The other day a man named Fred Phelps died. He died alone, and no funeral is planned for him. Unlike most who exit life under these circumstances, Mr Phelps was a well-known public figure. A disbarred lawyer, Mr Phelps declared his family to be a church and himself to be its pastor. For many years, the Phelpses have traveled the USA, forming picket lines outside funerals and other events carrying signs with such lovely slogans as “God Hates America,” “God Hates Fags,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The Phelpses don’t conduct funerals for their own dead, and had evidently disowned their patriarch before his death.
I saw the Phelpses in action twice. Once, they were picketing a military funeral, celebrating the death of a 19 year-old soldier. A few years later, they were picketing the funeral of a 16 year old girl who had taken her own life.
So I have first-hand evidence that there was such a person as Mr Phelps. But I can’t entirely get over my disbelief that he could possibly have existed. What could possibly possess anyone to devote his life, and to influence his children to devote their lives, to such a perverse endeavor? I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know whether mental illness would be a viable explanation. And I’m not a theologian, so I don’t know if it would be appropriate to attribute Mr Phelps’ behavior to demonic possession.
I can sympathize with those who suspect that Mr Phelps was some sort of agent provocateur serving the interests of those who wanted to discredit the causes he ostensibly supported; certainly the level and form of publicity he attracted shows that he made himself remarkably useful to precisely the people he targeted with his message of hate, and a conspiracy in which he was deliberately acting to promote equal rights for same-sexers by tarring the opposition with the brush of sheer lunacy would be intelligible in a way that a world in which someone could sincerely believe that what Mr Phelps was doing was a worthwhile way to spend a life would not be. Having seen the Phelpses up close, though, I can’t accept so simple a theory. They struck me as something radically alien and radically hostile to the life of the world. Any explanation of them, I suspect, would have to be, not only complex, but also a challenge to our usual assumptions.