I’m sure readers of this blog are aware of the death of Fred Phelps, founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps, who was an ordained Baptist minister and a disbarred Kansas lawyer, was said to have passed away just before midnight last Wednesday. NPR’s Nathan Rott reported, “Phelps made a name for himself by protesting military and high-profile funerals. He’d wave hateful signs with members of his Westboro Baptist Church and proclaim that the U.S. was being punished for its tolerance of homosexuality.”
After reading Tom Junod’s article A Tale of Two Freds: Happy Birthday and Go to Hell at Esquire’s Politics Blog last week, I began to think about the worst thing that Phelps had done during his lifetime. As terrible as his hate-filled protests at the funerals of veterans were, I think there is something he did that was even more malicious and evil. And that would be sowing the seeds of hatred in the young children of his small congregation.
In his article, Junod told the story of how he met Phelps when Phelps and his group picketed at the funeral of Fred Rogers. Rogers—the beloved star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—passed away in 2003 at the age of eighty-six. I won’t go into more detail about Junod’s meeting with Phelps and the other picketers —I suggest you read the short piece for yourselves. I will, however, post an excerpt from Junod’s story. This excerpt is what struck me most deeply:
I don’t remember anything they said. What I do remember was how their children looked, and the keen and nearly overwhelming sense of loss the appearance of their children elicited. There were so many of them, for one thing; the Westboro congregation turned out to be a young one, and even some of the lank-haired women holding signs and spitting epithets turned out be, on closer inspection, teenagers. And they were all so poor. I’m not speaking simply of their clothes, and their teeth, and their grammar, or any of the other markers of class in America. I’m speaking of their poverty of spirit. Whether they were sixteen or six, they looked to be already exhausted, already depleted, with greasy hair, dirty faces, and circles under their eyes that had already hardened into purplish dents. They looked as if they were far from home, and didn’t know where they were going next. They looked, in truth, not just poorly taken care of, but abused, if not physically then by a belief inimical to childhood—the belief that to be alive is to hate and be hated.
It was the condition of those children that was the true profanation of the funeral of Fred McFeely Rogers, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2003, and it is eerie symmetry that the day of Fred Phelps died is also the day Fred Rogers would have turned 86…
Sorrow filled my heart when I read those words. Children should be raised with love and kindness and shown what compassion is. They should not taught how to hate. I can only begin to imagine what kind of lives the young children of the Westboro Baptist Church live. In my opinion, the children are victims of child abuse. Phelps may be dead—but the hatred he sowed will probably live on.
Fred Phelps Dead: Westboro Baptist Church Founder Dies At 84
Westboro Baptist Church Founder Fred Phelps Sr. Dies (NPR)