Fred Phelps, the virulently anti-gay preacher who became one of the most hated men in America by cheering the deaths of American soldiers and leading hate-filled pickets at their funerals, died this week — and his son Nate is mourning him, but not in the way most sons would mourn the passing of their fathers.
Now 55, Nate Phelps fled from his father Fred, and the Westboro Baptist Church Fred founded, when he was 18 years old. He was estranged from Fred Phelps from that time until his father’s death 37 years later. In a statement released Thursday, Nate Phelps said that he mourned his father “not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been.”
“Let his death mean something,” Nate Phelps said in the statement. “Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.”
Nate Phelps fled the Kansas-based anti-gay church created by his father Fred and resettled in Canada. He became an atheist and now serves on the board of the group Recovering From Religion, a support network for people who have been victimized by abuse carried out in the name of faith.
Fred Phelps himself beat his wife and his own children, Nate has alleged, though Phelps family members still affiliated with Westboro Baptist Church have denied that charge.
In an interview with a Canadian newspaper, Nate Phelps said that he gets why many people celebrate his father’s death.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” he told The Toronto Star. “I’m deeply sorry for the hurt they’ve suffered.”
Nate Phelps was referring specifically to the parents of fallen U.S. servicemen who were forced to endure Fred Phelps and other members of the tiny but vocal Westboro Baptist Church picketing their sons and daughters funerals, bearing placards with their signature slogan, “God Hates Fags.”
“Ultimately, we’re better when people respond with love,” said Nate Phelps, of those parents and others who rejoiced in the death of Fred Phelps. “But I’m not going to judge them.”
Fred Phelps and his followers believed that the deaths of U.S. soldiers were punishment by God for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.
Nate Phelps has become an outspoken advocate for LGBT issues. In his statement Thursday, he said that he hoped his father’s death would focus attention more intensely on the cause of LGBT rights.
“Unfortunately, Fred’s ideas have not died with him, but live on, not just among the members of Westboro Baptist Church, but among the many communities and small minds that refuse to recognize the equality and humanity of our brothers and sisters on this small planet we share,” Nate Phelps wrote in the statement.
He said he hoped that death of America’s most vocal homophobe, Fred Phelps, would cause others to “embrace the LGBT community as our equals, our true brothers and sisters, by promoting equal rights for everyone, without exception.”