I’m not sure anyone can truly understand Fred Phelps. I have done as much reading as there is known about the man behind the group of people in Colorado who call themselves Westboro Baptist Church. The more I read looking for some kind of insight into why he believes the way he does and what exactly he believes, the more I think he is really just a crazy person. I think it’s interesting how someone’s beliefs can effect their world view and how their world view can drive their actions. I think the best way to try to understand Fred Phelps would be to try to imagine his beliefs and how they have scoped his world view.
A brief history…
See, Phelps wasn’t raised a believer.He was born in the 1930’s and had a particularly tough childhood. His mother passed away at an early age. He was raised by an aunt who also died and at the age of 20 or so went to live with his father who was remarried. Phelps was smart as a child and knew it. He was introduced to Christianity after he had already graduated high school and was accepted and attending West Point Military Academy. I will say this about the man, when he made a change in his belief and started studying the bible, it changed everything about him. He dropped out of West Point and attended a bible college. He only stayed for a couple semesters and then tried another before finally getting an associate degree from yet another school.
Here is my theory. I have never met the man, but upon reading his biographies and histories compiled across the internet, I have developed a story of my own to tell about Fred Phelps. Fred was a smart boy who thought he knew all the answers. He applied this to his faith and was quick to be bold and confrontational about his beliefs. But I believe that deep in his heart he was always trying to answer the question of why tragedy and suffering existed in the world. This is an issue that many people deal with when it comes to faith. Why does God allow bad things to happen? Phelps had experienced a lot of bad things in his life that were outside of his control. His family was good people, yet bad things happened to them. I think that Phelps was presented with some ideas while in bible school that he grasped onto for the very reason that he liked how it answered this question as well as stroked his ego.
He believed that God chooses to choose only select people to follow him, and that God hates everyone else. Phelps believed that God chose him and that everything that he believes is correct and anyone who questions or opposes Phelps’ doctrine is bound for hell and not one of the chosen. This belief requires Phelps to be ultra confident and have not even the slightest sign of humility. Which we see from his works and message.
The advantage to this line of thinking as a church / cult leader is that no one can question what you say. Anyone who disagrees is of the devil, end of argument. Which is why you don’t see Phelps in many debates or interviews. He doesn’t care what anyone else has to say. He believes his faith is unquestionable. He picks the versus of the bible that support his cause and boldly ignores the rest. Many Christians and even non-believers are guilty of this. We take the parts we like and quote them for encouragement, and we take more difficult parts and figure out ways to make them irrelevant to us.
My thoughts on the man
In the end I think I could have said this about Phelps without having had done the research, but he is simply a man consumed with hate for the anyone but himself and blame for everyone but himself. He twists the scripture to suite his ugly agenda. The bible gives us one standard by which to identify other believers. It says we will know them by their fruit. Phelps claims that he must be on God’s side because God hasn’t struck him down yet, but that isn’t what the bible says. The bible says there will be many false prophets and teachers. But we will know true believers by looking at what they produce. Meaning that a true believer will produce other true believers. This is how Christianity spread around the globe. Yes there were times when it was mandated, but the only faith that ever survived the trials of time were true believers sharing the LOVE of God with others. Jesus gave us a new commandment, to LOVE our fellow-man and to LOVE God with all our hearts.
When Phelps passes on from this world I know two things to be true. One, his church will not live on much longer. Once his generation is gone, the message of hate will water down and I doubt very seriously that his grand children will carry on his legacy. Because hate is a rotten fruit that will not bare seeds that grow. Two, when he get’s to heaven he will be standing before Jesus enthroned in a seat of judgement and Jesus will ask him a simple question. “Where were you when I was hungry, when I was thirsty? When I was naked and a stranger to you, where was your kindness? When I was sick and in prison, you held up signs mocking me, and never did you offer me any assistance. I don’t know you Fred Waldron Phelps.”
What can we learn from him
First, we should all approach Gods Word with humility. Brilliant men have studied the scripture for a lifetime and still know there is more to be learned. Always be weary of someone who claims to have it all figured out.
Second, Phelps should make us ask ourselves, “What is the core message of the Bible?” “What is church and what purpose does it serve in the life of a believer? What about to the community and the world? Is it the church’s responsibility to condemn society’s sin? If not, what is the responsibility of the church. I know this is something I am often focussed on when reading the Bible. What do you think?