Ding, dong. Fred Phelps, leader of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, is dead.
The demonically devout hyper-Calvinist who, with the help of his sadistic minions, gleefully taunted many an AIDS victim’s family with placards reading “God hates fags,” will not be missed by many. Indeed, Phelps—whose tiny denomination took such ghastly relish in assailing grieving Army widows with the news that their deceased husbands now dwell in Hell—occupies a unique position on the contemporary landscape; for the last decade, he has enthusiastically played the role of uber-troll, one whose very raison d’etre was apparently to alienate, enrage, and upset as many people as possible.
As directed by Phelps, the Westboro-ites’s calculated campaign of shocking tastelessness—whose simultaneous apex and nadir is represented in their habit of picketing funerals to sneer at the mourners—was so successfully waged that it provoked the most unlikely commingling of furious, countervailing critique. In short, Phelps actually caused the American left and right to cease hating one another for a few minutes in order to unite in a mutually engaged teeth-gnashing session against this quite numerically insignificant group of haters in their midst.
Phelps, after all, “went there,” no matter whose ox got gored in the process. His Westboro fanatics ardently blasphemed against the much-fetishized mascots of both (dead)ends of the mainstream political spectrum (sainted HIV-ravaged homosexuals being the trigger for sanctimonious liberals; dead American soldiers being the “don’t-go-there” zone for smitten, flag-draped conservatives), thus pissing everyone off. That the Westboro-ites carried out this provocation in such an intensely personal way, targeting actual grieving families for ridicule instead of just rhetorically-bombastic pundits, was unconscionable; however, it did draw attention to their antics in a manner that less sensational spectacles would never have succeeded at doing.
I have made the case recently that the Phelps schtick almost amounted to a kind of self-aware performance art routine. Looked at from a publicity standpoint, it was staggeringly effective. Through these attention-grabbing gestures, vile as they were, the obscure denomination gained an impressive degree of notice and notoriety.
But why did Phelps and his crew take part in such vicious, mean and hurtful activities? Their professed theological perspective—that America has been abandoned by God due to its embrace of wickedness and moral depravity—does not shed light on the manner with which they witnessed to their proclaimed truths. If the country is going to Hell, isn’t the more Christian response to try to make it see the error of its ways (“Repent, for the end is near!”), instead of jeering at it for being damned? And even if such an appeal for repentance is futile—since, taking the fatalism of Calvinism to its logical conclusion, the wicked have always been predestined to perdition—why rejoice in such an eventuality (“God hates fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” etc.)?
It seems more likely that the Westboro adherents are profoundly spiteful and embittered people who get off on the outrage they arouse through their monstrous behavior. Their tendency is to view God’s plan of salvation as a binary, Manichean arrangement, dividing the precious wheat (i.e., themselves, destined for a special seat at the right hand of the Lord) from the much more numerous chaff (i.e., everyone else, bound for infinite Hellfire and torment), thus in turn satisfying a psychological need to feel favored (i.e., “chosen”) at the expense of others. As a result, their campaign to smugly mock the “lost” reinforces their sense of superiority to their enemies (that is, the rest of the world), and further allows them to see these others as wretched and unworthy of sympathy or compassion (since they are, after all, pace Calvinism, already damned by God).
Whatever psychological mechanism drove the Phelpsians to do what they did, and however stunted and miserable they may be as people, I find that I can’t shake a certain grudging admiration for their founder, whose body now lies as cold as his heart ever was.
As assholes go, Pastor Phelps was admittedly one of the worst. But paradoxically enough, being worst in a sense makes him better than the huge number of purely mediocre assholes one finds in this world. The typical asshole really just wants to be loved, or at least admired; there is a desperately needy unctuousness to such a one’s bullying; he mistreats others in order to impress his betters; he employs a loathsome and manipulative triangulation, attacking the “out” group as a pledge of ingratiating fealty to the “in” group; that is, he is an asshole as a means towards social advancement.
The typical asshole is, in other words, an ass-kisser and a status seeker; his most grating personality trait is his proclivity to indulge in hypocritical, self-congratulatory, self-justifying cant. A man like Phelps, on the other hand, has seemingly no desire to win the affection of his fellow men; in him, a sort of moral purity abides, even as he engages in his rank cruelty. He’s not trying to ingratiate himself to anyone; he doesn’t care what you think of him, whoever you are. He hates you, but not because he stands to gain from it, thus displaying a kind of courage of character which almost makes me wonder if he isn’t, in the final analysis, halfway redeemable.
Farewell Fred Phelps, you unabashed prick. Perhaps you and I will meet in Purgatory one day, if we’re both lucky.