The last time I saw Fred Phelps was last year when I attended services a few times at the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka.
No, I am not a religious bigot in search of like-minded souls. I went for research.
The church was unassuming. Fake wood paneled walls, lowered ceiling, fluorescent lights. Small pews with orange padding angled down the room, the floor covered with peach carpet. At the front stood a smallish pulpit, piano and small organ. A few wall hangings. "T-U-L-I-P" read one, for the five principles of Calvinist theology. No marble, no arched or stained glass windows, no "false idols." Nothing to lift the human spirit.
There were about 70-80 people, including dozens of children. They sat with their parents, girls in long hair, boys with short. There was clearly no mandate for church attire. Some men were in blazers and ties, others in pullovers. Women wore dresses -- or sweats and sneakers. All the women wore head-scarves.
The service started with a hymn, all five stanzas, sung in harmony. It was staid, no arm-waving, no spontaneous "Amen's," no born-again enthusiasm. Parents shared hymnals with their children, arms gently draped over their shoulders.
Fred gave the sermon. I'd prepared emotionally for the fire-and-brimstone of the Fred Phelps I remembered. I'd braced myself for a finger pointed at my face, accompanied by "Repent, you whore of Babylon."
But no such luck.
This Fred was a frail old man who needed to be helped to the pulpit. His voice, which used to boom from his six foot frame, was reedy and thin. His sermon was a mix of extended Biblical quotations and commentary, with a few mild exhortations. "It was a blow-out, a Texas-sized BBQ," he ad-libbed, introducing his down-home take-away on a Biblical wedding. To me, the sermon was flat and convoluted. But the congregation sat as if enraptured. Children did not fidget. There was not a single whine, no kid-voices whispering, "Is it over yet?"
That, in itself, was a little creepy.
It was hard to make the connection between the vitriolic, abrasive, smug, condescending bigot, the larger-than-life-under-a-white-cowboy-hat Fred Phelps of TV news clips, and the stooped, wheezy old man. I was reminded of pictures of Nazi's who'd worked the extermination camps and were discovered decades later living in Brazil, and how unsatisfying it was to prosecute a pathetic old man instead of the monster he had once been.
It hit the news cycle on Sunday that Fred Phelps is in hospice. That he is dying.
But there were also reports that he has been excommunicated from his own church. The church he founded and nurtured. The church made up of his children and grandchildren.
If this latter is accurate, then his congregation, his very family, has decided that he is a non-believer, a sinner, doomed to burn in the fires of hell, where worms will eat his flesh, his agony will be eternal and God will rejoice in his pain. Or something along those lines. It's what he once told me, many years ago, would be my fate.
But who knows? I'm certainly no expert on hell.
There are those who believe that, when Fred dies, his church, and the beliefs they espouse, will also die off, albeit slowly. But they are wrong.
Fred Phelps took theologically-based bigotry public. Fred and his Westboro Baptist Church set a standard for homophobia that has allowed thousands of other churches, equally judgmental and condemning, to appear relatively benign. He has served as a lightning rod, attracting public criticism and media focus, deflecting attention away from the ubiquitous underbelly of fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. Millions of people share Fred's beliefs, in part or whole, but behind sanctuary doors, expressing their beliefs/bigotry more discreetly. And, really, I've been told, it's not like they can choose what to believe. It's God's Word. Period.
Just look at Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty. A&E Network initially suspended him for racist and homophobic statements (although he sounded "purely ignorant" to me), then reneged when hit with a backlash of viewer support (14+ million weekly viewers at last count). His audience was not offended. They agree with him. And for A&E, the bottom-line is revenue.
Bigotry has been re-packaged as religious freedom. The equal rights that millions of Americans now seek to protect are their rights to discriminate based on selective Biblical interpretation. These equal rights extend into controlling what is taught in public classrooms, from science to history. (But don't get me started.)
I enjoyed my research. But I didn't have to start from scratch. The heavy-lifter when it comes to understanding Fred and family is Rebecca Barrett-Fox, Ph.D., who teaches at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. Her dissertation, "Anger and Compassion on the Picket Line: Emotion and Ethnographic Methods in the Study of the Westboro Baptist Church," places her front-and-center as the foremost expert in the United States on the WBC both in theological context and the polarizing role that the WBC plays in our society.
So, is Fred going to heaven? To hell? I guess that's up to His God to decide.
We don't get to vote.
Susan Kraus's novel "All God's Children" will be released in May, 2014.