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Nate Phelps Headshot

Life After the Westboro Baptist Church

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It was a full-spread illustration across both pages. Giant waves crashing over frantic people clinging desperately to the few visible mountaintops. Most were half-clothed or naked. One woman is clawing the side of the Ark with one hand. Her other is raised over her head holding her screaming infant up toward the implacable bearded man standing, arms crossed, staring down at the drowning people.

Each time I was sent to vacuum the church auditorium, I would find a niche between the row of seats, and while the vacuum ran, I would open to that page and stare. I obsessed over that picture for hours, my 6-year-old mind fascinated and terrified at the idea that human life was so expendable. At the back of the small auditorium in the vestibule area was a large sign, the lower right corner broken off, with a verse painted on it: "It is appointed unto men once to die and after this the judgment." These two images are a few of the earliest impressions I can remember as a child.

From the day of our birth, my 12 siblings and I would sit for three hours each Sunday and listen as our father taught us about his god, the god of Calvinism. Fred's god was a vengeful, angry creator. Even as his ways were past finding out, my father searched incessantly. The god of John Calvin was unique in that he was the one who decided who attended Heaven and Hell. The doctrine of Absolute Predestination took the idea that men were born corrupt and dead in their trespasses and sins a step further, depriving man of his free will and placing that power in the hands of God. It was God who knew in the council halls of eternity past those he would choose and those he would create as vessels of his righteous wrath.

It became clear very early that my father took the sins of the world personally. So as neural connections formed in our immature brains, they were soaked with this image of an unchanging deity who despised the majority of his creation, a god involved in a game of sorts, with humanity as his unwitting pawns. Since we couldn't make the decision to accept Christ, we had to wait for him to touch our hearts and know that he had chosen us. The outward manifestation of his anointing was our behavior in the world, and that behavior was defined by our father.

From behind the pulpit our father raged against every other belief system and world leader. Straw men were built and destroyed Sunday after Sunday as our father taught us to hate them all. His theology was soaked with the fiery indignation of the Old Testament god, and he demanded that his minions embrace the same righteous disdain for the world of unbelievers. It was only natural that he would eventually conclude that the only true believers on the Earth were in attendance at the Westboro Baptist Church.

From my earliest memories I can recall questions in my mind. How could we be the chosen ones if we treated people with such disrespect? How does an all-consuming god manage to remain invisible from world affairs? What of the people born in other parts of the world who never heard of him, or those born before Calvin or Christ? What about me and my actions gives me value above all others?

In an environment that violently quelled any defiance, I found myself uniquely at odds with my father and on the receiving end of brutal violence for much of my childhood. At one point the police became involved, but my father preached his way out of that and assured us that God had protected him, validating his violent behavior toward his wife and children.

In my 16th year I knew that I couldn't stay there. Our father had concluded that God gave him authority over all decisions about our lives, and I was unwilling to submit. In spite of threats of being ostracized, I began planning my escape. I knew I couldn't leave before my 18th birthday, because he still had legal authority over me until then. So I scraped together enough money to buy an old Rambler Classic and hid it from my family. Little by little I boxed up my meager belongings and hid them in the garage. By this time all trust in my father had been destroyed, so when he quizzed me about my plans, I didn't hesitate to lie. When other family members inquired, I knew my response would get back to him, so I lied. On the night of my 18th birthday, I lay in my bed pretending to sleep. When the house went quiet, I brought the car around, packed the trunk, and then slipped back into the house to watch the clock climb to midnight. Then I left. For all intents and purposes, I have not seen my family since.

For a long time I fooled myself into believing that I had escaped unscathed. Then I began to realize that hours of silent raging and isolation from the world was not normal. I came to understand that this ever-present fear of divine punishment wasn't natural or healthy. I was certain that God would never give me children because of my rebellion against him. When my wife gave birth to three healthy babies, my world unravelled. Years of counseling followed as I stripped away the hateful mythology of my father and was finally freed to embrace my innate secular humanism. It is a continuous process for me as I uncover and discard assumptions and beliefs that lay buried deep in my mind.

As I began to speak and write about my journey, I was overwhelmed with letters and comments from others who have struggled with religious extremism, violent childhoods, and the destructive effects of blind prejudice and hate. Members of the gay community wrote to say they understood and related, having experienced violence and rejection in their own childhoods. I was amazed to discover that the insidious ideas I held about the LGBT community dissipated as I got to know the individuals that made up that group. I learned that the best way to destroy a prejudice was to have the courage to encounter those we have learned to prejudge. The perceived differences dissipate like a fog in sunlight, and we discover that they are us.

I read and wrote. I began to speak out. My family's campaign gave me a voice, and I concluded that I had a duty to use that voice to counter the ugliness and pain that my father's ideas have caused. When I speak, I often close with something that the British philosopher Bertrand Russell said. He was asked what he would most like to say about his life and the lessons he had learned. He responded:

I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say ... is this: when you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say. The moral thing I should wish to say ... is very simple: I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish.