One can only wonder if the phrase, “et tu, Brute” ran through Fred Phelps mind when the congregation he nurtured and, in most cases, literally spawned, excommunicated him from the Westboro Baptist Church. The sense of betrayal must have been crushing. As Fred’s estranged son Nathan Phelps said, “They took the one thing that meant everything to the man…That old man and his reason to exist have gone away.” Nathan Phelps also reported that prior to his father’s death he had been moved to a new house and watched over so he would not harm himself. Such was the level of despair felt by Fred Phelps in the home stretch. The uncompromising and unfeeling attitudes of his congregants being unleashed on him is an irony that could not have been lost on the man although I can’t help but think that a deeper lesson went unlearned. Nathan Phelps has reported that his father was excommunicated in August 2013 for encouraging church members to be kinder to each other. On the surface that might sound like Fred Phelps had had some kind of epiphany. Perhaps old age had made him softer and wiser. Maybe the full weight of his hurtful acts had suddenly come to bear. Could it have been that he suddenly started seeing homosexuality not as a sin but simply as one of a dizzying array of human inclinations? It would be wonderful to think that a man whose immeasurably deep convictions could, even if only for a brief time, let go of his hate and feel compassion for those of a different stripe.
Alas, the Fred Phelps’ excommunication story is not one of redemption or a man trying to make up for past wrongs. No. His story is but one more example of how complicated most human lives are. It can’t be overlooked that Fred Phelps’ call for kindness was intended for Westboro Baptist Church members when dealing with each other. There was no call for church members to be kind to those who have born the brunt of their hatred. He did not ask for kindness to be shown toward the family of Matthew Shepard. He did not ask for kindness to be shown to victims of the Boston bombing. He did not ask for kindness to be shown to the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, nor the families of military personnel who had to simultaneously grieve and deal with the Westboro Baptist Church’s inhumane protests. In the end he did not want kindness for anyone different from him. In Fred’s world anyone who did not believe in a vengeful God who held humanity to an impossible standard of piety was doomed to Hell. In the end I don’t think that changed.
In Fred Phelps’ case the old expression, “what comes around goes around” seems fitting but I think that shoe may be a size too small. You see, Fred Phelps was not a man to simply make something “go around.” He was not that simple, that linear. No. Holding hateful ideas was not enough for Fred. He had to have followers. His hate had to be exponential. Over time he achieved just that; even if it required self-producing impressionable followers. His was a determined hatred. To most people it’s obvious that fostering that much hatred in people will make them immune to your well-being but Fred never saw it coming. Fred was so good at imbuing his flock with hate, paranoia and unflinching adherence to his maniacal doctrines that even the perception that he’d gone soft caused them to shun him and make him want to die.
For many years hate sustained Fred Phelps but in the end it betrayed him.