I remember the first time I found you online. It was 1997. Your website had more clip art then. I had spent the summer in DC, working for an anti-gay lobby — one that some regard as a hate group.
You were always there to make us feel better about ourselves. We could publish all the fear-inducing propaganda we wanted. But as long as we didn’t actually put the words “God hates fags” on our materials, we weren’t as bad as you. We could always count on Westboro Baptist Church to make us look kind and loving by comparison.
I thought of you that summer when I wrote my booklet. I even wrote this last bit just to prove we weren’t like you:
When confronted with fallen man’s sexuality, we must always return to the biblical norm. We must always do so out of love for our fellow man.
We wanted many of the same things as you. But where you were motivated by hate, we were driven by love… at least that’s what we told ourselves. You were the speck of dust I conveniently used to ignore the plank in my own eye.
In hindsight, the impact of our rhetoric was perhaps more insidious because we masqueraded as loving. You didn’t bother with pretense. You didn’t feign compassion while suggesting that gays are latent child predators who deserve to be locked up.
The reason it felt so good to despise you was because it kept me from facing the darkness that lurked in my own heart.
A decade later, I saw you again, this time on a BBC documentary. By 2008, I was not the same person who wrote that booklet in 1997. You only made a brief appearance in The Most Hated Family in America, but it was enough to convince me that all that hate was more than just a ploy for attention. “This is somebody who was addicted to rage and anger,” one filmmaker said about you.
Now you’re gone. If I’m honest, I don’t want you in the kingdom of God. I don’t want you to find mercy and forgiveness. I want you to feel the weight of all the hurt you caused.
And that worries me, because it means I don’t want God to be as merciful as he wants to be. I don’t want him to leave the 99 to go after the one lost sheep. Not in this case.
It also means I’m more like you than I care to admit. You always made it clear that you didn’t give a rip whether anyone had a change of heart because of your protests. When someone asked if you ever pray for the salvation of those you condemn, you bellowed, “Of course not!” You were happy to watch souls burn. You were convinced God had already preselected you and a handful of others for salvation. And you despised anyone who hoped God might cast his love a bit wider.
If I cheer for your damnation, then I am no different from you. I won’t make that mistake. Not anymore. I want a merciful God. I want a God who sees no one as beyond rescuing, not even from their own hatred.
So I will pray for your repose, Fred Phelps. I pray that perpetual light shines on you. I don’t know if we get a second chance after death, but if we do, I pray that yours will be to discover a God who is infinitely more loving than you dared to imagine. I still pray you’ll feel the weight of all the hurt you caused, but that you will find forgiveness and mercy for it, too. Because I need that just as much as you do.