BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Reports out of Topeka, Kansas, has it that the Rev. Fred Waldron Phelps Sr., is in hospice care near death in a Kansas hospital. I first encountered the Rev. Phelps when I was visiting friends in Kansas in the early 1990s and found out that an old friend, who had died of AIDS in California, was being brought home to Kansas for burial. The family was so concerned that the Phelps Family would find out about her death and picket the funeral that they decided not to publicize details about where and when she would be buried. At the time, Phelps, relatively unknown nationally, was clearly having a huge impact locally.
Phelps eventually gained national recognition and became notorious for leading his family, and a small band of followers, in promoting a brand of anti-gay viciousness that eventually even embarrassed the likes of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and the still extant Pat Robertson, both of whom were well known for their own form of anti-gay rhetoric. For many Americans, the Phelps family's picketing of military funerals, with signs containing messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers," and "Thank God for 9/11," was the final straw. The Phelps clan not only became a laughing stock, they provoked counter-demonstrations which far outnumbered his flock's meager numbers, and his sojourns around the country often became fundraising tools for progressive organizations.
Phelps' son Nathan, long estranged from his 84 year-old father, wrote on his Facebook page that the elder Phelps was "on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house," Reuters' Victoria Cavaliere, reported.
Steve Drain, a spokesman for the church said: "I can tell you that Fred Phelps is having some health problems. He's an old man, and old people get health problems."
Sometime last summer, his church excommunicated Phelps, and the church has not disclosed the reasons for his excommunication. Nate Phelps said there was "some kind of falling out." The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that excommunication came after Phelps' daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper lost out in a power struggle and Phelps advocated "a kinder approach between church members."
The Associated Press pointed out that Westboro Baptist, which has been named a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, "inspired a federal law and laws in numerous states limiting picketing at funerals. But in a major free-speech ruling in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the church and its members couldn't be sued for monetary damages for inflicting pain on grieving families under the First Amendment."
The Future of Westboro Baptist Church
Will the Westboro Baptist Church survive the death of Phelps? Will his family and small group of followers continue to harass gay people, picket military funerals and make noxious nuisances of themselves?
The Christian Science Monitor's Mark Guarino pointed out that, "Churches organized around a single strong personality typically have trouble when their leader either dies or departs, experts who track religious movements say."
"The typical pattern is for groups that are energized by a charismatic leader, they really just fade away when the charismatic leader dies or somehow turns up missing," Barry Crawford, a religion professor at Washburn University in Topeka told . "In this case, I don't know if that will happen or not. There seems to be an awful lot of energy there."
Although the church appears to have less than three-dozen members, "They have this missionary zeal," Crawford acknowledged. "They think they are doing God's will. They are very tenacious."
Nate Phelps expects it is likely that one of his brothers will take the reins after his father dies.
According to the AP, "Kansas' leading gay-rights group on Sunday urged the gay community to respect the privacy of the 'notoriously anti-LGBT' pastor if his health is declining."
Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said in a prepared statement that, "This is our moment as a community to rise above the sorrow, anger, and strife he sowed, and to show the world we are caring and compassionate people who respect the privacy and dignity of all."
Johnny Otis, the late great singer, songwriter and rock and blues musician, once told his radio audience that as a young man, he was told to never say anything bad about the dead or near dying. One day he was walking down the street in Los Angeles, Otis said, and he ran into an old friend who gave him the news that a mutual acquaintance who had fleeced them both out of a significant amount of money, had died. Otis, in keeping with the advice he had been given, simply told his friend: "Good." Fred Phelps is dying: You fill in the blank.