Fred Phelps: a public legacy

Rev. Fred Phelps, Sr., the founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, passed away on March 19. The news of his passing was met with bitter blogging, while a handful of commentators asked that the public stay uninvolved in the
spirit of Christian forgiveness. Since the early 1990s, Westboro Baptist Church has repeatedly captured and continues to capture media attention for picketing public events and funerals, including those of soldiers who were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The group believes that its mission is to tell America that it is doomed because “God
hates fags.” There have not been any significant protests against Westboro in the wake of Phelps’ passing. On the contrary, there was at least one small “counter protest” at a Lorde concert with a sign that said “sorry for
your loss.”

Phelps’ passing has raised questions about the stability of the church without his presence, but it seems that on the contrary, Phelps’ death has made ripples, not waves.

In effect, Phelps’ death provoked much ado about nothing, save for some angry words. Phelps is one of those public figures that most Americans love to hate, much like Osama Bin
Laden. I can only think of three or four figures who have been public objects of hatred and scorn immediately after death, which is usually taboo.

Most public enemies seem to have brought this upon themselves: Bin Laden led the Taliban through terrorist attacks and a decade of evading the U. S. Armed Forces. Margaret Thatcher overhauled the British government, scrapping public benefits and opening the door to union busting. Augusto Pinochet led a coup in Chile with CIA support, initiating a 17-year period of repression, terror and torture. And Fred Phelps?

Did we just need a whipping boy for society, someone to be a scapegoat for all the limitations of liberal democracy, and Fred Phelps happened to fit the bill? Of course, this isn’t merely circumstantial. That would reduce the enormous emotional harm that Phelps and Westboro have inflicted on countless people, interrupting their moments of joy and further distressing their days of mourning. We, as an American public, do have real grievances against Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church, and we should
not minimize them.

At the same time, Phelps was never in a position of power. He never called the shots for more than forty people. Ultimately, I think that if we have burning angst against Phelps and his followers it is because he did not follow the rules. Other people, powerful people who could mobilize an entire country, or entire army or even a couple of planes and a cohort of extremists did not upset a social contract because they lived outside it, in a sense.

Phelps, on the other hand, violated the sphere of mutual interest that American social liberties require to function properly. That social contract keeps us from being engaged in eternal lawsuits. It is the unwritten politeness that gives rise to civil discourse. Phelps flaunted his ability to violate that circle of trust and the standards of public decency to get his message across.

In that sense, he never had to commit grievous crimes or ruin entire lives to get us up in arms (or up in lawsuits). He only had to offend the privilege of American civil liberties, and in the worst way.

Taylor Fulkerson is the Opinions & Editorials Editor of the Newswire. He is a junior philosophy major from Lanesville, Ind.