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March 20th, 2014
07:12 PM ET

Should we celebrate Fred Phelps' death?

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

(CNN) - He was a preacher best known for his virulent anti-gay rhetoric, the force behind placards that read “God Hates Fags.” He taught that natural disasters and man-made horrors like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting were God’s punishment for acceptance of homosexuality.

He believed gays and lesbians should be put to death.

On Thursday, the world learned that Fred Phelps, founding pastor of the small but infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, was dead.

The news unleashed a firestorm of online chatter. In less than an hour after CNN posted an article announcing his death, more than 3,000 readers had weighed in with comments. By the end of the business day, that number exceeded 11,000.

Nearly as many readers “liked” a comment from humm61: “To paraphrase a famous actress, ‘My mother said to only say nice things about the dead. He's dead. How nice.’”

Mixed in were those who wanted to picket – or party – at Phelps’ funeral. Some relished the idea of him rotting in hell. Plenty others were horrified by the hatred and condemned the celebration.

The sometimes heated back-and-forth between readers at CNN and elsewhere got us thinking: What is the appropriate response to Phelps’ death? Is it right to damn him to eternal suffering, a dark wish he extended to plenty of others?

We reached out to several advocates for those who may have taken Phelps’ message most personally - Christians who are also gay - to see what they thought.

“The words and actions of Fred Phelps have hurt countless people. As a Christian, I’m angry about that, and I’m angry about how he tarnished the reputation of the faith I love so much,” Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network, said in an e-mail message.

“But as a Christian, I also believe in showing love to my enemies and treating people with grace even when they don’t deserve it,” he said. “I pray for his soul and his family just as I pray for those he harmed. It’s easy for me to love someone who treats me kindly. It’s hard for me to love Fred Phelps. To me, that’s the whole point of grace.”

That Phelps is gone isn’t cause for joy for Jim Smith, either.

“There is a sadness as deep as the Grand Canyon over the harm that he has unleashed in our country, a sadness that can’t be quantified. But that still doesn’t mean I delight in his death,” said Smith, the associate director of Dignity USA, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ Catholics. “I’d delight in the end of the Westboro [Baptist Church] mission.”

But, Smith added, the “obsession with sexual orientation” isn’t Westboro’s alone. Plenty of other houses of worship and institutions fail to teach universal acceptance.

One need not specifically work on behalf of the LGBTQ community to see this broader point. Phelps was one small, albeit persistent and radical, voice in a larger chorus.

“A Christian can be glad that Fred Phelps will no longer be distorting the gospel into little spectacles of hate. But then he’s hardly been the only one doing that,” Mark D. Jordan, a professor of religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in an e-mail message. “As hate-mongers go, he was not particularly dangerous.”

Phelps “was a phantom of the media: he loved a TV camera – and the TV cameras too often loved him,” said Jordan, a leading expert on Christian ethics and sexuality.

“If we’re serious about stopping Christian persecution aimed at sex or gender, we’ll pay less attention to televised spectacles and more to the collusion of churches with bureaucracies of governmental power.”

Rejoicing in Phelps' death, or the loss of any soul, isn't the Christian way, Jordan added.

"If some Christians want to celebrate the death of Fred Phelps, I hope it's because they think he has been released from bodily suffering and is going home to God," he said.

"To rejoice because you hope that he's already in hellfire is to do exactly what he did to his enemies."

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Christianity • Discrimination • Gay rights • Homosexuality • Westboro Bapitst Church

soundoff (296 Responses)
  1. averagejoe7six

    No one's death should be 'celebrated'. We all get our time, no need to get all 'Na-naan-na-naan-na' on people just because you disagreed with them while they were alive.

    Besides, the dead leave the living behind. People should respect his family/friend's pain at this time.

    March 21, 2014 at 10:25 am |
    • unsername1

      it isn't just about agreeing or disagreeing with him what he did; his death deserves a round of applause, all because he was a cruel person, who enjoyed in adding grief to people's life; I am sure you would not use the same argument for Hitler or Osama bin Laden!!

      March 21, 2014 at 10:50 am |
    • velesot365

      Every day this man lived was one day too long.

      March 24, 2014 at 5:11 pm |
      • kermit4jc

        And I see many people are just as hypocritcal.....they have lowered themselves to to the same as Phelps...hatred.....what then makes You any different people????

        March 24, 2014 at 5:17 pm |
        • velesot365

          You see I never did anything to harm others. Every day this man breathed he was harming others. My hate is for him alone and for the pain he caused so many. There is a big difference between this corpse and those of us who despise him.

          March 24, 2014 at 5:20 pm |
        • kermit4jc

          yes..and where did that harm come from? hatred of others....so you hate only him..still its hypocricy....if yuo wanna celebrate his death as a "good " thing cause "the world got rid of a hater" then how about celebrating your death as the "world ridding yet another hater?" see the hypocricy? and what about HIS family....they love him as well and they grieve....what does it benefit to do to them what they had done to someone else? nothing....except breed hatred in you....

          March 24, 2014 at 5:25 pm |
        • velesot365

          His hatred hurt no one. It was how he chose to act. I truly hate some people but I don't act on that hate. Hate in and of itself doesn't harm people. Actions harm people plain and simple.

          March 24, 2014 at 5:28 pm |
        • kermit4jc

          then why not hate the DEEDS..instead of the man???? and actions come as a result of hatred....

          March 24, 2014 at 5:30 pm |
  2. robt55

    And the vitriol spewed by posters here make them different from Phelps exactly how? As has always been the case – everyone rationalizes their own behavior based on personal bias.

    If the father of one of the dead military members which Phelps and his group protested advises to let him go unmentioned – I'm thinking those who never met him just might be able to muster the same class. Then again; apparently not.

    March 21, 2014 at 9:45 am |
  3. mrlagg

    The devil pours honey into his evil ways, making evil things look so attractive. If he can't get gay people because of their gay behavior, he'll surely settle for snagging them with their need for revenge.

    March 21, 2014 at 9:20 am |
    • joey3467

      Ok Fred Jr.

      March 21, 2014 at 9:35 am |
    • LinCA

      @mrlagg

      The devil? Really? Do you also still believe there are monsters under your bed? Still believe in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny? Don't you think it's time to grow up a little and shed those infantile beliefs?

      March 21, 2014 at 10:09 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Now that is the thinking of a cult member.

      March 21, 2014 at 11:44 am |
  4. crittermom2

    I don't believe in celebrating any death, whether it be Phelps, Bin Laden, etc. I'll admit to a sigh of relief that his horrible voice has been silenced.

    March 21, 2014 at 8:59 am |
  5. ascpgh

    Phelps must've though he'd live forever because he couldn't see his own susceptibility at this moment. He tried to control more than what was his to ordain and told people their opinions were wrong without the standing to have influence over anyone.

    Once he goes to the light he's going to find the only portal to open has a very, very hot doorknob.

    March 21, 2014 at 8:42 am |
    • fintronics

      Don't most christians think they're going to live forever??

      March 25, 2014 at 3:54 pm |
  6. revrickm

    Hate kills, and I believe it's what finally killed Phelps. Hate is like a cancer and one can't live comfortably when consumed by so much of it. He was ignorant of it, but hate ate him alive from the inside of his tormented conscience, and he spread that hate to others within his twisted sphere of influence. I hope his tortured soul is finally at peace, if indeed he even had a soul.

    March 21, 2014 at 8:29 am |
  7. Theo Phileo

    To hate a man for his hatred is to share in his sin.

    Christians are required to preach against sin, but we are to "speak the truth in love." Some people will be offended simply because they don't like being told they are wrong, but that's not hate. There's a HUGE difference between preaching truth, and preaching hate. Unfortunately, Phelps preached hate.

    March 21, 2014 at 8:26 am |
    • sam stone

      Corn Pone here is a fine example of why preachers should be ridiculed whenever they attempt to preach to non believers.

      March 21, 2014 at 10:22 am |
      • Theo Phileo

        I hope you don't teach your children to ridicule those whom they disagree with. If you value our freedom of speech so little, then why don't you move to North Korea?

        March 21, 2014 at 11:03 am |
        • QuestionsEverything

          @Theo

          Freedom of Speech means that a person has a right to say what they wish, and that the government cannot censor their speech. This does not mean that said person is free from derision for what they said.

          March 21, 2014 at 12:10 pm |
        • joey3467

          Yep, if you say something stupid in public you should expect to be called on it. If you don't like that then don't open your mouth and say something stupid.

          March 21, 2014 at 2:03 pm |
    • the0g0to0the0t

      To hate is to have an attachment to the object of your hate. Hate and love are not opposites. The opposite of both is apathy.

      Am I glad he is dead? No, but I don't weep at his passing.

      March 21, 2014 at 9:11 pm |
    • fintronics

      @philo.......... "There's a HUGE difference between preaching truth, and preaching hate"

      Truth requires evidence of which there is none for any gods...

      March 25, 2014 at 3:57 pm |
  8. Doc Vestibule

    I only hope that his peculiar, incestuous, hate mongering Church dies with him.

    March 21, 2014 at 8:19 am |
  9. saggyroy

    "A Christian can be glad that Fred Phelps will no longer be distorting the gospel into little spectacles of hate." Distorting? This is exactly what scripture allows people to do. All the hate filled verses of the OT, and Jesus said he didn't come to change those laws not one bit. Fred was a true Christian.

    March 21, 2014 at 6:05 am |
    • TruthPrevails1

      That he was and as is evident from other posters on this blog, there are many who share his opinions, just not to the same extreme. Fortunately education is a terrific cure for religion.
      No longer can his voice be heard, his presence won't be missed...may his family find peace at this time.

      March 21, 2014 at 7:18 am |
      • jenwsiegel

        "education is a terrific cure for religion" <– what an amazing statement!! Brilliant insight!

        I just hope that Phelps rots in the worst type of hell he could have imagined.

        March 21, 2014 at 8:47 am |
        • Theo Phileo

          "I just hope that Phelps rots in the worst type of hell he could have imagined."
          -----------
          And having that kind of an att.itude makes you just as hateful as he was.

          March 21, 2014 at 9:09 am |
    • mrlagg

      You're wrong. You can hate the sin but love the sinner. Jesus called people to repentance, but he never judged them. Judgment is reserved for later, and it is not a task given to us.

      It seems to me that you and Phelps had at least one thing in common. You don't know how to separate the sin from the sinner.

      March 21, 2014 at 9:23 am |
      • joey3467

        Well I love the believer but hate the belief.

        March 21, 2014 at 10:44 am |
  10. Dalahäst

    Anyone see Red State?

    March 21, 2014 at 12:20 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      "What do you think that cost?"

      "In money or in common sense?"

      LOL

      March 21, 2014 at 12:52 am |
  11. Blessed are the Cheesemakers

    Wishing harm on your worst enemies harms you more than them.

    March 20, 2014 at 10:37 pm |
    • velesot365

      Wishing harm on someone doesn't actually harm anyone.

      March 24, 2014 at 5:14 pm |
  12. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    Fred Phelps is dust.

    Will he be mourned? Not by very many I suspect.

    Should we dance on his grave? No.

    Let's let him go and never speak of him again.

    March 20, 2014 at 9:36 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Exactly.

      March 21, 2014 at 7:00 am |
  13. Vic

    Romans 12:17,18
    "17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men." (NASB)

    1 Peter 3:9
    "9 not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing." (NASB)

    May God bless and have mercy on us all.

    March 20, 2014 at 9:00 pm |
    • observer

      Vic

      Why should God bless a lowlife like Phelps who made the world worse and embarrassed Christians? Why shouldn't God be more concerned for the people he hurt?

      March 20, 2014 at 9:06 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Hey Vic,
      No one needs a 2000 year old set of books to tell them how to behave in 2014.
      The fact is, Phelps used religion to justify his views. American Fundamentalism is full if ignorant idiots.

      March 20, 2014 at 9:29 pm |
      • mrlagg

        You appear to use your animal instincts to justify your views. Who is worse?

        March 21, 2014 at 9:27 am |
        • joey3467

          Phelps is worse in a landslide.

          March 21, 2014 at 10:45 am |
        • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

          Evolutionary morality over the Bible any day.

          March 21, 2014 at 11:41 am |
    • ssq41

      Good post for the Christians here, Vic...and you should post it on all Christian blogs elsewhere...it'd be nice if Christians actually knew and followed their own scripture.

      March 20, 2014 at 9:44 pm |
    • sam stone

      It is a sign of your sycophantry that you feel we all need mercy

      March 20, 2014 at 10:00 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Vic,

      I didn't think the Bible comes from god but it does have some good things to say ... and these verses are examples.

      March 20, 2014 at 10:39 pm |
  14. Reality

    Where is his grave? It needs to be spat upon 24/7.

    March 20, 2014 at 8:49 pm |
  15. rosereads

    As a non-Christian and someone who would surely have caught his ire, I do not celebrate this death. I will not dance on his grave or any such thing, I will however pray that he finds the peace he lacked in his life.

    March 20, 2014 at 8:27 pm |
    • observer

      rosereads,

      Why are you praying for this lowlife and not all the people he hurt?

      March 20, 2014 at 8:31 pm |
      • rosereads

        I didn't say that I wasn't praying for them or that I hadn't. Trouble souls need prayers just as people who have been wounded do.

        March 20, 2014 at 9:06 pm |
        • observer

          rosereads

          "Trouble souls need prayers just as people who have been wounded do."

          Your priorities are wacky.

          March 20, 2014 at 9:15 pm |
        • realbuckyball

          Dead is dead.
          There is no mechanism for post-mortem consciousness. For consciousness, one needs a functioning memory, and sensory input. With no live brain, they are not possible. You know it.

          March 20, 2014 at 9:31 pm |
        • sam stone

          There is no mechanism for post mortem consciousness, but you feel as if a thing such as a soul exists? Is that not contradictory?

          March 20, 2014 at 10:03 pm |
        • realbuckyball

          I don't think I ever claimed a "soul" exists.

          March 20, 2014 at 10:20 pm |
        • sam stone

          my bad

          March 21, 2014 at 5:55 am |
  16. bostontola

    Who?

    March 20, 2014 at 8:27 pm |
  17. dgregoryburns

    Great post! I am interested in what your opinion of mine would be. It is in a similar vien but not exactely the same approach. Here is the link. Let me know what your thoughts are:
    http://www.darianburns.com/2014/03/20/fred-phelps-2/

    March 20, 2014 at 8:26 pm |
    • MidwestKen

      This spam would work better if you actually replied to someone. just sayin.

      March 20, 2014 at 9:16 pm |
      • dgregoryburns

        It wasn't span but I am interested about the not responding comment because I Always try to do that. This is the first comment I have seen from you. Is there a link?

        March 20, 2014 at 9:18 pm |
        • MidwestKen

          Not sure I understand, what response comment are talking about?

          My point was that you say "Great Post", but in reference to whom? The author of the article?

          March 20, 2014 at 9:34 pm |
        • MidwestKen

          Oh... you thought I was complaining about you not responding... no, your post looked like a canned auto posting that was supposed to be a reply to another post.

          March 20, 2014 at 9:36 pm |
  18. Alias

    The appropriate question would be:
    Should people who shared Fred's faith celebrate his death?

    I'm going to open a bottle of wine in tribute of this world being a better place. I think it is unfortunate he lived at all.

    March 20, 2014 at 8:00 pm |
  19. candiduscorvus

    In a word: Yes.

    March 20, 2014 at 7:35 pm |
  20. zendraxus

    No ...forget this guy and move on.

    March 20, 2014 at 7:18 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.