I have a soft spot in my heart for the Rev. Fred Phelps and his whacky family at Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church, God bless 'em. No other similarly sized group anywhere, after all, has done more to promote full inclusion of LGBT people in the fabric of life nationwide. The good Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways some days.
Jeff Chu broke the story of Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper here. These young women are granddaughters of Fred Phelps and daughters of Shirley Phelps-Roper, the matriarch and legal eagle of the Westboro operation. MSNBC carried the story of another Phelps granddaughter, Libby Phelps Alvarez, here.
The women join Nate Phelps, now-atheist son of Fred and brother of Shirley, among the disaffected shunned by Westboro's first family.
The Phelps clan, in full cry since about 1991, first came to public attention in a big way during 1998 when Westboro brought its God-hates-fags message to picket lines outside the Casper, Wyoming, funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young man beaten to death and left to die at Laramie because he was gay.
The Westboro message then, and now, is that every calamity, be it the death of a gay kid or the fatal combat wounds of a straight soldier, 9/11 or the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, a hurricane or a tsunami, is a direct expression of God's judgement against humanity for allowing LGBT folks to live --- that God really does hate fags that much.
I remember calling around to pastors of some conservative churches --- mostly Baptist --- not long after the Shepard funeral, asking how they felt about this. "We would never say anything like that" was the usual response. The follow-up question, "but do you kind of think like that?" The hem-and-haw response, some version of, "Well .... You've got to understand." Yup.
Back then, preachers and parishioners at the right-wing end of the Christian spectrum, tended to just be uncomfortable with Westboro antics while agreeing essentially with the basic premise. These folks were (and still are) thinking and saying essentially the same thing, just in a kinder and gentler way. Outrage really never developed on the right until the Phelps clan began picketing the military funerals.
If you listen carefully to TV preachers, spokesmen for the Southern Baptist Convention, the increasingly frantic all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and others, you'll discover that "God hate fags" still festers in the dark heart of the institutional church. For some it's a heartfelt doctrine, but increasingly seems to be just a last-ditch tool in the fight against irrelevance.
What the Rev. Mr. Phelps and his merry band have done by using the broadest brushes of caricature is expose it, crack walls of Christian complacency and let a little light shine in.
That, in part, has caused many denominations to move more forcefully toward inclusion and attempts to cut away the rot. Others of course, thanks in part to Rev. Fred, now view God as equivalent to the Wizard behind that facade in Oz --- not quite what he once was once cracked up to be even if he is, indeed, there at all.
Fred's getting older now and most likely soon will go home to glory. And cracks seem to be developing in Westboro's family structure. I'm going to miss them (a little) when they're gone.