When news broke Thursday that Fred Phelps, infamous anti-gay activist and former head of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, or WBC, had passed away, few if any progressives shed tears of sorrow. In fact, many Americans — progressive or otherwise — were at best unmoved by the death of the troubled Phelps, especially given his long history of hateful activism that included picketing the funerals of LGBT people, shooting victims, and even fallen soldiers, among countless other offensive stunts.
But while Fred Phelps will mostly be remembered for his hurtful hate-mongering, he was also arguably an important — albeit largely accidental — ally to the progressive movement.
Here are a few reasons why:
1. Phelps’ hateful tactics built solidarity within the LGBT rights movement. As several other writers have already noted, the great irony of Phelps’ anti-gay activism is that the he was actually something of a boon to the campaign for LGBT rights. When Phelps and the WBC protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was brutally murdered in 1998 for being gay, national news agencies began focusing more on the insensitivity of the WBC’s methods than on the controversy surrounding Shephard’s homosexuality. Combined with the tragic events of Shephard’s death, the WBC’s activism helped push the oppression of LGBT people back into the spotlight, and jump-started a national conversation around the issues facing gays and lesbians.
What’s more, as the WBC expanded their list of things to protest and as more Americans — both gay and straight — became involved in efforts to refute them, the LGBT community drew strength from the country’s collective opposition to Phelps’ angry words and methods. Thus, despite his best efforts to the contrary, Phelps deserves some credit for inadvertently helping create a stronger, more robust, and more influential LGBT rights movement.
2. He and his church tested a citizen’s right to free speech. Fred Phelps may have been the leader of the “Most Hated Family in America,” but the nearly universal disgust for his tactics did not diminish legal support for his right to free speech. Although he and the WBC were the catalysts for laws such as the 2006 Fallen Heroes Act that limited the ability to protest military funerals, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the church’s protests, however offensive, were still valid expressions of free speech. The case made many uncomfortable, but the court’s decision was a victory for all Americans because it cemented the idea that free speech — even in its most vile forms — is a still firmly protected right in the United States.
3. Phelps was once a crusading Civil Rights lawyer. When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down their landmark 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education allowing for the desegregation of schools, the door was suddenly opened for many other kinds of anti-discrimination cases. At the time, Phelps was a lawyer in Topeka, Kansas, and quickly developed a reputation for taking on civil rights cases that other lawyers wouldn’t come near. In fact, Phelps was reportedly remarkably successful in his pursuit of racial justice, winning so many cases in the 1960s that he became something of a champion among Topeka’s discriminated, as well as a thorn in the side of local businesses who had to shell out money every time he threatened to bring them to court. It’s still an open question as to how Phelps went from Civil Rights champion to anti-gay hate monger (he reportedly doesn’t see an inconsistency between the two positions), but his legal work in Topeka is still an interesting, if somewhat confusing, part of his legacy.
4. Phelps challenged us all to love as fiercely as he hated. Phelps’ hatred was so undeniably egregious that it inspired Americans to muster compassionate and often profoundly moving responses to his protests. Instead of mirroring the WBC’s negativity, many counter-protests opted for absurdity, diluting Phelps’ painful messages with silly signs adorned with mock slogans such as “God hates signs” and “God is Love, Hate is Stupid.” Many other counter-protests included faith leaders who counteracted Phelps’ sermons by vowing to “preach love, not hate.” And when the WBC picketed Matthew Shephard’s funeral, scores of people wearing massive angel wings lined the funeral route to shield mourners from the vicious signs held by Phelps and his family.
Evidence of Phelps’ unlikely legacy — one of laughter and love in the face of hate — was also showcased this week in an eloquent blog post by Brandon Wallace, a writer at The Gay Christian. Exploring the possible implications of a Fred Phelps funeral (Phelps’ family has since said they won’t hold one), Wallace wished that people would react to Phelps’ death by showcasing a kind of grace that he and the WBC denied to so many others.
“My final prayer is that people do show up to [Phelps’] funeral as a show of pageantry,” Wallace wrote. “I hope they show up with large, decorated signs and billboards. I hope they line the streets leading to the funeral home, and I hope that they make sure they are seen. Finally, I hope every one of those billboards and signs read, ‘We forgive you.’”
Indeed, the words and actions of Wallace and others show that Phelps and the WBC are something of an inspiration, if only as an example of who we don’t want to be as a nation. Yes, with the possible exception of his early Civil Rights work, Phelps was anything but a progressive champion. But there are still lessons to be learned from his controversy-ridden activism, and his influence on the modern progressive movement, however accidental and ironic, is undeniable.
At the very least, Phelps challenged us all to live lives as filled with love and compassion as his was filled with hate.
Jack Jenkins is the Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Follow them on Twitter @CAPFaith.