Fred Phelps, the Prophet Who Turned Into a Clown

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 20 2014 12:39 PM

Fred Phelps, the Prophet Who Turned Into a Clown

Fred Phelps, the longtime leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, is dead. He'd been ailing for days, giving his critics—a group that includes most of humanity—plenty of time to write obits and judge whether he was a tragic figure or an accidental gay rights hero.

We can agree on this: He was hilariously stupid, and stupid people provide good copy. For a generation, ever since his flamboyant "God Hates Fags" signs went viral (before there was even a modern Internet for things to go viral on), journalists would explore Phelps' sad little world and bait him. Michael Moore, after Roger and Me but before the Oscar, set the standard for Phelps-trolling by hiring a "sodom-mobile" to trail him around.

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The video now looks quaint. Moore reported it in the years before Lawrence v. Texas, when states still could enforce sodomy laws, and the sodom-mobile went on a road trip to find victims. Decorated with signs like "US out of My Anus" and "Sodomy on Board," the bus eventually made it to Topeka, where Phelps himself was finishing an interview about Matthew Shepard's murder and his decision to protest the funeral.

"Every fag group in the country was using that boy," said Phelps. "He's in hell now."

Phelps never figured out what to do with the media. They'd dutifully write up his press releases and talk to the politicians who (successfully) passed a ban on protests of military funerals. But when they encounterd the church itself, its arguments were so arcane and bigoted that its members inevitably came off as buffoons. Louie Theroux figured this out when he visited the compound for a BBC special.*

Phelps retreated from the spotlight, but the next generation of his family changed up the media strategy. They realized how brittle they looked and how easily people could score points on them. So they made fun of themselves, with parody songs like "God Hates the World," rewriting pop culture as a twisted endorsement of the church's theory that God would wreak judgment on those who tolerated sodomy.

This generation of Phelpses and fellow travelers is divided, and a few media outlets were fooled last week when a faction that's turned against them (but captured an official-looking Twitter account) claimed that the church would protest Fred Phelps' own funeral. Still, the church will endure, growing more desparate for media attention, in a country that long ago stopped seeing them as threatening as started recognizing them as clowns.

*Correction, March 20, 2014: This post originally misspelled Louis Theroux's last name.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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