the dead in this church, so there’d be no public memorial or funeral to picket if any member died,” one church member wrote on Twitter back in February.
Actually wonder if seeing marriage equality decisions in OK and UT isn’t what is killing Fred Phelps.— emptywheel (@emptywheel) March 16, 2014
In response to a squall of media queries over the past two days, the church released a statement about Phelps in the form of a Q&A whose tone was less sorrowful than dismissive.
Q: Is Fred Phelps near death?
A: Fred Phelps is a person of advanced age, and such people sometimes have health issues. Fred Phelps has health issues, but the idea that someone would suggest that he is near death, is not only highly speculative, but foolish considering that all such matters are the sole prerogative of God...
Q: Has Fred Phelps been ‘excluded’ from membership at Westboro Baptist Church?
A: Membership issues are private.
And so it seems to have fallen to Phelps’ castaways to show concern for the man, to the extent possible.
“I’m not sure how I feel about this,” Phelps’ son Nathan wrote in his Facebook post, adding that Phelps’ remaining family had “blocked” estranged relatives from seeing the clan’s patriarch. “Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made. I feel sad for all the hurt he’s caused so many.”
Another former church member, Lauren Drain, wrote that she was “devastated” by the news, adding, “I pray that despite all the many families & people affected by the WBC, that they will not have vengeance in their heart, but rather pity.”
Turning the other cheek appeared to be the decision made by Phelps’ longtime foes at Equality Kansas, an LGBT group that has known Westboro Baptist’s vitriol up close for decades, from the time Phelps began cheering on AIDS to kill more people.
“We’ve spent over 20 years asking the Phelps followers to respect our privacy when we lay our loved ones to rest,” Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, told a local radio reporter. “I think, and my board thinks, that it would be hypocritical of us to respond in any other way.”
[For the record, 12:50 p.m. PDT March 18: An earlier version of this post said that since 1991, under Phelps’ direction, the Westboro church has picketed the funerals of soldiers and prayed for the death of more. In fact, although Westboro began holding demonstrations then, protests at soldiers’ funerals did not begin until 2005.]