Fred Phelps: The Most Effective Gay Rights Activist Ever?

Eric StetsonBy Eric Stetson

How should we remember a person whose life mission was accomplished in reverse? In particular, someone who was so obnoxious and repugnant in arguing for his cause that he convinced most people to believe the opposite?

This is the riddle of, as my friend put it, the “excruciatingly Reverend” Fred Phelps (1929-2014) — a man who founded the infamous “God Hates Fags” Westboro Baptist Church and ironically may go down in history as one of the most effective evangelists for gay rights, because of how many people were turned off by his hateful rhetoric and decided to increase their love and acceptance of gay people in reaction to it.

As one universalist Christian blogger wrote in “A Love Letter to Fred Phelps“:

I believe the only right and rational response to a man who spends his whole life carrying around signs (literal or figurative) that say “God Hates You” is to proclaim to the world, with our words and our life, that “God Loves You!” …

You are my enemy, Fred Phelps. As your life ends, I want you to know that God is running to meet you. And if what I believe is true, I’m excited for you to find out just how wrong you’ve been about how good God really is. I’m excited for you to spend some time apologizing to all those gay people in Heaven who have already forgiven you. I’m excited for you to learn from the best teacher about what it really means to love your enemy. And I’m excited for you to discover how much God really loves us. Even you. Even me.

Presumably Phelps was sincere in his hateful anti-gay antics. But because his church was a theater of the absurd — protesting at military funerals, for example, claiming that random soldiers’ deaths were somehow an angry God’s vengeance upon the United States for its growing tolerance of gay people — Phelps accomplished something remarkable: he made the anti-gay cause appear so disgusting and ridiculous that hardly anyone wanted to be associated with it. Instead, millions of Americans began thinking, “If the people who say ‘God hates fags’ are this bad, maybe God really loves gay people!”

A religious person might say that “God works in mysterious ways” — even through people like Fred Phelps.

The best parodies are nearly indistinguishable from reality. Although it’s probably too much wishful thinking to suppose that Westboro Baptist Church was in fact a parody, like the Landover Baptist Church which mocks materialistic evangelical megachurches, we can’t be sure. Shortly before his death, Phelps himself was excommunicated by his church — which consisted entirely of his own family — reportedly for “advocating a kinder approach between church members.” But I wonder if that’s the whole story. Maybe he had a change of heart and decided he had been wrong to hate gay people all those years. Or maybe, just maybe, he was excommunicated because he told his church that the whole thing had been a big parody designed to discredit holier-than-thou religious opposition to homosexuality.

Whether or not that was Phelps’ intention (and it probably wasn’t), that’s exactly what he accomplished. Life is like that sometimes. If you go too far one way, you may provoke a reaction in the other direction. If you look ridiculous doing it, you make the other side seem reasonable in comparison. If you make people hate you, they might hate your enemies less, or even start liking them.

Believe it or not, there is actually a spiritual tradition based on the idea of deliberately making yourself look bad: an extreme Sufi practice called Malamatiyya, which means the “path of blame”:

All of the Malamati values and practices are attempt to humiliate the nafs [ego] with every action so that they may work toward a spiritual transformation. The “path of blame” requires that an individual always claims blame and hold his or herself in contempt. In this way, their inner being is directed towards a connection with God, however the interior is kept secret by an exterior that is non-conformist or unruly. …

To illustrate such a practice it is said that a saint “was hailed by a large crowd when he entered a town; they tried to accompany the great saint; but on the road he publicly started urinating in an unlawful way so that all of them left him and no longer believed in his high spiritual rank.” According to the Malamati, this saint was virtuous in his unlawfulness.

Basically, the idea of the Malamati Sufi tradition was to piss off everyone you encounter. They believed that you must hate yourself and make others hate you, in order to get God to love you. How sad.

What if Fred Phelps was a self-hating gay man? What if, in his own tragic and deluded way, he made himself a figure of uttermost hate, so that in taking the hate of the world upon his shoulders, he inadvertently helped to free gay people from the tyranny of a religious ideology that says they are deserving of our hatred? What if in making “God hates fags” such a comically despicable notion, he made it laughable and thus made it lose much of its power?

I don’t hate Fred Phelps. By making himself a caricature of hate, he helped make it socially unacceptable to hate gay people and persuaded millions of people to embrace them as equal and worthy of love. Whether he did that accidentally or as part of a sick but brilliant strategy of reverse psychology, the more appropriate title for Mr. Phelps is “comedian,” not “Reverend.” When the history books are written about the gay rights movement of the early 21st century, Phelps will be remembered not with hatred, but with the ironic laughter he so richly deserves.

This article was originally published on Eric Stetson’s blog at Daily Kos. Eric is the author of a 2008 book, Christian Universalism: God’s Good News For All People. He served as the founding Executive Director of the Christian Universalist Association.