When Fred Phelps Dies, Let’s Do Nothing

Apparently there is talk of some turnabout-is-fair-play picketing of Fred Phelps’ funeral when he finally dies. I think that’s a pretty ridiculous idea on its face. What would be the point? “That’ll show ‘em?” He’ll be dead, guys. And if he was looking down (or up) on the whole proceeding, can you imagine anything that would please him more than to see a throng of angry protestors at his funeral?

There’s another idea being floated that, yes, the funeral should be picketed, but “with love,” with a healing kind of demonstration in which Phelps would even be forgiven.

Look, doing any kind of pro-love and pro-forgiveness demonstration is well-intended, unlike the first option, which is just spite and emulating the very thing you’d be protesting. I get it; I applaud the motivation and the capacity for forgiveness, but in my opinion it’s still misguided.

Let’s take a step back. What is it about the Westboro Baptist Church that stirs such strong feelings? Obviously, it’s their brashly hateful message, delivered with an intention to hurt at extremely vulnerable moments. It’s how they’ve become among the U.S.’s worst cultural eyesores.

But this is also where they derive their power. There’s only a handful of them, to begin with. They pick their moments strategically to garner the most attention and strike at the sorest point. It’s despicable. But then what do we do? (By “we” I mean the media and its audience.) We give them exactly what they want: attention.

Phelps and his band want us to be angry at them, they want us to be hurt, they want us to broadcast their protests, to debate what they should and should not be allowed to do, to attempt to shut them down, and to talk about them as though they are representative of a larger force. They want us, very much, to yell back.

We always, always oblige. And as such, a small handful of hateful, angry, bigoted jerks become more influential and more impactful than they could ever deserve — or hope — to be. You’re welcome, WBC!

So now the head monster is about to shuffle off this mortal coil, and look what people are thinking of doing: choosing a vulnerable moment for both a family and a subculture to strike a PR blow for its own POV. Sounds familiar. And in doing so, even if such a demonstration were entirely made up of love and flowers and forgiveness, all it would do is give WBC and Phelps’ “genre” of expression more attention, more power. WBC’s surviving members would be well teed-up to respond, as we all wait breathlessly for the ascendance of whoever the next bigot is to take Fred Phelps place at its head. And the cycle continues. (Look, I’m doing it right now with this blog post. Dammit, Phelps, you are good!)

You know what we should do when the monster finally drops? Nothing. Ignore it. Let him go. Ignore anything the Westboro Baptist Church does in the aftermath, excepting, of course, any expressions of contrition from the organization or any of its members. Some folks are talking about donating to LGBT causes in the church’s name, and that’s fine, and perhaps the best way to have a real-world impact toward healing the damage he has done and the feeling he’s scarred in that community.

Here’s another thing you could do: Be kind and loving and forgiving to people in your own life as much as you can. Fred Phelps doesn’t have to have anything to do with that. While you’re at it, send a lot of love and compassion to Nate Phelps and the other former church members who left, escaped, or were kicked out. Just do that because it makes things better for everyone, not out of hatred for someone else.

But as for public expressions, the best way to counter the Westboro Baptist Church and its message is to do nothing at all. We made Fred Phelps and his church the cultural force that they are. The best revenge against them would be to let them wither from our collective neglect. That’s our chance at redemption.

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo. He is the author of a short (and cheap!) Kindle book on the atheist political movement, Under the Stained Glass Ceiling: Atheists' Precarious Place in Modern American Politics.


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