“We’re Nothing Like Fred Phelps”: An Excuse That Can No Longer Be Used

by Rev . Dr. Angela Yarber

“As a pastor who has served a church where Fred Phelps protested, I have experienced the vitriol he spewed throughout his life. But if my tradition has taught me anything, it has taught me the power of forgiveness. May his funeral be filled with signs that read ‘you are a beloved creature of worth;’ may his tormented soul finally find peace; and may we all be more kind, welcoming, and peaceful.”

These were the words I posted on Facebook upon learning of the death of Fred Phelps.

Though I’d heard rumors from various LGBTQ outlets that activists hoped to do just what I recommended and fill his funeral with signs of love—epitomizing Jesus’ notion of turning the other cheek—I discovered that the rumors were exactly that. There would be no funeral to protest because Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t believe in “worshiping the dead.”

Let me be clear. There is absolutely nothing about what Fred Phelps stood for that I condone or affirm. I am a queer person, after all, and his family did protest at the last church I served, albeit before I arrived. But many Baptist churches who preach against LGBTQ folks are quick to say, “We’re not homophobic. We’re nothing like Fred Phelps.” With condemnation from as far right as the Southern Baptist Convention, Westboro Baptist Church—which is without denominational affiliation—became the litmus test for what it means to be crazy and bigoted.

Though countless other churches spew similar vitriol, assaulting the souls of queer people by quoting the same six Bible verses, ripping them out of context and using them as a bludgeon for exclusion, these churches and their pastors were not viewed as crazy, bigoted, or homophobic because they “weren’t Fred Phelps.”

When someone so vehemently vocal resides on the fringe of the far far right, it’s easy for many people to point their fingers rightward and feel as though Phelps’s existence somehow absolves their guilt and makes their hatred slightly less culpable, dare I even say, less sinful.

I sincerely, honestly, and genuinely believe that Fred Phelps is, indeed, a beloved creature of worth.

I sincerely, honestly, and genuinely believe that all people are beloved creatures of worth. I respect the fact that many queer people simply cannot forgive Fred Phelps—the wounds are too deep, too raw. As a pastor, I witnessed the ways many of my fellow queer congregants were brutalized and excluded based on these same poorly interpreted Bible verses. I saw their black eyes; I read the malicious text messages from their parents; I helped them finding housing when families disowned them. I am quite fortunate to have a family that celebrates and honors who I am, loving me without condition.

But I’ve also experienced some of this same malice in the regular hate mail I received while serving at the only Baptist church in the country with two out lesbians as head pastors. Much of the mail began with those same six Bible verses, and ended describing in gruesome detail the way my flesh would smell while I burn in Hell, or informing me that I deserve to stand at the other end of a shooting range. At least Fred Phelps had the guts to stand behind his hatred—none of these letters were ever signed.

While I honestly believe that Fred Phelps is a beloved creature of worth, I also deeply believe that all those churches and pastors who have been quick to point in the direction of Westboro Baptist Church when they have been accused of bigotry and homophobia now must be held accountable for their actions.

Stop pointing to the right, claiming that Westboro is bigoted, but stating that you’re just following the Bible.

Stop pointing to the right, claiming that Phelps is the homophobe, when you use those same six Bible verses to make queer people feel as though they are less valuable, less loved by God, and less deserving of equal treatment. Stop pointing to the right and instead, look into the mirror and acknowledge that the theology you espouse and the scripture you quote out of context is just as harmful as wielding a protest sign that reads “God hates fags.”

“Hate the sin and love the sinner” just doesn’t cut it—because who I am is not a sin. Who queer people are is not a sin. The only sin I see is the sin of hatred. I can forgive Fred Phelps, but in forgiving him, I have to ask my fellow Baptist clergy to stop pointing in his direction when you see the black eyes of queer youth, or the queer families ripped apart because of discriminatory adoption laws, or the queer person who was fired from their job or denied housing without legal recourse because their state does not protect them.

Fred Phelps is no longer here for everyone to call the close-minded bigot who misrepresents the Gospel. 

Yet his message of condemnation continues in the angry pulpits of countless clergy each Sunday. For every queer youth who commits suicide because they have been told God doesn’t love them, for every queer person who has been told to burn in Hell, for all those queer families who have to provide daily validation for their mere existence, it is not only Fred Phelps who is to blame, it is also the preachers who cling so tightly to the Bible that they fail to read it in its context and instead of interpreting it through the liberating and loving lens of the Gospel, preach it through the lens of their own malice, their own misunderstanding, their own fear of difference.

Instead of continuing to preach against queer people, why don’t you try to get to know us? Share a meal together. Go for jog or hike together. Maybe then you’ll realize that we’re beloved creatures of worth, too. Let us bury hatred in the grave and resurrect love for all the beloved creatures of worth dwelling on this beautiful earth.

Image via flickr user Sébastien Barré

Comments (1)


Greetings from Canberra,
Greetings from Canberra, Australia

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those who contribute to this wonderful website. What a great testimony to the love, acceptance, and grace of God that the GLBTI community in the US can extend to Fred Phelps forgiveness and grace despite all of the vitriol and hatred.

Keep up the good work Believe Out Loud!

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