It’s bad manners to speak ill of the newly dead, but perhaps we can bend that rule for Fred Phelps.
Seriously, is it possible to favorably eulogize a guy who, as patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church, wielded placards adorned with the slogans like “God Hates Fags” and “Fags Die God Laughs”? Why concoct nice words for a guy who orchestrated protests at the funerals of slain soldiers (Placard: “Pray For More Dead Soldiers”)? Who believed that our war dead deserved to be dead as penance for an increasingly gay-friendly America? (Placard: “USA = Fag Nation.”)
But Phelps, who died Wednesday at age 84, does warrant a few superlatives. Just not the kind that most of us would relish at our moment of passing.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has called his church “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” and Phelps was so uniquely vile that even his fellow anti-gay bigots kept their distance. Most bigots insist that God actually loves gays (as He presumably loves all sinners) and merely wants them to renounce their “lifestyle.” Phelps said nah to all that. In his view, God hates ’em all and believes (if I may borrow a phrase from the film Dr. Strangelove) that godless pro-gay sentiment has invaded America’s precious bodily fluids.
Which was why Phelps felt it was just when soldiers died. As he declared at one funeral rally, “God’s wrath is upon this nation, and He’s pouring out his wrath by killing those soldiers and maiming those soldiers in Iraq. (Yes, Phelps believed that maimings were also just. Hence his placard, “Thank God For Maimed Soldiers.”) If you follow his reasoning. If you even want to dignify it as reasoning.
Nevertheless, it’s indeed possible to send him off with some nice words. Bear with me here.
Phelps and his followers – including some of his kids, who are still very much alive (one daughter has said that our soldiers are worse than al Qaeda because they’re “fighting for same-sex marriage”) – have been so unhinged and hateful that they’ve actually done gay Americans a big favor. They’ve reduced the anti-gay mission to a pitiful cartoon, baring its cruelest primitivism, demonstrating what intolerance really looks like when all the euphemisms are stripped away.
Thanks to his protest rallies – he staged 53,000 – Phelps wound up generating great public sympathy for the targets of his abuse. His irrationality made the gay equality cause look even more reasonable. To quote Thomas Jefferson, “Errors of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
In the combat for public opinion, Phelps was thoroughly beaten by the forces of reason. He badly damaged the social conservative cause – which is already on the losing side of history – and for that we owe him a deep debt of gratitude and a posthumous medal for public service.
On the death front, we should also note the passing of Robert Strauss. At age 95, he was arguably the last survivor of a Washington era when bipartisan operatives known as “wise men” worked both sides of the aisle. Strauss was a centrist and a pragmatist. Ideologues are advised to look up those words in the dictionary.
Strauss’ track record would be unimaginable today: a Texas Democrat who served in the ’70s as Democratic National Chairman (pulling the party out of its lefty cul de sac after George McGovern’s landslide loss); who served in the late ’80s as a backstage adviser to Ronald Reagan; who served in the early ’90s as Moscow ambassador under George H. W. Bush; who later tried, at the request of sane Republicans, to talk sense to House GOP leaders about the political folly of impeaching Bill Clinton.
At a private dinner, former Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright once said of Strauss, “It’s an honor to have with us a close friend of the next president of the United States – whoever the hell he may be.” If only we still had a few brokers like Strauss, people who could parlay with both sides. The Beltway insider-centrist is a fast vanishing species, and not everyone mourns its passing. But we sure don’t seem to have grown any wiser.
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