Fred Phelps is dead. The founder of Westboro Baptist Church, infamous for picketing the funerals of bloody well anybody who didn't fit a narrow version of Heterosexual Christian Zealotry, will torment us no more. With any luck, his church will fade into irrelevance, as well.
Honestly, that's as much as I feel compelled to say about Fred. There's really no story here. There's no controversy. He was a bad man who abused his children, abused his followers, abused the families of heroes, and took religious hatred to almost comedic levels of hysteria. And now he's dead. Fare thee well, Fred, and in truth, I hope nobody bothers to defile your grave. It would be more attention than you deserve in death.
There is something to talk about, though. For one thing, there is room in our discourse for both contempt and compassion. Yes, Fred Phelps was a monster, but he was also a victim. He was born into a brutal version of Christianity that taught him horrific concepts like the worthlessness of mankind and the sinfulness of homosexuality. He, like most other abusers, was probably abused. In large part because of his strident belief in a cruel, vengeful, and authoritarian god, his life was dominated by cruelty, vengefulness, and iron-fisted rule over his congregation and family. Fred Phelps' death should be a reminder to us that religion can cause great harm to individuals, who then cause great harm to society. This host is dead, but the virus lives to be passed on to new hosts. Where religion stands unquestioned, it thrives. We must continue to question, challenge, and demand accountability of the religious for their culpability in preserving these awful ideas.
We can also talk about hope, and in this case, we can give it a name. Nathan Phelps is Fred's son, and he grew up in the same awful religion. He was well on his way to becoming like his father after a childhood of abuse, indoctrination, and isolation. The thing is, Nathan escaped -- quite literally -- from his father's influence, and has since become one of the most beloved members of the secular community. He has used his new secular pulpit to preach love, forgiveness, tolerance, compassion, and liberation from mental slavery. The cycle of religious abuse has ended for him, and he's replaced it with a commitment to increasing the amount of love and compassion in the universe, without the need to appeal to a deity for justification.
In that spirit, I'd like to do my part to break the cycle of hate. Rather than focus on invectives, I want to spread love on a day when there has already been a considerable reduction in the total hate present in the human race. In honor of Fred Phelps' death, I've donated $50 to AIDS Athens, a nonprofit in my town which offers AIDS testing, resources, and community support. If you don't have a nonprofit you already support, I strongly suggest you donate to them, as well. I can vouch for the quality of the organization and its activities. Here are some other wonderful organizations you could consider for gifting in Phelp's honor:
Rather than just another day of grousing over something bad that someone else did, let's make today a day of celebration, not of the death of one insignificant human, but of the power of the secular and freethinking community to rally around charity, compassion, love, and activism. Let's not leave the world just lacking Fred's hate. Let's add love.