Atlantic Monthly

The Family That Protests Together

Something tells me that today, as hundreds weep not two hundred yards from my office, is not the day to say something nice about the most reviled family in America. But when is the day? Every year, the followers of the Reverend Fred Phelps protest hundreds of funerals — mostly the funerals of soldiers — and each set of mourners deserves better that to have anti-gay fanatics waving signs denouncing them as “fags” and “fag-enablers” (a category that apparently captures everyone but the Westboro members themselves). The bereaved Russerts certainly do. I sympathize with the woman who stopped her car and asked a passerby to run over and snatch away the “Russert in Hell” sign. But if we must choose one funeral as an occasion to rectify the public’s ignorance of the Phelpses’ bizarre history, it might even seem fitting that the occasion would be the death of a man recognized as an emblem of truth-seeking and setting records straight.

The kindest thing one can say about the Phelps clan (the Church consists primarily of one family) is that they are not exactly what they seem. Commonly thought to be an extreme branch of the Religious Right, they in fact profoundly loathe the figures most identified with religious conservatism. Last year, when Jerry Falwell died, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed his funeral far more vigorously than they are picketing Russert’s, and they issued a press release that denounced him in unambiguous and colorful terms (“corpulent false prophet,” “Arminian heretic”).

Whence the hatred of a fellow Baptist, a man who seemed to share so many of Westboro’s grotesque views? The answer lies in the past of Falwell himself and of the Phelps family. Falwell was a shameless racist, and the Phelps family were, incredible as it may seem, pioneers of integration in their hometown of Topeka. The Phelps family’s law practice, headed formerly by the patriarch himself, Fred Phelps, took civil rights cases, often for black plaintiffs who had failed to find representation elsewhere. The Phelpses viewed racial discrimination as un-American and contrary to Biblical teaching, and their work helped to effectuate the Brown decision. And so, by the Phelpses’ account, they litigated the fulfillment of Biblical justice and grew up despised for their beliefs, and despised by no one more than wicked subverters of the Word of God like Jerry Falwell.

As Fred’s brood matured, more Phelpses earned law degrees. What eventually infuriated them, it seems, was gays’ agitation for the same rights and protections the Phelpses had worked hard to ensure for blacks. They saw gay rights movement not as a fulfillment of God’s word but as a perversion of it: the Bible may be silent on the subject of race, unless you count Amalekites as a race, but it has at least a few words about sodomy that Christians can’t easily explain away. (Here I imagine Fred Phelps producing a full-screen quote, Russert-style, of Leviticus 18:22.) The Phelpses have been protesting ever since. Decades of unpopularity have hardened them. When confronted or sued, they invoke the same Constitutional rights they and their forbears have spent their lives defending — not from atheists and sodomites, at first, but from religious people who tried to insert their “false” faiths, complete with racism and bigotry, into politics. The Phelpses say they view the Bill of Rights as a gift of God, and when they aren’t talking about gays, their rhetoric more closely matches civil libertarians’ than religious conservatives’.

Why, then, disturb the peace of Tim Russert, a man privately devout in his practice of a faith not known for its friendliness to gays? The Phelpses say that Russert failed to use his prominence to fulminate against gays in general, or even ordained gay pedophiles in his own religion. (Guilty as charged, I guess.) I cannot imagine that Russert would have wanted these crazed First Amendment absolutists at his own memorial service, but as a journalist, he might have bitterly appreciated their right to be there.

Originally appeared at


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