People for the American Way researcher Peter Montgomery reacted to the death of Fred Phelps by documenting how the preacher had failed. Showing up at funerals with "God Hates Fags" signs, wrote Montgomery, moved many people to "view anti-gay bigotry as broadly un-American." Phelps made it easy.
"Phelps did allow other anti-gay leaders to posture that he was the face of hatred, not them," wrote Montgomery. "But the substance of their message to gay people is similar: repent or be damned – it’s just that Phelps framed it as 'God hates fags' while people like Bryan Fischer say God loves them and wants them to abandon their demonic lifestyle."
So I called Fischer, director of issues analysis at the American Family Foundation and a frequently quoted (and denounced) social conservative, to ask what he thought of the argument. Fischer surprised me by remembering the time Phelps had protested him.
"He actually picketed my church in 2003," said Fischer. "I always thought that proved God had a sense of humor. I'm often—and others in the pro-family community—linked to him in guilt by association. But the reason he picketed my church is that, at that time, I was on the Parks and Recreation Commission. We had put up a monument to the Ten Commandments. He said, if you have your God-oriented monument in your park, I should have my monument."
Phelps was ready with a design that would never, ever be approved. "He had one that celebrated the death of Matthew Shepard, and marked the day he descended into hell. Of course, just assuming for the sake of argument that people go to hell—which I do believe—that's not something anyone would ever celebrate. We're not going to put up a monument to memorialize that. I was on the Boise Parks and Rec Commission, and I led the effort to reject his proposal. It was, of course, rejected 12–0. The point I made is that—look, I don't believe homosexuality should be normalized, and I will fight with every fiber of my being to resist that. But I will also resist anybody who says God hates homosexuals, because that's not true."
The protest went ahead, which was probably Phelps' intention all along. Fischer never interacted with the crowd. "They were pretty experienced by that time in recognizing private property boundaries, realizing they could be arrested," said Fischer. "Jesus tells us to love our enemies, so I arranged for people in our church to get donuts from Krispie Kreme and hot coffee and bring it to them. Of course, they didn't touch any of it."
After that, it was easy to ignore Phelps. "I think he was profoundly wrong about two things," said Fischer. "He was wrong when he said that God hates homosexuals. God does not hate homosexuals. He loves them. He loves them enough to tell them the truth about their lifestyle. He loves them enough to send his son to die on the cross so they could change. So Fred Phelps was just wrong about that. As you and I are speaking, he's answering before the throne of God for how badly he talked to homosexuals. He believed it was impossible for homosexuals to change. We know that's an unbiblical view." Fischer quoted Paul's advice to sinners 1 Corinthians, from memory.
Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
"It's not like he singles out homosexuals," said Fischer. "If you're a sinner, if you're a businessman, you can't get into heaven unless you're sanctified by the blood of Christ. So I had those profound disagreements with his message. My position has always been the same. God loves homosexuals and wants them to change."
Fischer was guardedly optimistic about how this discussion would change, post-Phelps. "I don't know anybody who approved of anything Fred Phelps did, not even in the pro-family community," he said. "There may be a little bit of relief if he's gone from the scene and nobody there at his church picks up his message, because that message of hate may disappear and the true message of the Gospel can be proclaimed without all of that chaff in the air. He's been kind of a handy emblem, a punching bag. Now that they don't have Fred Phelps to kick around, who are they going to try to slide in his slot? I suspect there'll be some effort to pick someone in the pro-family community and try to do that. I suspect some people will choose me."