A Nate Phelps Profile

There’s a profile of Nate Phelps in the Telegraph, much of which is probably familiar to many of you. But there are a few things in there I didn’t know. I knew that his father Fred had done some civil rights work in the 50s and 60s, and I assumed he’d just become a terrible person since then. Turns out he was a terrible person all along:

Twelve years later he graduated with a law degree from a university in Kansas and fought various civil rights suits in the Sixties. According to local reports, he gained a reputation as a sharp, competent attorney “whose eloquent and fiery orations mesmerised juries”. Two decades later, he received awards from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government and a local branch of the human rights group the NAACP.

But Nate Phelps says the perception in some circles that his father was once this champion of civil rights, railing against discrimination, is laughable. “We would all call black people ‘DNs’ at home. It stood for Dumb N—— and was our private language,” he says. “We thought it was clever to call them that in front of them. He was deeply prejudiced, and he believed the Bible said they were cursed.”

Nate says Fred Phelps saw an opportunity with the passing of the Civil Rights Act to cash in. “There was a lot of money, and a lot of opportunity,” he says. “And suddenly my father was the man to go to.”

Most of the members of the family are lawyers, which is how they survive financially. The whole thing should be read, but it’s got some pretty horrifying descriptions of the abuse Nate suffered. Which leads to this question:

Does Nate still harbour any affection at all for his father or the family he left behind? “That’s a tough one,” he says. “It’s hard to have any affection for a guy who screams at you with all that vitriol and hatred. I still have a deep animosity toward my father and I don’t know if it ever will – or should – go away.”

I don’t think it should.

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  • Michael Heath

    The whole article is highly recommended.

    From the article Ed cites:

    Fred [Phelps] always had a tendency towards hyperbole and outlandish rhetoric, Nate [Phelps] says. He’s always spoken out against homosexuality. In fact, growing up, Nate was told there was a special place in hell reserved for gay people, that it was a sin from which they couldn’t recover. “That said, I saw no hint that it would turn into some sort of campaign.” He says he has no doubt that members of his dad’s church sit around and come up with these odious sound bites that are provocative and outrageous because it works. It gets people’s attention. “What’s remarkable,” says Nate, “is that they can maintain it with such longevity and not let the hatred eat away at their soul.”

    I’m confident Nate Phelps is wrong here. I suspect the hatred practiced by his fellow family members has had significant consequences to their mental health. Perhaps Mr. Phelps is marveling at human resiliency from a relative perspective, where some are able to remain partly immune to the type of abuse Fred Phelps and other fundies inflict on their families.

    More from the article:

    In 1995, [Nate Phelps’] second child, Tyler, then aged seven, asked him about hell [sic], and how long people stayed there. “Forever, I told him, and he burst into tears. He was terrified.” Nate never took his children to church again, and eventually renounced Christianity altogether.

    It continues to be my personal observation that the goodly nature of the biblical god celebrated by believers which in no way reconciles to the near-infinite evil also promised by this same god is the single most avoided topic by Hell-believing devout Christians who celebrate the nature of their god. I’m can’t think of a close second.

    And more:

    The first time Nate spoke in public at an atheist convention in Atlanta he got three standing ovations. He was sharing a platform that day with Richard Dawkins, and at the end of his talk, when it came to questions from the audience, Dawkins was the first to ask one. “He wanted to know why my old man wasn’t in jail,” Nate says. “From his perspective, what I’d been through was unacceptable. As bright as he [Dawkins] is, I don’t think he understood the power of religion here in America; that the law turns a blind eye to a lot of this really insane stuff.

    After we secure the equal protection of rights for gays and their families, we’ll continue to have more fights for equality and protecting others’ liberty rights. One we can expect is the right of children to not be abused by their parents and other authority figures. Not just physical abuse where we’ve come aways, but also the mental abuse that accompanies religious indoctrination. That’s a fight we’ve barely started.

  • MikeMa

    The fight for equal rights will never end. In the 40 years since Loving, many blacks join the other bigots who are virulently against gay rights. These are mostly the same bigots who fought against their rights. If the stark reality of that injustice has faded after so short a time, the battle must continue.

  • Michael Heath

    MikeMa writes:

    The fight for equal rights will never end.

    From my perspective the fight for women’s equal rights has regressed in some areas by decades.

  • tbp1

    I had known that many of the clan are lawyers, but I find it hard to believe that 1) any sane person would hire one of them to do legal work, and 2) that they have any time left over from running all over the country harassing people to actually practice law.

  • D. C. Sessions

    I find it hard to believe that ,,, they have any time left over from running all over the country harassing people to actually practice law.

    Does it help when you consider that part of the harassment thing is provocation: getting people to do things that are actionable, then suing them?

  • tbp1

    @#5. I hadn’t, but it would be a brilliant, if evil, strategy. Have they actually successfully done this and made money off it? I really, really hope not.

  • D. C. Sessions

    No cites, but IIRC they have successfully pulled it more than once.

  • sezme

    The first time Nate spoke in public at an atheist convention in Atlanta he got three standing ovations.

    I was at that meeting. There was not a dry eye in the house. I think Dawkins’ question was excellent and to this day I do not understand why the family elders are not in the Big House on a permanent basis.

  • tynk


    I still can not forget the blatant hypocrisy from a woman interviewed by the Daily show in 2010 after New Jersey rejected a same sex marriage bill.

    “In this land of America where we live as Americans, I myself being a female and being an african american woman… my forefathers did not have a right to vote, didn’t have a right to a say in life, but now I have a right we have the voice, and I am so thankful today that the same sex [marriage bill] was rejected.”

    The statement starts at 4:23