Nate Phelps continues to speak out against the Westboro Baptist Church
When speaking about the Phelps family and the Westboro Baptist Church, it can become all too easy to conclude that each and every member of the Phelps family is nothing more than a homophobic bigot.
Watching Louis Theroux's Most Hated Family in America, one certainly gets that impression.
But there's more to the story that is so often overlooked: the members of the Phelps family who have denounced their father, his church, and the hateful premises on which it was founded.
Nate Phelps is one of three Phelps family members who has done precisely this. Of the three, he is the most active, speaking about his family and their church on a regular basis.
The picture paints is, unsurprisingly, a very, very ugly one.
"At the age of 7, I could recite all 66 books of the Bible in 19 seconds," Phelps explains. "My father insisted on this because he was frustrated at waiting as his children flipped back and forth trying to find the verses he was preaching from. Afterwards, if one of us took to long my father would stop in the middle of his preaching, cast a gimlet eye on the offender and demand that, 'Somebody smack that kid!'"
"For me, the story of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is a very long and painful one," Phelps continues. "But the first time that the wider community became aware of them was in 1991, when my father led his church in Topeka, Kansas to stage a protest against gays at a local city park."
"The community reacted with outrage at the mean-spirited and hateful nature of the protest, and sentiments on both sides escalated quickly," Phelps explains. "However, far from discouraging my father, this incited him to much greater efforts at publicly protesting all that he decided was wrong."
More than merely base hatred, Phelps is motivated by a tangible sense of megalomania.
"The church was soon staging dozens of protests every week, against local politicians, businesses, and citizens who dared to speak out against him and his church," Phelps says. "But public protests weren’t enough. My father equipped his church with a bank of fax machines, and daily sent faxes to hundreds of machines across the city and state, filled with invective and diatribes against anyone who had offended him."
Having lived within the Phelps household, Nate has a unique perspective on the actions of the WBC, and can place them fully within their horrific context -- a context soaked in the blood and tears of Nate and his family.
"Most people, coming in contact with them for the first time stare in stunned amazement," Phelps acknowledges. "But for me, it is a natural and almost inevitable progression, from the things I was taught and experienced in the Phelps household as a child, to the circumstances we find today."
"On the first anniversary of my father’s suspension, I returned home from school to find my mother weeping in the church vestibule," Phelps says. "My older brother, Mark, was trying to comfort her. She turned to him, her eyes red and swollen, her voice choked with rage. She yanked the stocking cap off her head, revealing that her long dark hair has been coarsely chopped off. 'He cut my hair off', she cried. Looking closer, I could see that in some places her white scalp has been exposed."
"I think everyone here can understand the trauma of such violence, the feeling of violation and abuse. But for my mother, and for our family, there was more to it than that," Phelps explains. "My father had a fascination with 1 Corinthians 11, in which Paul teaches the hierarchal authority from god, to Christ, to Man, to Woman. A sign of a woman’s submission, he argues, is her wearing her hair long. Fred took quite literally the instructions that women should have long hair; and more than that, he determined that the Greek word translated as 'long' in the bible would be more properly translated as 'uncut'. Thus, no woman in the church was allowed to put scissors to her hair. Nor were they allowed to present themselves in church without their heads properly covered."
Witness and subject to Phelps' brutal temper, Nate looked forward to his opportunity to escape. "My 18th birthday is very important, even central to my planning. My brother left after he was 18, and he was successful," he explains. But not all of Phelps' children were so fortunate.
"My oldest sister Kathy, on the other hand, tried to leave before she was 18," Phelps says. "My father tracked her down, and I watched as he physically forced her to return home. The physical and emotional damage that he inflicted on her in those last few months took a terrible toll on her. She was never the same, her spirit was broken."
Ironically, Fred Phelps' incessant demands for rigid adherence to a religious doctrine stripped from its ultimate context -- the love of the creator and a message of compassion and goodwill to humankind -- ruined Nate's ability to partake in any kind of religious observance.
"The next five years marked a struggle for a sense of who I was, while carefully avoiding anything to do with religion," Phelps explains. "In 1981 I moved to southern California to work with my brother Mark in the printing business. From time to time, at the sincere urging of friends, I would attend a church service. But it all seemed so plain and feeble. When they taught about God’s love, I’d hear my father’s voice condemning them for their namby-pamby fag-enabling beliefs."
The doubts originally implanted by his father's horiffic abuses eventually led to Nate embracing atheism. But Phelps notes that he still may have began to doubt religion even without his father's abuse.
The scores upon scores of people who embrace atheism without being subjected to that standard of abuse prove that he is correct. And even though Phelps has embraced the extreme and virulent brand of atheism promoted by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (among others), Phelps continues to retain a healthy respect for the positive aspects of religious belief.
"Certainly there are many aspects to Christianity that are good and desirable," Phelp acknowledges. "But I began to think in terms of those aspects existing outside the framework of God. Why can’t the mosaic code exist outside the notion of a god?"
There certainly is no reason why they can't. The belief in God -- especially in the conventional sense -- is nothing more than a belief regarding the origin of creation. It is not in itself a moral belief.
As Phelps himelf notes, his journey certainly isn't complete. No one -- not even Phelps himself -- knows what the future will hold for him or any of the other forgotten Phelps.