- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2014

A mean and vulgar troublemaker died last week, gone to his reward for making life miserable for millions of Americans, and some of those who suffered under the lash of language, many of them advocates of the lavender lifestyle, have set an example of Christian good will and forbearance. Maybe it will be catching.

Whatever good deeds the Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church left behind — he was once a civil-rights lawyer who defended blacks when no other lawyers would — will be interred with his bones. He’ll be remembered for his message that “God hates fags,” American soldiers, Jews, Christians, children, Chinese (victims of tsunamis) and just about everybody else. He’ll be further remembered for trying to smear of the name of the churches, Baptist and otherwise, that Jesus Christ left to spread the Gospel of God’s love and forgiveness.

The social media exploded on the Internet with suggestions of how the death of Mr. Phelps should be marked by those he tormented in his long life. Several members of gay advocacy groups suggested that he “get a taste of his own medicine,” and urged that protests be organized for his funeral. One twitterbird tweeted the proposal that vulgarity be answered with bad taste: “Let’s protest the Westboro Baptist Church’s funeral by holding a graveside gay wedding and rave.” Another said the graveside message should be “God loves gays.”

But others said no, leave the family and their organization alone in their grief. “If the reports of Fred Phelps’ declining health are accurate,” said Sandra Meade, director of Equality Kansas, as Mr. Phelps lay dying, “then his family and friends are certainly saying their goodbyes and preparing to mourn his loss. We ask that everyone understand the solemnity of the occasion, and honor the right of his family and friends to remember and mourn in private without interruption or unseemly celebration.”

George Takei, an actor and advocate, agreed: “I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance on his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding ‘God hates Freds’ signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead always goes to its lonely, dusty end.”

The Phelps demonstrators in the end smeared not only those of the gay persuasion, but undermined those who, by religious instruction and conviction, believe that gays have the right to their rites and practices in their private lives, however destructive that may be to themselves and to the culture, but not the right to co-opt the rites and traditions, centuries in the making, of the institution of authentic marriage, e.g., the union of one man and one woman.

Mr. Phelps was a clever man. Before he got in the “God hates everybody” business, he was a civil-rights lawyer in Topeka, and by reputation a very good one, and in the wake of the Brown decision (which originated in Topeka) his defense of blacks earned the contempt of the Ku Klux Klan, which demonstrated against him. He was later disbarred for badgering witnesses.

The Westboro Baptist Church is a curious business, by its own description with no more than 40 members. None of them appear to be wealthy and most of them are members of the extended Phelps family, yet in some years Westboro spent a quarter of a million dollars flying its demonstrators to protest funerals in distant cities.

Westboro is not affiliated with other Baptist churches or denominations, and has been denounced by the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist World Alliance for its vulgar and demeaning demonstrations. The Westboro church has demonstrated against the Southern Baptist Convention more than once.

Baptists are organized only in individual congregations, independent of all others, and independent of supervision by any other church or organization. Some Baptist churches cooperate with other churches, as in the Southern Baptist Convention, to organize in support of missions, colleges, hospitals and other outreach. But not all. Some smaller Baptist denominations so prize their independence that they pay for mission outreach on their own. Anyone can organize a congregation and call it “Baptist,” as the Phelps clan did, and there’s no one to approve or disapprove.

Perversions of the Christian faith are particularly dangerous in an increasingly illiterate society where everyone is an authority on what he doesn’t know (which is a lot).

The rich irony here is that some of the gays Mr. Phelps mocked and despised obeyed the Christian commandment to turn the other cheek in answer to insult, offense and torment. Faith teaches us all that it’s the sin, not the sinner, that God hates.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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