Note: On, Oct. 6th, the Supreme Court of The United States will hear oral arguments in the case of Snyder vs. Westboro Baptist Church.
Fred Phelps has now gotten exactly what he's always wanted: notoriety. From the time he threw the first punch at an attendee of a revival (at age 17, his first preaching gig was to a Mormon group and someone didn't exactly agree with him), he's always courted fame. Fame through controversy. Fame through hate.
I've followed Fred's trail for over 14 years. The first time I encountered Phelps was as a book publicist for Fr. Daniel Helmeniak, author of the book, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. Helmeniak is an eminent Jesuit scholar who knew about Phelps and his homophobic rantings, so I was able to get Daniel on a radio show in Kansas City, MO. with Phelps debating him on the subject. Phelps was in the studio while Daniel was on a phone hook-up.
The interview was a typical Phelpsian circus with the Phelps clan picketing the radio station (allegedly for broaching the subject of homosexuality). During the interview, Daniel played the sweet, but thoroughly academic professional, politely asking Phelps which "pages" his Biblical sitings were on (knowing full well that Phelps had made them up). Frustrated Phelps grew impatient when the time came for questions from listeners who seemed to share Daniel's knowledge and sophistication. He stormed out of the station in less than twenty minutes. The host, however, kept Daniel on - for a full 90 minutes - because the call lines were heating up (the program had only been scheduled for thirty minutes).
Phelps deemed the radio spot a "success." He's a hit-and-run publicity man.
A year after Daniel's interview, I came across an unpublished manuscript attached to a deposition as Exhibit A in a court case. It was an unauthorized biography of Fred Phelps. I read all 140 pages overnight.
To label Fred Phelps as evil is ridiculous, simply because, much like any real monster, Phelps' persona is beyond labeling. If Phelps' soul can be labeled anything, the closest definition would be grotesque: it is misshapen, hideous in its deformity; repulsive. Visually, it is like The Elephant Man, but without the slightest trace of humanity. And while Hitler had a disfigured conscience, Fred Phelps seems to have no conscience at all. He delights in both hating and being hated. He is a true egotist.
And as such, he hungers not for blood, but for publicity.
It is true that he used his exemplary speaking skills to defend civil rights cases. However, upon close examination, his oratory was meant to focus only on himself: one of the breaches of ethics he was cited for in his disbarment was that if a client couldn't pay Fred's fees after losing a case, he would automatically turn around and sue the client. So very many of these cases came up, it was rumored that Phelps's primary income was derived from these turnabouts.
For the last half century, Fred Phelps and his clan have alternated between bizarre soap opera and embarrassing nuisance for Topeka, KS: addiction to amphetamines, charges of a Fagin operation (involving the Phelps children), beatings, starvation, threats of knee-capping (with a .48), severe whippings, extortion, insidious and violent revenge on colleagues and neighbors, thwarted flights to freedom - all emanating from the martinet who refused to give his children Christmas presents, demanded that all of them have law degrees, chose their spouses ... and made them believe he was their only portal to heaven.
There are times when hatred makes a person either crazy or stupid. Hatred is, after all, a very negating emotion, canceling out anything positive. Hatred is man's most insipid emotion simply because it is so counter to survival. In the eyes of America, Fred Phelps has not only done things out of pure hatred, but a total disregard for any form of reason: call Phelps insane and he will laugh. Call him stupid, however, and he will rage. Perhaps the reason why Phelps and has brood have pressed on so doggedly on the Snyder case is because Phelps will prove to everyone that he is not stupid: everyone will know him and listen, whereas nobody listens to an idiot.
The Snyder Case