By Rob Burgess
— For Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, who died late March 19 at the ripe old age of 84, “Only the Good Die Young” was more than just a catchy Billy Joel song. The mere fact of his extended longevity seemed like a spirited defense of this very cliché.
“[The WBC] confirmed the death, declaring on one of its websites, ‘Fred W. Phelps Sr. has gone the way of all flesh,’” reported Michael Paulson in The New York Times on Thursday. “The church did not give a cause of death, but Phelps had been living under hospice care.”
As I outlined in my Aug. 15, 2012 column, “Fred Phelps’ marketing lesson,” the WBC has proven itself an equal-opportunity offender. In the 1953 film “The Wild One,” Marlon Brando’s character, Johnny, is asked what he is rebelling against. “What do you got?” he answers. Phelps took this idea to its logical conclusion.
He and his Topeka, Kan.-based family/church — which was founded in the 1950s — made their presence felt at everything from the funerals of gay murder victims like Matthew Shepard, to otherwise solemn occasions honoring countless deceased members of the armed forces. His message was simple: You are doomed.
He and his small band of cohorts gave common cause to disparate groups through their relentless awfulness. In opposing Phelps, KKK members, LGBT advocates and military families all suddenly had novel, unfamiliar reasons to work against the same thing.
May we never witness the likes of such a human black hole again. He was a hater’s hater; a real purist when it came to negativity.
Sadly for those who would like to return the favor, CNN’s Daniel Burke relayed the news Thursday that Phelp’s daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, said they would not hold a funeral. “We do not worship the dead,” she told the network.
The depressing irony of Phelps’ life is that he was so effective in poisoning many of those around him, his distinctive brand of unadulterated loathing swallowed even him whole. Two days before Phelps’ death, reports of a power struggle within the WBC preceded news of their patriarch’s imminent demise.
“[Phelps] was excommunicated from the [WBC] after advocating a kinder approach between church members,” reported Steve Fry of the Topeka Capital-Journal on March 17. “The excommunication occurred after the formation of a board of male elders in the church. The board had defeated Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church’s longtime spokeswoman. … The power struggle and excommunication was revealed by Nate Phelps, a son of Fred Phelps Sr. who broke away from the church 37 years ago.”
The same day, the WBC’s Steve Drain sent an angry email to the Topeka Capital-Journal, calling Fry’s story “so inaccurate,” yet maintaining: “Membership issues are private.”
“The church currently has eight male members who have been serving the church in the capacity of ‘elders’ for several years … all of whom minister to the members of the church, preach, and are involved in doctrine and teaching,” wrote Drain on March 17.
In a seeming attempt to prove Drain’s decree that “the church has no singular leader,” the WBC didn’t waste but one day to returning to their abhorrent demonstrations.
“Members of [the WBC] continued their protests without their longtime pastor Fred Phelps outside the Midland Theatre in downtown Kansas City [on Friday],” reported KSHB’s Brendaliss Gonzalez on Saturday.
On a heartening note, the opposition who met them took a higher road than I probably would have.
“More than 20 protesters protested pop star Lorde’s concert, however it was another message that stuck out,” reported Gonzalez. “A group of counter protesters held up a sign that read ‘sorry for your loss.’”
Even if Phelps recently was expedited from the vile tabernacle he started, it clearly has been running on its own steam for quite some time. It is an organization that no longer requires its maker. And that’s what’s scary: Fred Phelps may be gone, but his church lives on.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.