A Short Requiem Incidentally Featuring Fred Phelps
Fred Phelps speaks for the God of Hate. As he lies on his death bed, Carrick McDonald wrestles with his feelings about a man “deemed consistently worthless by anyone old enough to have an opinion”.
Whenever one of humanity’s most miserable specimens reaches the merciful end of their (usually overlong) life, I’m never quite sure how to react. So it goes with Fred Phelps. Am I a cold person for saying that I have a deep appreciation for the knowledge that he’s dying somewhere, unused and unloved, like a vestigial organ? Sometimes history is cruel, like Pol Pot’s long house arrest or Hitler’s suicide, but now and then history gives us a hateful old man tossed to the curb like the trash he is, shitting himself under supervision somewhere. This ending raises questions that I don’t currently have the answers to, and will accept eventually as splashes of color on a man who only appeared in black and white. He was the only public figure to be deemed consistently worthless by anyone old enough to have an opinion.
Inversely, I am grateful for him. I struggled to maintain my faith in the face of all the questions and concerns I had with it. I never hated gay people, but I was told (sometimes overtly) that I was eventually going to have to. For a while, I lived with the paradox of thinking gay people were normal, enjoyable members of society, people with names and dreams that I worked on school projects with and dressed next to in gym class. Here was this religion I grew up with telling me they were actually just faceless sinners in a long line of one-dimensional caricatures of flawed humans. I was horrified and had no reasonable answer, no happy ending for either point of view in my near future.
Learning about Fred Phelps during the height of this searching was enough to drive a wedge between what I really believed and what I was force fed. I imagine it was the same way for a lot of Americans. Making and hearing casual remarks against homosexuals from the townspeople was one thing, but seeing a leering group of circus freaks with their famous rainbow signs screaming at the parents of dead children was another entirely. Twisted, disgusting food for thought.
I lived with the dissonance until my first semester of college. The very first day of class, I found myself being addressed by another living, breathing curiosity, straight from the canon of unhinged Americans living and dying by our First Amendment. Brother Jed was a callous but hilarious old fogey who couldn’t be as harmful as Fred Phelps if he devoted the rest of his life to catching up. His act consisted of him sitting in a small chair, waving around a giant crucifix, and telling overly enunciated stories of his freewheeling youth. He was a drug-addled hippy who saw a vision of Jesus on the beach and renounced his fornicating ways forever.
I was entranced at seeing a person of this stripe and persuasion in the flesh. Any anti-gay remarks I had heard in my life were always whispered by wide-eyed people I thought I could trust, people I used to fully enjoy until I saw their determination to make known their displeasure with homosexuals. They would look around nervously and whisper as if one of them were in our midst.
“One of them” was their phrasing of choice, as if homosexuals were being born at an alarmingly common rate, in your state, your town, or even your household. Here was someone beating that same war drum – the only difference being that he was doing it at full volume and in full sentences. If he mentioned “them”, it’s because he wanted them to be around and listening. The absurdity of that cantankerous old fool pointing a giant staff at gay people and telling them to “turn or burn” was enough to flatten my fledgling faith forever, opening up a true spiritual apathy that lingered inside of me.
Just the same, I was drawn to the spectacle. Watching someone who knew their holy book to a T argue with simpleton do-gooders who were staving off the same crisis of faith as me was entertaining for a while. I had immersed myself fully in the madness. Every time it happened, I mentally developed plans to make a short documentary about it. As time dragged forward, the fun slowly starting drying up. I began to anticipate and cringe at the same arguments being made, the same Bible verses lobbed back and forth like an aimless game of catch. The thrill was evaporating quickly.
A friend of mine at school joined me to watch Brother Jed tell one of his bizarre stories, and after the climax was reached, he succinctly summed it up as “a big fucking waste of time” and left. Slowly, reality came trickling back to me too as I remembered the paper I had to write the next day. Some math homework hadn’t quite clicked for me and I wanted to redo it. There was a book I wanted to get from the library, and so on. I picked up and left and didn’t surrender another minute of my time to the village idiot with the loudest voice.
I labored over a eulogy before realizing the best way to memorialize Fred Phelps is to find better subjects to devote time to. Phelps, from several accounts, was a drug-addled abusive father who turned his back on a promising civil rights career to indulge in kindergarten-level arguments and shameless mugging. No tragedy was too sensitive for him to hop on, and no interpretation of a major event too banal and unreal for a supposedly educated man to parrot. I’m told he and his church lived on settlements because their rights had been infringed upon, making him the most obnoxious welfare queen in America, as well as a genuine workhorse when it came to annoying others.
It’s only fit that he was rejected and thrown out of the cage by the monsters he created with his belt and his Bible. Somewhere in Kansas lies an unlovable, pathetic man, one who can count the people who care on one hand – if he can even remember how to count. A team of uncomfortable nurses are anxiously going through the motions, waiting for him to finally cave in and die. Eventually he will, and the bed will go to someone more deserving. No love lost there.
In light of this upcoming passing, people have raised the possibility of picketing his funeral or celebrating it with a pride rally, but I think both of those approaches would be pretty short sighted. Today’s as good a day as any and tomorrow will be too. Give a few dollars to a charity for runaway LGBT youth. These kids have been cast out by the Phelps families of the world who aren’t gutsy enough to scream their convictions outside the cemetery gates. Go for a walk, knowing you still can. Do your math homework until it clicks. Fascinating as these people will always be, most of them should know better and a lot of them secretly do. To condescend to act like them for even a second would be a big fucking waste of time, a description that doubles as a fitting epitaph for Fred Phelps. Rarely is a man’s legacy so clear.