The challenge with writing about Fred Phelps, frankly, is suppressing the urge to urp.
Phelps and his hateful clan spent this weekend in West Virginia taunting innocent families whose fathers, brothers and sons were buried alive in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. The last four of 29 miners were pronounced dead on Saturday. The Phelpses actually complained they didn't get adequate police protection during a picket at the state Capitol, where they carried signs that read: "Thank God for Dead Miners," "God Hates Your Tears" and "God Hates West Virginia."
It's a new low for The Most Hated Family In America, as they were dubbed in a 2007 BBC documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members routinely picket funerals of American soldiers. They claim God smites our military because America tolerates lesbian and gay people. The group is so obsessed with anti-homosexual theology it adopted the slogan "God hates fags" for the name of its website.
I've always ignored these psychopaths and refused to give them the media attention they crave. But information about them that can't be ignored surfaced last week on The Standard, a Vancouver-based public affairs program. In his first-ever television interview, Fred's son Nate Phelps says the family could turn violent if his father ever finds a Bible verse to justify it.
The interview was conducted by Peter Klein, an Emmy-winning producer for 60 Minutes and my colleague at the University of British Columbia graduate journalism school.
Nate Phelps, who left the family more than 30 years ago and lives in Canada, says his father is a violent individual. He talks about rage and the physical abuse Fred Phelps inflicted for hours at a time on his wife and children. He speculates that his father is mentally ill and effectively calls the Westboro church a classic cult:
They fit the definition, and I've said for years that all it would really take is if my father made the decision, found the right justification in the Bible, that they would turn towards violence -- either violence towards themselves or someone else.
The interview is long (roughly 30 minutes) and conversational. Klein is less bombastic than the hosts of American cable news programs and more likely to let his guest talk. The first segment may be a little repetitive for anyone familiar with the long and vicious history of the Westboro Church.
I kept looking for some evidence that Nate Phelps was unstable. How could he not be?
I was expecting the glassy stare of someone who had undergone intense recovery therapy or at least a man given to spontaneous emotional surges. But Phelps is calm and reasoned - almost matter-of-fact without appearing overly detached from his family. A capacity for empathy (missing in his parents and siblings) is evident in a story he tells about his own son, who one Christmas asked who Jesus was.
Phelps says he began the generic message about Christ, the crucifixion, repentance, eternal Hell - and before he knew it, the little boy was terrified and crying uncontrollably. Phelps says he realized he was passing his father's destructive teaching to his son. He stopped. That experience, he says, changed his life.
The point is that Nate Phelps can't be ignored. He isn't seeking revenge or selling a book. His motives aren't in question. He speaks with authority, and he's offering Americans and the law enforcement agencies that protect them at the local, state and federal levels a warning about his family they can't afford to ignore.
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