I first became aware of Fred Phelps during his attempts to get a monument placed in Central Park at Casper, Wyoming. The monument would have been a dedicated to the late Matthew Shepard, the native son of Casper beaten to death for being gay. The monument would have declared Shepard to be burning in hell.
The proposal left the city in a bind. The park was public, but had held a Ten Commandments monument donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles since the sixties. The city could not declare that the park was off limits to private religious groups with that on display.
As I read up on the case, it occurred to me that Phelps was making a stronger argument for secularism than the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation ever could. All Phelps wanted to do was put up a monument that prominently displayed a few Bible verses and draw some obvious conclusions from them – conclusions that many people in the area still accepted even if they wouldn’t give voice to them. And yet, the city council was practically squirming with discomfort and trying everything to shut down the idea.
Since then I’ve seen Fred Clark use Phelps to prove that Christians are not being persecuted in America. Kevin Miller uses Phelps to make a point against the doctrine of hell in his documentary Hellbound. On the whole, the Phelps clan has been a force for liberalizing Christianity in America.
Let us remember Fred Phelps for that the inadvertent good he did. If he hadn’t existed, we’d have been forced to invent him.