Growing up in Topeka, Kansas, wasn’t exactly Hell—not for me anyway. Then again, I spent most of those 18 formative years hiding from Topeka’s foremost biblical authority, the infamous anti-gay funeral picketer, Reverend Fred Phelps. As a child I had a secret buried deep within and was convinced if what Rev. Phelps said was true—that “God Hates Fags”—then I must be the Antichrist. The fact that the US Postal Service assigned “666” as Topeka’s zip code prefix the year I was born underscored my destiny as ultimate evil; even if Phelps said that about all homosexuals.
Phelps is currently making his case about homosexuality to the US Supreme Court in Snyder v. Phelps. Legal scholars think the case is about First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion; military families think it’s about honoring our war dead; and many religious leaders believe it’s about preserving sanctity at any religious service—and to some extent it is all of those things. But they’re missing the forest. No matter what happens in court, for Rev. Phelps it’s all about homosexuality. And the people who know Phelps best, his neighbors in Topeka 666 and some of his own children, will tell you it’s really all about Fred Phelps.
The Attraction of Fear-Based Narratives
“We were walking through the Phelps’ pickets with them screaming, ‘you’re going to die and go to Hell,’” says Rev. Ty Sweeting, pastor of Topeka’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). “After hearing that for about the twelfth time, I stopped, turned around and said, ‘No I’m not, I never want to see you people again!’”
Rev. Sweeting had delivered the invocation at a rally opposing Idaho’s anti-gay initiative in 1994, before crossing the street from the State Capitol in Boise to his first encounter with Rev. Fred Phelps. Sixteen years later as pastor for Topeka’s largest openly gay congregation, Sweeting sees the Phelps’ pickets every three to five weeks; his church is about a mile from the Phelps’ family compound, the infamous Westboro Baptist Church.
Sweeting didn’t shrink from his call by Topeka’s MCC despite knowing he’d be neighbors with Phelps. And far from thinking Topeka is Hell, Sweeting’s found more acceptance there among mainstream clergy than he has in other communities. “There is always an edge to any encounter with the Phelps’,” he says referring to his now routine run-ins. “Their harm is not physical. They may inspire others to do physical harm, but they do not do it themselves. Not when it can be documented.”
What the Phelpses hate most according to Sweeting, perhaps even more than homosexuals, is when no one pays attention. “When even their best insults get ignored, that’s hard for them to deal with.” Confrontation does no good. The Phelpses aren’t winning converts, nor are they open to ideas other than their own.
While he has no trepidation about them, Sweeting questions their sanity, particularly their trademark funeral pickets. Those pickets are, “calculated to inflict harm and pain, and poke fun at mourners.” What concerns Sweeting the most as he watches the Phelps family hurl insults at his congregants, “is seeing children in the parking lot with their families, hearing the vulgar and obscene things shouted at them.”
Just a few blocks away at Topeka’s First Congregational Church, Rev. Tobias Schlingensiepen is on a similar five-week picket rotation. “Our older members have always been somewhat afraid of Phelps. Younger congregants think it’s cool he pickets us because it affirms what we believe.” Rev. Schlingensiepen’s church was targeted by Phelps because it helped MCC move from a small renovated gas station in East Topeka to their new church home on the west side. “Our congregation had to work through our own internal anxieties about homosexuality first,” Schlingensiepen explained, adding that when his flock recognized members of MCC as their old classmates, or local business people, all anxiety quickly faded.
Rev. Schlingensiepen couldn’t disagree more with Rev. Fred Phelps’ narrow Primitive Baptist interpretation of scripture; especially apocalyptic literature, such as the Book of Revelations where “666” is said to be the “Sign of the Beast.” Apocalyptic texts are often misinterpreted, Schlingensiepen says. Written by and for first-century Christians, a people under siege, the authors used allegory and coded language to convey a message of hope to believers and to protect authors from certain death at the hands of their oppressors. The author of Revelations suggests readers may not understand the severe trials and tribulations of their time, but reminds them that Jesus teaches in Christ all is well. Where Revelations was, “once seen as encouragement to have faith,” Schlingensiepen says, “Phelps and others use it to inspire fear.”
Schlingensiepen sees the anxieties people have about change in general, as the attraction of fear-based narratives. Some people find a measure of security and comfort in the black and white of absolutes. “There were all sorts of fears people had in the transition from rural to urban America,” Schlingensiepen says. “And while some people may not understand homosexuality, they disagree with how Phelps communicates. He makes more enemies than friends.”
Rev. Sweeting agrees and also notes that as an example of extreme hate, Fred Phelps gives others cover for inaction. “Some people say, ‘we don’t hate LGBT people’ and leave it there,” distancing themselves from Phelps and priding themselves on their beliefs. “But they allow unjust situations to exist,” Sweeting says.
Topeka attorney and Phelps adversary Pedro Irigonegaray says it more starkly: “Not to oppose hate is to endorse it.” When he was 13, in the early 1960s, Irigonegaray’s parents took him to the State Capitol in Topeka to show him where laws were made, impressing upon him the importance of preserving freedom and liberty for all. This was no ordinary sightseeing trip or civics lesson, his family had just fled Castro’s regime in Cuba.
“Any time anyone is made less equal, we all are,” Irigonegaray says, noting that, “fear is a horribly paralyzing force and too many still choose not to speak out” against bigotry toward sexual and gender minorities.
That fear of those who are different from us, according to Rev. Schlingensiepen, makes conservative Christians in the United States no different from other social movements throughout history where people ran in herds. “Communists, Fascists, people who don’t want to think for themselves. Most people are insecure,” Schlingensiepen notes, “preferring to be told what to believe. The people who commit to serious introspection, looking at faith deep within, are rare.”
Someone Else’s Fear
Far from spreading the “Good News” and attracting new converts, prolonged exposure to Rev. Fred Phelps’ interpretation of scripture turned at least one of his sons into an atheist. Nate Phelps is one of four children to flee their father’s madness; a path four grandchildren, so far, have followed. While growing up hiding my sexuality in Topeka 666 may have made me feel like the Antichrist, the stories of Nate Phelps convince most people he really was in Hell.
After walking out on his 18th birthday, Nate Phelps continues to deal with the affects of growing up on the wrong side of his father’s wrath more than 30 years later. Often felt in the form of severe beatings at the end of a mattock (ax handle) or his father’s fist, Nate says their home, which doubles as their church, was a place of constant tension caused by unpredictable emotional, psychological, and physical abuse.
“He’s very narcissistic,” Nate says of his father, “it’s always about him and his personal life. We were instruments to be used. Any concern for our individuality was absent.” Nate explains that the Phelps children (and now grandchildren) were brought up believing the world was evil, everyone and everything outside their family compound was sinful, self-motivated. The children were routinely humiliated by their father, sent to school with shaved heads for not selling enough candy door-to-door to support the family, or made to leave class during any discussion of history that referred to religion or singing of Christmas carols. Always made to feel different and largely forbidden from socializing outside the family, their alienation became so great it made going home to their father’s violent rage seem safe and normal.
When they were home, Nate says, no one knew what might trigger the next tirade. When it did come, about twice a week on average, Nate explains, “You didn’t dare back away. There is an instinct in you to avoid his attack, but if you retreated too much that would make him angrier. There was this crazy balance between presenting yourself for violence and protecting yourself from it.”
“It made for a very difficult upbringing,” Nate says. “One where you literally feared for your life. When you’re young you really don’t have a sense of the world except what your parents tell you.” The fear of God, in the person of his own father, was very real for Nate Phelps.
Noting that his father singled out homosexuality as a special category of sin (even if the Bible doesn’t, and Jesus never spoke of it), Nate reflects on his own recent speeches to gay groups and on his blog where he balances his family’s hate with his own compassion. “Too many Americans cling to this idea that homosexuality is a sin against God, but because they aren’t cruel and evil about it like Fred Phelps, they’re okay. I say bullshit. Most folks don’t have a freaking clue how hard it is to be gay in America today,” he says, citing disproportionate suicide and addiction rates for gay youth. “The people and groups who stand up and fight for gay rights, they’re the real heroes,” Nate says.
Nate Phelps tells the story of one young man who “got caught up in the spellbinding rhetoric they spew on their videos. The old man is so certain in his presentation that he draws people in,” Nate says. “This kid started freaking out, he was afraid, wondering if he was going to burn in Hell for eternity. Then he found my Web site and said it saved his life because he was to the point of despair.” Nate regularly fields inquiries from people caught up in violent family situations where narrow religious interpretations are used to justify control and abuse.
While Rev. Sweeting worries about the children who hear the Phelps’ insults, and Nate Phelps is concerned for his nieces and nephews forced to parrot their parents’ vulgarities, Rev. Schlingensiepen sees a childlike insecurity within Fred Phelps that took hold in his youth. “He’s basically an insecure guy who created, or fell in with, a series of interpretations that are intended to justify his inner rage, mask his inner fear, and by picking controversial social issues, justify his violence,” Schlingensiepen says.
As for teens in Topeka coming to terms with their sexuality in the shadow of Phelps, Schlingensiepen says, “All teens are essentially insecure, afraid of not being accepted by peers. Phelps represents nothing more than that generalized fear.”
Coming to terms with that fact for myself, realizing that my childish thoughts of being the Antichrist, or even evil, helped me see Fred Phelps as the bogeyman of my youth; the manifestation of my internalized fear of being gay, of being who God intended me to be in this life while growing up. And while Rev. Fred Phelps will make his day at the Supreme Court all about him and his crusade fueled by his own inner demons, the Constitutional questions about free speech and religion his vitriol calls forth could shape our national character for generations. Rev. Schlingensiepen sees the national attention as a perfect opportunity to shine a light on Phelps and, “help people see how dangerous hate really is.”
Our own fears, about ourselves, about those who are different from us, too often take hold and create the circumstances for hate which can destroy families, poison politics and move many to violence. Perhaps a better course is listening to the faith speaking to us each in our own hearts, calling us to reach for our better selves, rather than internalizing someone else’s fear and the narrow interpretation of scripture they use to justify hate and violence.
And while the coincidence of being born under the “Sign of the Beast” in Topeka 666 is still a little unnerving, there are differing opinions about the number’s translation. Some theologians suggest the number should really be 616, in which case, all eyes on Peoria, Illinois.