Fred “Gramps” Phelps, patriarch of “The Most Hated Family in America,” turns 78 today. Best known for his work with Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church — a clown ministry consisting almost entirely of his extended family — Phelps enjoys a parasitical relationship to the ills of the world. Picketing various funerals and endorsing mass catastrophe on behalf of God, Phelps enforces his Lord’s gay-unfriendly agenda with a devotional style best described as canine. By Phelps’ account, the 9-11 attacks, the Virginia Tech shootings, IED casualities, and the Minneapolis bridge collapse are all expressions of God’s displeasure with American infernalities like Will and Grace.
In one of his typically breathtaking moments of Biblical exegesis, Phelps explained the most notorious of his organization’s slogans:
“Fags” is a contraction of the word “faggots,” which is an elegant metaphor for all the homosexuals and their enablers. It’s elegant, and its appropriate. They’re called faggots . . . because they have kindled the fires of God Almighty’s wrath. They’ve kindled the fires of wrath in their lust, one for another — kindled the fires of wrath by virtue of the place they’re headed, where the worm that eats ‘em never dies and the fires never quench. By a multitude of common sense arguments, “God hates fags” is not only true, it’s profound, and it’s divine. And we are intent on publishing that message to the whole world. God indeed hates fags.
If Phelps didn’t cause real people genuine agony by picketing their loved ones’ funerals or harassing them through the mail and in the media, one might be tempted to dismiss him as a clever performance artist, a useful idiot cultivated by the Anita Bryant caucus. After all, among other things, Phelps’ antics provide a helpful alibi to less-obviously deranged public figures who — having inoculated themselves by denouncing the open and unsophisticated hatred espoused by the WBC — endorse more subtle and consequentially homophobic policies. Social conservatives (and squeamish liberals without the courage to oppose them) might not love gays and lesbians enough to protect them from job discrimination or offer them equal rights of contract in marriage, but — thank heaven for small favors — at least they don’t hate them enough to picket their funerals or blame infrastructural failures on them.