Northerners don’t do well in the South, but then, how bad could it be? College had eventually gone well, and fellowship money being offered was good, and the new draft lottery meant it wouldn’t be two or three years of slogging through the jungles of Vietnam, so in the autumn of 1970 it was off to graduate school at Duke University, the Harvard of the South, as they liked to say. That sounded promising, and that part of North Carolina, around Durham, wasn’t the Deep South after all. Grits were a mystery, and maybe that stringy meat in the Brunswick stew was supposed to be squirrel, but it probably wasn’t, and hush puppies were really just another form of tasty deep-fried dough. So far so good – and even if Jesse Helms was blustering away in the evenings with his thundering racist editorials on Channel 5 out of Raleigh, just down the road, Chapel Hill was the same distance in the other direction, at the other end of Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, a Little Bit of Heaven in the South, as the rival “they” liked to say. It was tree-lined and idyllic there, with the giant University of North Carolina too, where James Taylor’s uncle and father ran the law and medical schools, respectively – and James Taylor was mellow and decent and sensitive personified. Jesse Helms did go on to a long career of highly-principled bigotry in in the United States Senate – but back then he was just the local clown on the evening news show. The South was fine, for a time.
That wasn’t the South. All of us Yankees studying there knew that, really. Back north in dark and gritty Pittsburgh, in that summer before the last year of high school – June 1964 – everyone knew that the South was Meridian, Mississippi – the town where those three young civil right workers had just been brutally murdered. James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who had been working on a project to register black voters, were actually heading back to Meridian and never made it. Their mangled bodies were found weeks later. Mississippi officials refused to prosecute the guys who did the deed, at least for murder, a state crime, so the federal government stepped in and finally managed to convict a few of them, for the crime of depriving those three dead kids of their civil rights. It was kind of a joke, but at least some of the bad guys got a few years in jail, eventually. The whole nation was appalled, but not surprised. Everyone knew about the South. The South was not a nice place. People are nasty-crazy down there. North Carolina had been the exception, not the rule, but no longer – the state just turned hard right and homophobic and proudly racist, reverting to the norm. James Taylor lives in Berkshire County in Massachusetts now.
Fred Phelps was from Meridian, Mississippi – born there in 1929 – as nasty-crazy as they come – and now it’s time to assess him, because he just died:
Phelps founded Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, in 1955 and molded it in his fire-and-brimstone image. Many members of the small congregation are related to Phelps through blood or marriage.
In a statement Thursday, the church chided the “world-wide media” for “gleefully anticipating the death.”
“God forbid, if every little soul at the Westboro Baptist Church were to die at this instant, or to turn from serving the true and living God, it would not change one thing about the judgments of God that await this deeply corrupted nation and world.”
According to Westboro, the church has picketed more than 53,000 events, ranging from Lady Gaga concerts to funerals for slain U.S. soldiers. Typically, a dozen or so church members – including small children – will brandish signs that say “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
Phelps was often called “the most hated man in America,” a label he seemed to relish.
“If I had nobody mad at me,” he told the Wichita Eagle in 2006, “what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the Gospel?”
He really was nasty-crazy, or a man of God, depending on your point of view. Few agreed with his point of view, but he didn’t care:
Under Phelps’ leadership, Westboro members have preached that every calamity, from natural disasters to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, is God’s punishment for the country’s acceptance of homosexuality. Phelps had advocated for gays and lesbians to be put to death.
Even Vladimir Putin, so admired by the Christian right these days for letting his folks beat the crap out of gay folks and putting the rest of them in jail, but not for grabbing Crimea, didn’t go that far. Phelps would consider Putin a well-meaning wimp. Phelps is a proud son of Meridian. He doesn’t mess around:
Phelps began his anti-gay protests in Wichita in 1991 after complaining that the city refused to stop gay activities in a public park. He rose to national notoriety in 1998, when Westboro members picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming man who was tortured and murdered because he was gay. Phelps and his church carried signs that said Shepard was rotting in hell.
The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Westboro Baptist Church “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”
In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld Westboro’s right to picket military funerals on free speech grounds. Congress and several states, though, have passed laws aimed at keeping church members at a distance from funerals.
In 2013, more than 367,000 petitioners called on the White House to legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group. The White House called Westboro’s protests “reprehensible” but said that “as a matter of practice, the federal government doesn’t maintain a list of hate groups.”
That may not matter now, now that he’s gone, but the gay community, and those not fond of proud nastiness, have a problem. Does one celebrate his death? That’s nasty too, so the reactions to his passing have varied, and Matt Sigl surprised everyone by calling Fred Phelps “a great friend to the gay rights movement” in the most important way:
In his outrageous lunacy, his relentless desire for media attention, and the purity of his hatefulness, Phelps did something that the gay rights movement couldn’t accomplish on its own: expose the utter depravity and heartlessness of homophobia. … Phelps probably secretly troubled the pious and faithful more than he ever got underneath any homosexual’s skin, for in him the conservative Christian had to confront just what God really thought of homosexuals after all. The subject is not a pleasant one for many leading religious leaders; just watch the milquetoast Joel Osteen wince, when forced to comment on it – or Cardinal Dolan for that matter.
In the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg sees the same thing:
As the gay rights movement has worked to define lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans as people who want the same things as their heterosexual counterparts, including marriage and family stability, Fred Phelps and his followers gave organizers a perfect image to organize in opposition to. If Americans had to choose between getting comfortable with the idea of homosexuality or being seen as extreme, hateful, and rude, in increasing numbers, they seem to be choosing the former. Fred Phelps has caused many people enormous amounts of agony. But in doing so, he played a critical role in defining the choice between hatred and acceptance, and in accidentally expanding the tolerance of the very people he feared so much.
Jay Michelson adds this:
As symbol, Phelps was the reductio ad absurdum of many conservative beliefs. Tea Partiers think Obama is a socialist, Birthers think he’s a Kenyan, and Phelps said he was the antichrist. Tea Partiers think America has lost its way, Glenn Beck thinks it’s time for revolution, and Phelps said America will be destroyed by God for losing its moral grounding.
In short, clowns on the other side are useful to your side, but Erica Cook warns against cheering this guy’s death:
This is the chance to show the world how we are better people. We aren’t people who make the death of a man the reason to celebrate, no matter who that man is. We are the better people. And no matter who he is to us, he was someone’s father, grandfather, brother, and uncle. We may still be fighting against them, but today they need the respect they didn’t have the capacity to give when it was us. If we act in any way other than respectful we become no better than them. In stooping to that we relinquish the right to call what they do wrong.
That’s both logical and noble, but at the league of Ordinary Gentlemen, Russell Saunders is having none of it:
Fred Phelps was a blight. He was a receptacle for the absolute worst most despicable kind of hatred humanity is capable of producing. The god of his imagining was a demon of bile, and his appearance before the public eye was a festering sore.
I do not regret the happiness I feel knowing I no longer share an oxygen supply with him. I do not believe in the existence of a hell, even for the likes of people like him. If there is a judgment that awaits him, let his loved ones hope it is before a judge more merciful than the one he worshiped.
At the Nation, however, Richard Kim suggests putting this rather insignificant guy in perspective:
Especially in recent years, he possessed almost no followers, no influence, no allies. What distinguishes him from any other raving street-corner prophet is the simple-mindedness of his message. In the place of the modern religious emphasis on God’s love, Phelps ranted on about God’s hate – for fags, for America, for Muslims, for Catholics, gun massacre victims and US troops. If American exceptionalism is in some way an attempt to sacralize the profane – America is blessed, its soldiers and citizens blessed – Phelps merely reversed polarities, swapping in eternal damnation. It was a juvenile substitution. And to discuss Phelps as if he were a morally vexing and profound evil is to dignify him with a complexity he lacked. His hatred was banal.
Yes, it was, and Slate’s Dave Weigel blames the media for everyone thinking otherwise:
We can agree on this: He was hilariously stupid, and stupid people provide good copy. For a generation, ever since his flamboyant “God Hates Fags” signs went viral (before there was even a modern Internet for things to go viral on), journalists would explore Phelps’ sad little world and bait him.
He was good copy on a slow news day, and he knew that and used that for his own ends, and Time’s David Von Drehle saw that backfire time and time again:
As a reporter and editor in some big newsrooms over the past 30 years, I watched as one journalist after another took Phelps’s bait, then tried to spit out the hook once the dishonesty and shabbiness of the man’s enterprise grew clear. You could fill a gymnasium with the scribes who swore off coverage of Westboro over the years. The only problem was, new and naïve reporters were being minted all the time, ready to believe that Phelps represented some larger darkness beyond the pit of his own person.
Reporting on that scary darkness growing all across America was stupid, and Donald McCarthy suggests it was also lazy:
When even Rush Limbaugh rejects the group, you know it’s a rather pathetic target to take on. At this point, saying you hate the Westboro Baptist Church is about as easy as saying you hate the Ku Klux Klan; not exactly a profound statement worthy of approval. A blasting of the WBC is the equivalent of a late night talk show host joking about Kim Kardashian.
The WBC is a target that makes everyone feel good and allows them to ignore mainstream religions’ homophobic tendencies that are more subtle than the signs the WBC members hold. It’s great that the church has provided such a horrible face for homophobia that people now balk from homophobia much more than they used to, but at some point the group’s exposure helps them infinitely more than it helps society.
At Reason, Scott Shackford only hopes we will be reasonable now:
The death of Fred Phelps probably won’t result in any changes from the family, but it’s a good excuse for the rest of us to move on. I’m sure that right now some dreadful editorial cartoonist is sketching Phelps being met at the pearly gates by all the soldiers his family picketed. It’s true that the solution for bad speech is more speech. But the solution to crazy obsession is not becoming obsessed right back at them. Stop picking at this scab.
Fred Phelps was an obsessive man playing a losing hand in a poker game he could never win, and playing it badly. That’s always fascinating to watch, for about four minutes, but he was just another nasty guy from Meridian, although he was not quite what you think – he was an Eagle Scout who was accepted to West Point but didn’t go, because a revival meeting changed his life, who then bounced in and out of all the famous Bible colleges and finally managed to get himself a law degree, and became a civil rights lawyer, fighting Jim Crow, and the managed to get himself disbarred, for being a total asshole. He had become obsessed with sluts and sin, and then with evil gay folks, which screwed up his career as a Democrat:
Phelps supported Al Gore in the 1988 Democratic Party presidential primary election. In his 1984 Senate race, Gore had opposed a “gay bill of rights” and stated that homosexuality was not something that “society should affirm”), a position he had changed by 2000 when he had the support of homosexual advocacy groups for his presidential campaign. Phelps has stated that he supported Gore because of these earlier comments. According to Phelps, members of the Westboro Baptist Church helped run Gore’s 1988 campaign in Kansas.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Phelps criticized Hillary Rodham Clinton during a speech he gave endorsing Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign at the University of Kansas on October 14, 1992. In 1996 Phelps and the Westboro church opposed Clinton’s re-election because of the administration’s support for gay rights. The entire Westboro congregation picketed a 1997 inaugural ball, denouncing Vice President Al Gore as a “famous fag pimp” (Gore had changed his positions on gay rights since 1984). In 1998, Westboro picketed the funeral of Gore’s father, screaming vulgarities at Gore and telling him, “your dad’s in Hell”.
And it gets even stranger:
In 1997 (before the fall of Saddam Hussein during the 2003 Iraq War) Phelps wrote a letter to Saddam praising his regime for being, in his opinion, “the only Muslim state that allows the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to be freely and openly preached on the streets.” Furthermore, he stated that he would like to send a delegation to Baghdad to “preach the Gospel” for one week. Saddam granted permission, and a group of WBC congregants traveled to Iraq to protest against the U.S. The WBC members stood on the streets of Baghdad, holding signs condemning Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, as well as anal sex. When Hussein was executed at the end of December 2006, Phelps stated in a web broadcast that Saddam was in Hell along with Gerald Ford.
Yeah, well, whatever – he also had it out for Ronald Reagan, Princess Diana, William Rehnquist, Sonny Bono, Mormons, atheists, Muslims, Matthew Shepard of course, Pittsburgh’s own Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers), Heath Ledger, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and Bill O’Reilly, Jews, Roger Ebert, Catholics, Australians, Swedes, the Irish, and of course our soldiers killed in Iraq – and his Westboro Baptist Church is not affiliated with the actual Baptists, or any of their synods or subsets. That’s just family. Phelps’ daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, has appeared on Fox News off and on, defending the family’s unique Westboro Baptist Church and attacking homosexuality and its evils, but not that often. Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater’s friend, knows not to push it.
There’s a reason for that. Phelps, the man from Meridian, who finally settled in Kansas, was angrily playing a losing hand all along. It’s a Southern thing, that Lost Cause business – we lost the Civil War but we had been right all along, and the South will probably never rise again, but if there is justice in the universe, it should. That’s the South’s tragic vision or something. It’s a bit irritating. It’s Jesse Helms. It’s Fred Phelps. It’s why James Taylor doesn’t live there anymore.
Now it’s happening again:
Michigan’s ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional, a federal judge said Friday as he struck down a law that was widely embraced by voters a decade ago – the latest in a recent series of decisions overturning similar prohibitions across the country.
U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman released his 31-page ruling exactly two weeks after a rare trial that mostly focused on the impact of same-sex parenting on children.
He noted that supporters of same-sex marriage believe the Michigan ban was at least partly the result of animosity toward gays and lesbians.
“Many Michigan residents have religious convictions whose principles govern the conduct of their daily lives and inform their own viewpoints about marriage,” Friedman said. “Nonetheless, these views cannot strip other citizens of the guarantees of equal protection under the law.”
Then the Lost Cause stuff began:
Attorney General Bill Schuette said he would immediately ask a federal appeals court to freeze Friedman’s decision and prevent same-sex couples from marrying while he appeals the case.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia issue licenses for same-sex marriage. Since December, bans on gay marriage have been overturned in Texas, Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, but appeals have put those cases on hold.
Some things are inevitable. Those three kids were murdered in Meridian in 1964 and blacks vote there now, and Slate’s Nathaniel Frank reports on the less severe strategy used by the losing side in his case:
The strategy is for sociological experts to sow just enough doubt about the wisdom of change such that preserving the status quo seems the only reasonable path. As the New York Times recently reported, in 2010 the conservative Heritage Foundation gathered social conservatives consisting of Catholic intellectuals, researchers, activists and funders at a Washington meeting to plot their approach. The idea was for conservative scholars to generate research claiming that gay marriage harms children by placing them in unstable gay homes and by upending marital norms for straights. A solid consensus of actual scholarship – not the fixed kind being ginned up at Heritage – has consistently found that gay parenting does not disadvantage kids, and no research has shown gay marriage having any impact on straight marriage rates. But trafficking in truth was not the plan. The plan was to tap into a sordid history of linking gay people with threatening kids, and to produce skewed research that could be used as talking points to demagogue the public.
In attendance were scholars such as Mark Regnerus, a sociologist who sparked controversy after he published a 2012 journal article funded by religious conservatives arguing that children of same-sex parents fared worse than others – even though he never studied children of same-sex parents. Regnerus’ study was condemned in a letter by 200 scholarly peers and his own university department issued a stern rebuke calling the study “fundamentally flawed on conceptual and methodological grounds.” An internal audit found “serious flaws and distortions” and concluded the paper never should have been published.
What happened next had to happen:
The grooming of conservative experts appeared to be falling into place when Michigan called Regnerus and three other witnesses to describe research allegedly showing gay marriage and parenting harms kids. Regnerus testified that, based on his research, he believed “we aren’t anywhere near saying there’s conclusive evidence” that children of gay parents fare as well as others, and that, “until we get more evidence, we should be skeptical” of any such claims. “The most prudent thing to do,” he concluded, “is to wait and evaluate some of these changes over time before making any radical moves around marriage.”
But on cross-examination by the ACLU’s Leslie Cooper, Regnerus’ testimony quickly broke down. Cooper forced Regnerus to admit that he had sought to conceal the role of conservative funders and of his religious faith in influencing his research, both of which were later revealed with smoking gun evidence from his prior words. He acknowledged that he was “not a fan of same sex marriage” before he started his research and that his opposition to it was not primarily based on his research conclusions. And he had to concede that he had singled out gay couples in opposing their right to marry based on alleged family instability: Aware that African-Americans, the poor, step-families and divorced people are all at higher statistical risk of marital collapse and family instability, he nonetheless had no strong opinion on whether those folks should be banned from marrying – just gays, strongly suggesting his views are rooted in bias above all.
Other witnesses fared no better. Canadian economist Douglas Allen, who produced a study with the exact same flaws as Regnerus’ study, told the court he believed that “without repentance,” gays are going to hell. Still, ignoring the clear scholarly consensus on child outcomes, he tried to pass off his opposition to same-sex marriage as a product of his research, echoing the talking point that “The state should be very cautious in making such a fundamental change to such a fundamental issue where there’s no evidence on the child outcome issue.” A third witness was disqualified altogether.
The judge, a Reagan appointee, was not impressed. Actually he was angry. We don’t know enough yet? Says who? At least they didn’t call Fred Phelps. They couldn’t. He’s dead.
But the South is a fine place. The angry nasty-crazy people, playing their losing hand in a poker game they know they’ll never win, and resent knowing they’ll never win, don’t live forever.