Took a little Internet junket to the Westboro Baptist Church home page recently. In case you’ve forgotten about that little organization (and most of us have) they’re the folks that came to prominence a decade and a half ago when they picketed Matthew Shepard’s funeral. And if you’ve forgotten him too, well shame on you: Shepard was the young gay man, a student at the University of Wyoming, who was tortured and murdered in Colorado by two men subsequently arrested, charged, and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison. At Mr. Shepard’s funeral a contingency from the WBC appeared bearing homophobic signs and other indications of their highly developed intellects. We all know that funerals don’t get picketed that often, mainly because insulting the deceased is usually a waste of breath. But the Westies hadn’t really thought that through; besides, they were more interested in getting their message out. And their message is pretty much summarized in the name of their website—Godhatesfagsdotcom. (I didn’t leave that in link form because I wouldn’t want anyone to go there by mistake—or actually to go there at all.)
It’s probably important to note here that the Westboro Baptist Church is neither baptist nor religious, though their leader, Fred Phelps himself was ordained a Baptist minister in the forties, a decade or so before he founded Westboro and declared himself a Primitive Baptist, someone more in tune with the Calvinists of the seventeenth century than the Baptists of the twentieth. Of course even hinting at that connection is a gross insult to Jonathan Edwards, the Mathers, and other zealots of pre-Revolution America, though anyone who has ever read The Crucible might not agree. The modern zealot Fred Phelps was 84 when he passed away, much to the jubilation of modern thinkers everywhere.
They’re wrong to celebrate.
Anyone who believes that the death of one man will change attitudes is not paying much attention. People like Fred Phelps do not exist in a vacuum from which they send out their baleful ideas in the hopes that someone somewhere will listen. He has plenty of followers who, were there no Fred Phelps, would merely create one. That kind of lunatic fanaticism exists on all sides of the spectrum, but at least men like Fred Phelps gave the rest of us the opportunity to gauge middle ground, to align our own thoughts with what we perceive to be an area of compromise and moderation. Much of our hate-crime legislation is the result of open, often heinous, treatment of people deemed different for whatever reason, and when Fred Phelps sought to make hatred our national pastime, our leaders had little choice but to balk and legislate against it.
Fred Phelps and his followers allowed us a long peek through the window of hatred and intolerance—allowed us to see just how far into degradation and inhumanity bigots could sink. Now that he’s gone we’ll have to keep a sharp lookout for the next Phelps who may not give us as clear a view and who, because of that, may be even more dangerous.
And just a postscript: Cal Thomas, Fox News reporter and syndicated columnist in the Courant, excoriated Phelps in a recent editorial, and did so (don’t wait for it—it’s not a big surprise) without ever mentioning homosexuality or gay-bashing. This is akin to a Boeing exec commenting on 9/11 yet refusing to mention airplanes. Since Mr. Thomas is so certain of Phelps’s repugnant behavior, couldn’t he have taken a few strides away from the ultra-conservative Foxies at least to mention the group that suffered his greatest scorn? Would that slight incursion into humanity really have been such sacrilege?