Humanizing the Dehumanized: Understanding Fred Phelps' Frame of Reference

I wrote this a long, long time ago, and sometimes - very rarely - but enough times for me to get tired of emailing it, I re-posted it here. I find myself sometimes having to emphasize that I'm not a supporter of the Phelps group, nor their ideologies, but my intention, as I state in the mini-essay, is to provide something useful to whomever wishes to understand Pastor Fred Phelps (deceased) better.


While my intent is to provide something useful to whomever wishes to understand Pastor Fred Phelps better, I must tell you that there is no substitute for getting the information for yourself from the Westboro Baptist Church, or Fred Phelps himself. Whenever we see or hear someone presenting something that is so offensive to us, we often make a very hurried attempt to dehumanize the person that offends us. Such it is with Pastor Fred Phelps. When he preaches “God Hates Fags,” we hear that and label him a hatemonger and pat ourselves on the back for not being so hateful as he. We don’t usually think about why he does what he does, what he might mean, or what motivates him. We quickly make an effort to dismiss him as a hatemonger, a closet homosexual, or anything else that will allow us to go on with our lives and not give him much thought other than a dogmatic anger and disgust for the fact that he is allowed to spew hate, and what shocks us more is that people actually buy into it. We don’t think about his frame of reference. We don’t think about his motivations. All we can think about is what a bad person he is. It’s normal. People have been doing it for a long time now, and we’ll probably continue to do it. What I want you, the reader to be able to say, after reading this, is that you can understand, maybe not agree with, but at least understand where Phelps is coming from, and that you remember that he is, after all, a finite, fallible human being. We all are. The question you need to ask yourself when examining Fred Phelps, or anybody, for that matter, is “What problems does he see that he is trying to solve?”

Understanding Fred Phelps' Frame of Reference: Background

Phelps comes from a position that believes that you must first understand God's hate before you can experience God's love. To many people, Phelps epitomizes not just God's hate, but hate itself. His critics have labeled him a “hatemonger,” and indeed, the way his message is presented makes the average audience stand agape. Phrases like “God hates fags!” and “…The filthy little faggot -- Matt Shepard -- who got himself killed trolling for fag sex…”1 are shocking, disgusting, and certainly not politically correct or even politically sensitive. Are there any redeeming features about Pastor Fred Phelps? Many would tell you that there was none. That presents a problem, though. Phelps’ message may indeed seem hateful, but it is of the most paramount importance that we understand Phelps’ frame of reference, or, where he is coming from. What motivates him to do what he does? Why does he do it? What events shaped his life in the past so that now he travels the country picketing against, most prominently, homosexuals? This essay will attempt to answer these questions.

It is important that we, before drawing any conclusions about Phelps, attempt to understand factors that might have shaped his frame of reference. First, some facts must be brought to light:

Fred Phelps was born Nov. 13, 1929, in Meridian, Mississippi. His mother died when he was five and his father was a railroad detective who was often away. In High School, Phelps played coronet and base horn in the high school band, was a high hurdler on the track team, and worked as a reporter on the school's newspaper. According to the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), he was valedictorian and graduated first in his class of 213, received the American Legion Award, was an Eagle Scout with Palms, and given appointment to West Point at the age of sixteen. (Other reports say sixth in his class and some make no mention of the American Legion Award.) He was orator at his graduating class's commencement, and delivered a speech entitled “Our Heritage, Our Responsibility.” After graduation, he had some time on his hands, and he went with his best friend, John Capron, to a big tent revival. There, he was baptized and called to serve God. After going to Utah to convert Mormons, he declined his appointment to West Point and went to Bob Jones University, but left after two years because he thought it was racist. In the 1960's, he represented ten black students for free and continued to help pioneer civil rights, both in the South and nationally. He and the WBC have picketed the KKK, and still do, whenever the KKK goes to the WBC’s neighborhood of Topeka Kansas, saying “God didn't say don't be black!” He has won awards in '84, '85, and '86 from the Kansas NAACP for his civil rights work. He has 13 children, 52 grandchildren (to date), and one great-grandchild. He does not advocate violence because he believes it is not scriptural. In fact, they have said: “We are also repeatedly instructed to live peaceable with all men, AND, Paul said that a preacher must NOT be a striker. So – NO VIOLENCE toward anyone!”2 When they say violence, they mean physical violence, such as hitting, shooting, or causing physical harm in general. They do not believe that psychological violence, such as yelling, picketing, or what others consider “hatemongering” is violence at all, but the trauma felt that is commonly associated with “psychological violence” is instead due to not knowing or understanding their place in life.3

Phelps' Frame of Reference:

Phelps believes that we must understand God's hate before we can understand and experience God's love. This is extremely important in understanding why he pickets and says that “God hates fags.” It must be noted that he chooses his words for reasons. The WBC offers the following explanation of their use of the word “fag”:

"The word 'fag' is a contraction of the word 'faggot' (or, 'fagot'). When traced through its etymological history, the word 'faggot' simply means 'a bundle of sticks used as fuel.' See and (where such words as 'fuel' and 'brimstone' are used as synonyms). 'Scholars' can't decide when such a word began to be used in reference to homosexuals, so we'll give the answer here: 'I have overthrown some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and ye were as a firebrand plucked out of the burning: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the Lord.' Amos 4:11. The word translated 'firebrand' is the Hebrew word 'uwd,' which comes from a Hebrew verb meaning 'to rake together' (or, 'to gather together'). In short, the Hebrew word 'uwd' is talking about burning sticks of wood that are gathered together. That is what the English word 'faggot' means. Amos 4:11 could just as easily be translated ' were as a faggot plucked out of the burning...'

"For those geniuses out there who are asking, 'Are you saying that God hates burning pieces of wood?', the answer is 'no, we're using it as a figure of speech, just like the Bible uses it.' It is an excellent metaphor to describe sodomites because they fuel God's wrath, they burn in lust, and they will burn in hell. In Amos 4:11, the 'fag' is the person who is sinning after the manner of Sodom and Gomorrah, has seen other 'fags' overthrown by God, and still refuses to repent. So, the word 'fag' refers to people who sin like the Sodomites did. It not only refers to homosexuals, but also refers to people who support homosexuals (see Romans 1:32), and people who engage in all other relatively 'lesser' perversions (like impenitent premarital sex and adultery, including the adultery of all of you divorced-and-remarried 'born again Christians'). On this web site, we use the word 'fag' in accordance with Amos 4:11.

"For those of you who have deluded yourselves into thinking that the story of Sodom isn't really talking about homosexuals, read the following: the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had completely turned away from God, and whenever that happens, homosexuality abounds. Paul described this in Romans 1, and you can read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. Conditions in Sodom were so bad that it had become acceptable for men to surround Lot's house and ask to have sex with the men inside. Anybody who thinks that today is any different than those days needs to attend San Francisco's annual gay rights parade, stand along the parade route, and hold a sign that says 'GOD HATES FAGS.' You'll see and hear evidence of all of the sins of Sodom in just a few short hours (sodomy, violence, fornication, adultery, pride, sinful treatment of the servants of God, etc.) The same mob mentality that ruled the unlawful fags in the days of Sodom rules the unlawful fags today.4"

It is obvious that “fag” has many negative connotations among our society, and many people think that he is bigoted and he uses this word because he wants to dehumanize homosexuals with mean words. In light of their interpretation of the word “fag,” this conclusion is unlikely because he is attempting to separate the loved from the hated. A “fag” in this sense is not just a homosexual, but anyone who is immoral, or, more precisely, someone who is not living in accordance with the way of life set down in the Bible. Phelps wants to tell people that if they are proud to be gay that he knows they will go to Hell and cannot receive God’s love. He does not attempt to be politically correct because that would water-down his message. He wants it to be brazen. He wants it to attract a crowd, he wants his picketing to be sensationalized, and he wants people to take notice. Although, he does this not because he is vain or he wants attention for himself; instead, he wants people to hear the message that he believes God wants him to spread. He cites passages in the Bible which speak against homosexuality (among other things that Paul appears to consider to be unclean and worthy of death). What is key here is that Phelps doesn't condemn all homosexual people, but instead condemns what he calls “the proud fags,” or, primarily, people who march in gay pride parades and do not attempt to change their lifestyle. Phelps believes that those who are proud cannot repent because they do not believe that they are living in sin. Simply put, he is not condemning homosexuals, he is warning them that if they continue to be proud of their lifestyle, they will be condemned by God. Here, he is spreading a message of what God hates. He also says that a homosexual who is repentant may inherit the kingdom of heaven and God's love.5 To be repentant, however, homosexuals must abandon their pride and their lifestyle and exercise chastity and self-control, as well as believe in God. Phelps believes that homosexuals must see that their lifestyle is offensive to God and that He hates it; and the only way to remove God's hate and gain His love is to be repentant and change their lifestyle. That is Phelps' message. It is important to note that he does not endorse violence and that he is not racist,6 that he disapproves of war, and that he believes that God doesn't just hate homosexuals, but He also hates America, because it has become too immoral, and thus worthy of said hate.7 If Phelps is a hatemonger, why stop with homosexuals? Why not attack everyone who isn’t a White, Anglo-Saxon Calvinist?

Another interesting point to notice is his criticism of the religious right in America today. He believes that they are “Lukewarm cowards. [They are] modern day Pharisees. [They are] People who have gone a-whoring after strange gods. [They are] Self-righteous hypocrites.”8


Phelps' frame of reference can be simplified to this: We must understand God's hate before we can feel His love. The Bible speaks against homosexuality and immorality. Therefore, we must let immoral and homosexual people know that they are living a life that will condemn them to hell, and encourage them to be repentant and change their life so that they may feel God's love and inherit the kingdom of heaven. We must reach as many people as possible so that the message can be spread as far as possible. We may have to use tactics that will make us unpopular and even hated, but that is a small price to pay for bringing just one soul God. After much correspondence, Shirley Phelps-Roper of the Westboro Baptist Church, after reading this summary rephrases it like this:

We must understand God's hate before we can understand His love. The Bible speaks against homosexuality and immorality. Therefore, we must let immoral and homosexual people know that they are living a life that will condemn them to hell, and encourage them to be repentant and change their life [by] living sober, righteous and Godly as the scripture requires, at which time they may have God's love and inherit the kingdom of heaven. We must reach as many people as possible so that the message can be spread as far as possible. We use methods that are available to us, knowing that the masses of mankind hate God and His judgment, so we will be hated, but that is no price to pay if God will have mercy on even one soul, and call him/her to salvation.

She adds:

"The point here is that we (The WBC and Phelps) have NO control over salvation; we just have a plain duty to preach the gospel, and above all else, be faithful to the scriptures. Noah did that and in Hebrews 11 - it says that he condemned the world. In short, every person that gets this message will be account for it in the Day of Judgment! Also, as it says several places - this concept - let him that is righteous be righteous still and let him that is filthy be filthy still. We don't hope to reform the devil, or convert anyone really - just to warn our fellow man - it says that by the foolishness of preaching salvation is had. Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God."

How Phelps Addresses Issues in Light of His Frame of Reference:

It should be noted that these are not the official opinions of Fred Phelps, the WBC, or any other religious entity. It is instead an extrapolation and interpretation of facts and figures which is used to interpret what he might say to answer these questions. To get the answers from the horse’s mouth, though, give the WBC a call.

What motivates him to do what he does?
I would venture that Fred Phelps is doing what he does out of his idea of what love is. He might invoke John 15. Among other parts, parts which I think are very pertinent for the Phelps’ mentality, is John 15:13. The passage reads: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The author of John explicates through Jesus what a “friend” is, and it comes out to be every person that has heard and taken to heart the Word of God. Jesus calls all who are in Him (Jesus) friends. Fred Phelps and company go around at a pace that would put most activists to shame. That is, they are more active than most can imagine. Every day, there is a protest to go to. Almost every day, there is more than one, usually more than two, at any given place in the country. They don’t procrastinate and they don’t give themselves over to leisure. Their life, their personal life, has been put down for the sake of spreading their interpretation of the Word of God to all who may potentially be in God.

What events shaped his life in the past so that now he travels the country picketing against, most prominently, homosexuals?
Homosexuals, to Phelps, are a large part of the problem of immorality in the world. They are, to him and his congregation, at the forefront of every moral crisis in the nation. They see sin as being absolute sin. They do not see sin in varying shades of gray, but all sin is black and there are no variations. To them, killing a woman is the same as stealing a piece of gum. Of course, they believe that we all have sin, that is, even the baby that is being born right now is full of sin, due to the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden. They count on Jesus to save them from these sins they are born with, and the sins they may commit during their lifetime. They know that they might not be forgiven. They believe that God has chosen whom He will choose and there is nothing that they can do that will change His mind. There is, therefore, a possibility that Pastor Phelps may not go to Heaven. There is also a chance that Hitler, Stalin, Matthew Shepard, and John Wilkes Booth are all in Heaven, and that Mother Theresa and Gandhi are burning in Hell.

Conjecturally speaking, I believe it was when Fred Phelps was riding his bike with his grandson Joshua in the early 90’s that made Phelps do what he does. He was riding his bicycle with his grandson in Gage Park in Topeka, just a few blocks from their home, when a homosexual male came out of the bushes (seriously) and attempted to lure Joshua into the bushes with him. Pastor Phelps probably came unglued at this point. He started modestly with signs that said “Watch your kids, gays in restrooms.” Nowhere near as prominent as “God hates fags.” Over time, because of various reasons (such as no other church taking a stand, the community and city council ignoring him, and the police not supporting him either… essentially no one supporting him except his congregation), he became more and more brazen with his signs in order to sensationalize and get his message out. He is aware of this and it is his goal. The more people that know, the better job he’s doing. Whether you agree with it or not isn’t really his concern. He believes in Irresistible Grace, that is, if you are called to be saved, God as the Holy Spirit will call you and bring you into the light and there is nothing you can do about it. A problem with this, well, two problems actually, is that it negates free will, and, if this is the case, Fred really shouldn’t have to go and do the saving. The only defense that I can see at this point is that he is paving the way to salvation, much as John the Baptist did, so that Jesus, or, sticking with our analogy, the Spirit can come and bring you to Salvation. I believe this argument has traction, if we entertain the existence of God and the divine nature of the scriptures. If we don’t, then we have no common frame of reference. I am not saying that we must believe in them both, but in order for us to even understand Pastor Phelps, we must entertain the idea that these two things are believed by these people to be the divine Word of God.

1. Westboro Baptist Church News Release. March 5, 2003.
2. Shirley Phelps-Roper, E-mail dated March 18th, 2003.
3. Shirley Phelps-Roper, when asked the question of whether or not she considers psychological violence to be violence, she responded: “Heck no - That is psycho-babble - the [psychological] problems that people have are due to a WRONG perspective that the have of themselves and what they are doing in this life. The need to get over [it] and read Daniel 4 and get a clue about what the Lord their God thinks of them.”
4. Taken from (Italics added)
5. The following is taken from
“Based upon 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, there is a scriptural basis to believe that it is possible for a practicing fag to repent. On the other hand, Jesus Christ taught that "no man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him." (John 6:44). In Romans 1, on three separate occasions, it says that God has given homosexuals up to uncleanness (v. 24), vile affections (v.26) , and to a reprobate mind (v. 28). If he has given them up to these things, he is not simultaneously drawing them to Christ. These verses are not incongruous, because if Christ died for them, the Holy Spirit will surely call them, God will in fact draw them, they will leave off that uncleanness, vile affections and reprobate mind, and the inevitable result will be that they will inherit heaven and not hell.”