Reverend Fred Phelps, the founder of the nefarious Westboro Baptist Church, is reportedly dying at a hospice in Kansas. We all know him for organizing protests at the funerals of anti-LGBT hate crime victims, soldiers, and celebrities under the slogan “God Hates Fags.” It was a proud Sunday morning about twelve years ago when we at the Church of St. Luke warranted his angry attention. Never had the 9:30 lower church community sung “All are Welcome” with as much vigor, resolve and celebration.
I wish we had done something explicitly prophetic to merit Westboro’s ire. “Lukers” truly were a community of faith-filled, joyful, inclusive, prayerful and socially committed Christians. Truthfully, we were simply one of a series of churches targeted by Phelps in a media-mongering march to our neighbors at St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church. Reformation had recently called a lesbian to serve as an associate pastor. Still, this moment stands out as a very proud day within a very distinguished history of what was Church of St. Luke.
It came as a shock to learn that Fred Phelps had been a champion of civil rights. Unbelievable. Hard to imagine but the evidence is irrefutable. In a PolicyMic post on Twitter, Matthew Rozsa explains the inconceivable. After moving to Topeka in 1954, Phelps developed a reputation for taking civil rights cases that other attorneys — black as well as white — refused handle. Phelps’ reputation reached the point that he became the go-to litigator for victims of racist persecution. Rozsa reports, even after he received numerous threats and had his windows shot out, Phelps persisted in his work. By 1987 Phelps won an award from the Bonner Springs branch of the NAACP for his “steely determination for justice during his tenure as a civil rights attorney.”
So what happened?
Rozsa debunks the argument that Phelps merely took those cases to make money. He also discredits as far too simplistic the idea that Phelps’ subsequent hate-mongering proved his earlier work was insincere. We want to believe there is an impermeable wall between that which makes one person a “hero” and another one a “villain.” Rather, the frightening fact we so tenaciously want to deny is that good and evil simultaneously reside within each of us.
Rozsa’s uses Phelps’s life to illumine the truth we want to flee – not only can good and evil co-exist within each of us, they often spring from the same source. Rozsa credits philosopher Eric Hoffer’s classic The True Believer when explaining: Individuals who invest their life’s work in larger social causes often do so for psychological as well as ideological reasons. Regardless of the exact beliefs of the movements in question — whether they are religious or political, left-wing or right-wing, intellectual or visceral — people who become “true believers” in those causes frequently do so to fulfill a variety of needs to both their egos and their ability to comprehend the dauntingly complex external world. Indeed, as Hoffer demonstrated, this fanatical personality type could be found behind causes ranging from Communism and Nazism to Christianity and Islam… with “true believers” able to flip from one point-of-view to a seemingly contradictory one precisely because their core psychological needs were still met.
Consequently, instead of viewing Phelps’s earlier civil rights activism as an angel to his subsequent raging homophobe’s devil, we should see them as different manifestations of a single root drive. We need to recognize that the same fervent conviction and inner belief system that can fuel the cause of justice can also be used to deny justice to others, even though the genesis of both those forces can sincerely hold that each is serving a righteous cause.
Nothing excuses malevolence or hate. But it helps, especially during Lent, to hear the warning implicit in Fred Phelps’ tragic life: Everyone — progressives, conservatives, libertarians, centrists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists — is capable of being both a hero and a monster. We all believe what we do as much out of pride and the need to be swept up by a “greater cause” as we do out of detached intellectual and moral analysis.
It’s not just about Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church is it? It’s not about self-congratulatory contentment with communities as objectively praiseworthy as St. Luke’s. It is not about a single protest or revolting slur. It’s not outside “us” or about “them.” It is about me, you, us, all of us together. It’s about each of our faith communities and our nation. It is about sin, violence and all that lurks in the human heart. It is about grace, love and becoming the Imagio Dei we are at our core. It’s about giving ourselves over to the paschal mystery.
It’s about not leap-frogging Lent in our desperate need for Easter.
Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist. His article on PolicyMic is available [here].