Fred Phelps was the founder and head reverend of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) which became known for their protests of military funerals in Kansas starting in June 2005. His congregates, including many children, would carry signs that read, “God Hates Fags,” and other obscenities that condemned the acceptance of homosexuality. According to Monster Culture by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, prejudice is a monstrous concept and his theses supports the claim that prejudice is a systematic phenomenon that dwells amongst people and can appear in many forms. Fred Phelps and the WBC practice a toxic type of prejudice that, when taken to its extremes, can have consequences ranging from violent altercations to all-out war.
The media covered multiple stories of the church, often due to the children who were spreading hate with their signs and statements. ABC News did a special report in which they spent time with members of the church, demonstrating public interest in the creation of the monster who started it, Fred Phelps. Phelps was very public with his opinions that homosexuality was the reason the United States was being punished with disasters such as war and terrorism; God was punishing America for accepting gays.
As with any religious extremist, Phelps attracted a following who did agree with what he was preaching. There are countless videos on YouTube of WBC members protesting and getting in arguments with others who disagree. The WBC members are often called “Hatemongers” and this has led to conflict anywhere they chose to protest, which often included military funerals. This nickname was taken in by the church when a filmmaker who started out to make a documentary about the WBC ended up joining. The members have protested the military funerals claiming the service member died as another form of punishment to America.
Cohen’s first thesis claims “The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body” and when Phelps’ attitude and the WBC are examined, it is clear that the monster is created at a cultural movement and exacerbated by fear. Phelps hates homosexuals because he fears God. The fear of God invoked his prejudice and fueled his monstrous flame that gave light to the Westboro Baptist Church. Though WBC does not tend to be violent, there is historical evidence and literary references that make it clear how prejudice can lead to extreme behavior. The WBC, under Phelps’ direction, took to the internet with hate websites, music, and propaganda all spreading their message.
The reason this behavior can be seen as monstrous and toxic is supported in film and television, depicted as horrific, violent acts in the name of God and an extreme interpretation of it. Filmmaker Kevin Smith made a film in 2011 called Red State which featured a preacher loosely based on Phelps who led a violent church who also sought out to punish homosexuals. In the film, three teenagers are lured-in by a woman one of them met online who agreed to have sex with them. When they get to the address, they meet this version of the monstrous reverend and are tortured and ultimately sacrificed or killed. The WBC’s clear influence on Smith demonstrated what a creative mind could do with an evil ideology such as theirs.
At a Kansas City screening of the film, Smith was slated to have a debate with some members of the church, however they all left before the movie ended. In the crowd were two of Fred Phelps’ grandchildren who agreed to come up and talk with Smith on stage.
They referred to themselves as “Black Sheep” and the female was celebrating two years away from the church. The male made sure to explain that he now sees the evil in what he did. These were the children who were holding the signs. They had grown up and saw the cruelty in their grandfathers practices. The film was able to provide a forum for Smith and the two estranged Phelps’ to discuss the realities of how that cult-like lifestyle led to them having to adjust to living independent of their church and their large families. “I saw a lot of the dark side,” Phelps’ grandson explains.
His granddaughter who left mentioned how she learned to question Fred because of his contradicting interpretations of the Bible. She said she began to question how God could hate gays when the Bible only talks of love.
As of 2015, gay marriage has been completely legalized across the U.S. This has raised controversy among some and has even led to protests and civil disputes. That same year, Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk, refused to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple on what she claimed was “God’s Authority.” Davis said that it was a “heaven or hell” issue for her and that she was willing to fight for her beliefs. Radical Christian prejudices towards someone’s personal preferences are not limited to sexuality. There are tons of examples in the news of people around the world taking stands from protesting to killing, in the name of their religion. Wars are fought for this same type of religious resistance against others. Fred Phelps is one example of how an average man can become a monster because of his radical belief in God.
Another parallel can be drawn to the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel which was first published in 1986. The show highlights the horrendous effects of an extreme theocratic government. Homosexuals and other LGBTQ are classified “gender traders” and most often sentenced to hanging.
If monsters such as Fred Phelps got their way, The Handmaid’s Tale would become a real possibility. The government leaders in the show reference how society’s sins such as homosexuality, lust, and abortion were the reason God was punishing America. The punishment in the show is wide-spread infertility and this is used as justification for enslaving the remaining fertile women. Using the general sins of people as a whole to justify “punishments” sent by God was precisely Fred Phelps’ argument whenever his cruel point of view was questioned. Phelps would claim terrorism was a result of accepting homosexuals into society.
Cohen’s fifth theory is that the monster “Polices the Borders of the Possible.” In the thesis, Cohen talks about how this kind of monster could be used to justify policing “interracial sexual mingling.” Phelps would likely argue that homosexuality as a concept was the monster, fitting with the description Cohen gives. “The monster is transgressive, too sexual, perversely erotic, a lawbreaker, and all it embodies must be exiled or destroyed.”
He became a monster fighting what he believed to be a monster. This type of paradox is what makes Fred Phelps and other extreme religious figures so monstrous because they do not see the flaw in their beliefs and they can rise from any background to be as frighteningly disturbing as Phelps or even gain a mass following and begin committing genocidal acts.
Fred Phelps was a monster who has parallels both in the real world and in pop culture because the hatred that he exhibited is, as Cohen said, “Pure culture.” Anyone can be this monster, which means it will continue to return in society. Religion is interpreted differently by everyone and, unfortunately, people will continue to use their religion to justify horrific actions and viewpoints.
Cohen, Jeffrey, J. Monster Culture. (Seven Theses) Used to compare monstrosity to Cohen’s definition. http://www.englishwithtuttle.com/uploads/3/0/2/6/30266519/cohen_monster_culture__seven_theses__3-20.pdf
Brouwer, Daniel C., and Aaron Hess. “Making Sense of ‘God Hates Fags’ and ‘Thank God for 9/11’: A Thematic Analysis of Milbloggers’ Responses to Reverend Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 71, no. 1, Jan. 2007, pp. 69–90. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10570310701215388.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Novel, 1986. TV Series, Hulu, 2016. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5834204/
Smith, Kevin. Red State (Film) 2011. Loosely inspired by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0873886/?ref_=nv_sr_1