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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. AtheistSteve

    He came, stank up the place and left. Good riddance.

    March 22, 2014 at 5:43 am |
  2. lilspenny

    It's interesting that he spent a lifetime protesting military funerals and gay hangouts. But he dies knowing that in the last years of his life the ban on gays in the military was totally lifted, and gays were allowed to leave secretive gay hangouts and participate in regular society. If anything, his actions alienated people from the anti-gay movement and may have even helped the gay rights cause. Dying with this knowledge has to be Hell to him.

    March 22, 2014 at 2:49 am |
  3. Sandra

    As much as I despised Fred Phelps, and what he and his cult did and stood for, I won't celebrate his death. But neither shall I mourn, as he was an evil, vile human being, spreading hatred, bigotry and ignorance where ever he and his cult went.

    I shall breath a sigh of relief that one hate-filled person, who incited others to perform hateful acts is gone.

    March 22, 2014 at 2:31 am |
  4. uraveragejane

    "But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you...For if you love those who love you what credit is that to you?...Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."

    March 22, 2014 at 1:08 am |
    • observer

      Yes, that is bad to think about. Maybe God was merciful to that lowlife.

      March 22, 2014 at 2:10 am |
    • deecee10000

      What you should be scared about is the fact that he actually believed what your "bible" says about gay people. The pope still teaches what his church's "catechism" teaches, that being gay is a "disorder" even though the vast majority of mental health professionals disagree with that teaching. They still teach that being gay is worthy of he77!

      March 22, 2014 at 2:24 am |
  5. capricornsays

    I don't feel that the death of anyone should be celebrated. But, as Phelps own beliefs state, "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you." It's the Golden Rule. So if Phelps had such a desire to protest funerals, isn't it safe to say he wanted his protested as well? And do you give a man like that what he wants?

    March 21, 2014 at 9:17 pm |
    • hoeech

      Amen!

      March 22, 2014 at 2:08 am |
  6. His Panic

    Attending, going to, being in or being a member of a church, even leading a church IS NOT proof guarantee of Real Trust in God and in Jesus Christ God's Only Son.

    March 21, 2014 at 8:12 pm |
    • Madtown

      Does it ever strike you as odd, that an omnipotent God would have only 1 son? Couldn't he have as many as he wanted?

      March 21, 2014 at 8:13 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      The term "son of god" applied to many in Hebrew culture. It didn't mean they were equivalent to Yahweh. In fact even other divine beings were not considered equivalent to Yahweh, (and there were many).The idea that a Jew would claim or think someone was equivalent to Yahweh is preposterous. The Christian cult members added that later, and then argued over it for centuries in the gospels. Paul says nothing about a "trinity". Neither did Jesus.

      maybe some day you will actually take a class and learn something about your cult. We won't hold our breath.

      March 21, 2014 at 10:02 pm |
  7. doobzz

    A federal judge has struck down Michigan's ban on same sex marriage. Another nail in the coffin of religious bigotry.

    March 21, 2014 at 7:59 pm |
  8. His Panic

    Of one thing I'am certain that he suffered from anxiety related issues.

    Surely because he was relying on interpretations and his own limited wisdom rather than trusting in God and in Jesus Christ God's Only Son. Anxiety can lead to hysteria and hysteria can lead to Panic. Panic can lead as it has all through History to brawls and stampedes. There was an stampede last week in Nigeria due to anxiety, hysteria and Panic. There has been Panic in Wall Street in the past. Animals like people do Panic and go into stampedes.

    However those who really Trust in God and in Jesus Christ God's Only Son WILL NOT Panic!!! Those who do not WILL Panic.

    March 21, 2014 at 7:55 pm |
    • His Panic

      Those who fake it but do not Trust in God and in Jesus Christ God's Only Son for real, WILL also Panic. Simple because their trust is not real but faked.

      March 21, 2014 at 7:58 pm |
      • deecee10000

        Dude, you sound like you're at a junior high level mentality. I've known quite a number of religious people with anxiety disorders.

        March 22, 2014 at 2:19 am |
        • His Panic

          In reply to your childish argument born out of a supine ignorance, and an inability to read above 6th grade level. Later above I wrote as follows:
          Attending, going to, being in or being a member of a church, even leading a church IS NOT proof guarantee of Real Trust in God and in Jesus Christ God's Only Son.

          You said it right to a point however, in that "religious" people you have met suffered anxiety. Of course I have to presume you are telling the truth. However like I said above and in a similar manner, being religious, having a religion or being a follower of a religion etc. etc. IS NOT proof guarantee of a Real Trust in God and in Jesus Christ God's Only Son.

          Having church, having religion, having cult, et al etc. DOES NOT Equates to having Trust in God and in Jesus Christ God's Only Son. That is why they who fake it do end up in a State of Panic.

          March 22, 2014 at 1:54 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Sorry. Some day maybe you'll grow up, and stop NEEDING to relate everything to ONE infantile ancient set of books. I realize you're a bit "slow", but even you can learn a little.

      March 21, 2014 at 10:05 pm |
  9. sealchan

    When someone has as much trouble empathizing with others as Mr. Phelps apparently did, you can believe that he was a victim of emotional abuse in some form. There are whole communities in this world that perpetuate emotionally abusive atti-tudes.

    March 21, 2014 at 5:43 pm |
    • sealchan

      Well if his Wikipedia article is to be believed, I hit the nail on the head. Read the section Family Life.

      March 21, 2014 at 5:48 pm |
      • Akira

        It explained what he did to his own family, not what abuse he himself may have suffered.
        From his early life, there didn't appear to be any.

        March 21, 2014 at 7:52 pm |
        • the0g0to0the0t

          True, but often abuse itself can be an indicator of previous abuse. Not always certainly, but I think that's what they were going for.

          March 21, 2014 at 8:59 pm |
  10. nemo0037

    Should we celebrate the death of a world-famous hate-monger and pain factory? Yeah, maybe a little. It's a crying shame that there are people who can only make the world a little warmer by getting tossed into the cold, cold ground. But that was his choice. His family now has a choice of their own: join him, or break free of the hate.

    March 21, 2014 at 5:30 pm |
    • the0g0to0the0t

      We are only ever what we leave behind. His legacy is not one I would wish to share. Crazy part is, in his own mind, he may have died with a clear conscience.

      March 21, 2014 at 9:00 pm |
  11. joeyy1

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_F9nIps46w&w=640&h=360]

    March 21, 2014 at 5:25 pm |
    • the0g0to0the0t

      Spam, spam, spam, spam...

      Seriously, I know CNN doesn't owe me anything, but you make me wish we still had a "report abuse" button.

      March 21, 2014 at 9:02 pm |
  12. jrschw

    I also have mixed feelings. I am glad that he will soon be out of the media spotlight. I look forward to the "church" he founded to implode upon itself as a result of all of the "Christian" in-fighting. I am confident that Mr. Phelps now knows the truth. I am confident that Kansas is now a better place to life without Mr. Phelps.

    On the other hand, Mr. Phelps, though his rabid discourse was an unintentional advocate for LGBT rights. Mr. Phelps rants gave many people reason to pause, reflect on their positions, then decide to support LGBT rights (because we had to put up with people like Mr. Phelps).

    My real desire is for him to be re-incarnated as a gay male Ugandan in the near future.

    March 21, 2014 at 4:58 pm |
    • unsername1

      May God have mercy on his soul and he reborns as a muslim suicide bomber over and over again, I love to see guys like him blowing into pieces because they hate others for what they are or what they do.

      March 21, 2014 at 6:13 pm |
      • the0g0to0the0t

        Not that I can't appreciate the imagery, but that is one interesting theology you got there...

        March 21, 2014 at 9:04 pm |
  13. observer

    Should we celebrate Fred Phelps' death?

    We do usually celebrate happy occasions.

    March 21, 2014 at 3:50 pm |
  14. Akira

    Rainier, you state:
    "Modern anglo-saxon idolatry of too much freedom is as dangerous as former German Nationalsocialism."
    Okay.
    Then you go on to say this:

    "At any rate it must be prevented that gay lifestyle becomes as legal as marriage between a man and a woman. If gays would be forced to live at the very edge of society..." and "We need a healthy extent of freedom: not too much and not too little."

    You haven't escaped your roots.
    I am glad that your heinous ideas will NEVER be a consideration for the US; you have chosen wisely to emigrate here, as your hateful proselytizing is protected free speech. Even though you don't think some people deserve the same freedoms you enjoy.

    March 21, 2014 at 3:32 pm |
  15. revrickm

    A serious case of "reaction formation" on the part of Rev. Phelps?
    Perhaps.

    March 21, 2014 at 1:00 pm |
  16. unsername1

    The guy was an evil person.

    March 21, 2014 at 12:57 pm |
    • rogerthat2014

      He was a hateful man who had some serious issues, yet he was downright neighborly when compared to the Bible god.

      March 21, 2014 at 3:47 pm |
      • xusmcvet

        That is so so true!

        March 22, 2014 at 4:21 pm |
      • fintronics

        Very true!

        March 25, 2014 at 4:07 pm |
  17. leetilson

    We should not celebrate Phelps death or funeral. The hatred that consumed him, the hatred that led him to interfere with funerals of other families, is an evil we should try to prevent. We need to understand his hatred. How was he seduced into such vile hatred that he consciously inflicted pain on others burying loved ones? Behaving like him expresses the very kind of hate that needs to be prevented.

    March 21, 2014 at 12:41 pm |
    • sealchan

      i would not be surprised, as this is an easy assumption, that there was a history of some kind of abuse in his past. He had a distinct lack of empathy underlying, perhaps, a deep unmet need within himself.

      March 21, 2014 at 4:10 pm |
    • velesot365

      Religion. That was his problem.

      March 24, 2014 at 5:29 pm |
      • kermit4jc

        NO....hatred was his problem..he used religion as a tool to act it out on and justify his hatred

        March 24, 2014 at 5:34 pm |
  18. Rainer Helmut Braendlein

    Of course, every true Christian wishes for the repentance and conversion of the sinner (for example gay people) to Jesus, and doesn't wish the sinner's death (neither the physical death nor the eternal death).

    It is only that stubborn sinners (sinners not wanting both to repent and to convert) should be aware that they will not inherit the Kingdom of God but God will condemn them at Judgement Day. Yet, it is not necessary that Christians antedate Judgement Day, and presume to deal with God's task. Christians should focus on the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ who can change sinners, even the worst ones.

    If the state would act on behalf of God, the state would try to prevent the legalization of gay lifestyle. At any rate it must be prevented that gay lifestyle becomes as legal as marriage between a man and a woman. If gays would be forced to live at the very edge of society, it would work to their's advantage. They would get a feeling that they indeed approach a very dark future remote from God's place.

    The Church should always try to attract sinners through love, and the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If a sinner, even a very bad sinner, repents, believes and gets sacramentally baptized, he becomes a member of the Church. God will release him from all malice, and enable him or her to practice love of neighbour instead of serving his or her lust.

    March 21, 2014 at 11:33 am |
    • Dyslexic doG

      ah, the workings of your infantile, cult-addled mind.

      March 21, 2014 at 11:36 am |
    • Akira

      "If gays would be forced to live at the very edge of society, it would work to their’s advantage."
      Similar to...containment/concentration camps?

      Are you insane?

      March 21, 2014 at 12:01 pm |
    • observer

      Rainer Helmut Braendlein,

      Fear more that the government might find a way to prevent IGNORANCE and BIGOTRY.

      March 21, 2014 at 1:44 pm |
    • sam stone

      Thank you for your words of inspiration, Fuhrer.

      Don't you have a bunker to visit?

      March 21, 2014 at 5:29 pm |
    • sam stone

      Acting on "behalf of god" would be against the const-i-t-ution, you teutonic closet queen.

      If you want to live in country that does that, perhaps Iran would be a better choice....or Vatican City, since you love them so much.

      March 21, 2014 at 5:34 pm |
    • sealchan

      When someone has as much trouble empathizing with others as Mr. Phelps apparently did, you can believe that he was a victim of emotional abuse in some form. There are whole communities in this world that perpetuate emotional abusive atti-tudes.

      March 21, 2014 at 5:41 pm |
      • Akira

        It doesn't appear that Phelps suffered any abuse, only meted it out to others.

        March 21, 2014 at 7:54 pm |
    • janesauric

      I have read your bible, I do not want the salvation or the eternal life offered by your god. If that's all there is, it is pretty lousy. I reject it.

      March 21, 2014 at 7:05 pm |
    • xusmcvet

      The rantings of another psychotic individual.

      March 22, 2014 at 4:10 pm |
  19. Rainer Helmut Braendlein

    Of course, every true Christian wishes for the repentance and conversion of the sinner (for example gay people) to Jesus, and doesn't wish the sinner's death (neither the physical death nor the eternal death).

    It is only that stubborn sinners (sinners not wanting both to repent and to convert) should be aware that they will not inherit the Kingdom of God but God will condemn them at Judgement Day. Yet, it is not necessary that Christians antedate Judgement Day, and presume to deal with God's task. Christians should focus on the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ who can change sinners, even the worst ones.

    If the state would act on behalf of God, the state would try to prevent the legalization of gay lifestyle. At any rate it must be prevented that gay lifestyle becomes as legal as marriage between a man and a woman. If gays would be forced to live at the very edge of society, it would work to their's advantage. They would get a feeling that they indeed aproach a very dark future remote from God's place.

    The Church should always try to attract sinners through love, and the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If a sinner, even a very bad sinner, repents, believes and gets sacramentally baptized, he becomes a member of the Church. God will release him from all malice, and enable him or her to practice love of neighbour instead of serving his or her lust.

    March 21, 2014 at 11:19 am |
    • Akira

      I an so glad that your very ugly notion of what should happen to gays in this country will never happen because the US is a SECULAR country, and no one person's version of God may enter our laws.
      Uganda would be more to your liking. If even pitch in for your one way ticket.

      By the way, Fred Phelps would embrace you as a son. He would totally GET your ideology.

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

      @Rainer

      "If the state would act on behalf of God, the state would try to prevent the legalization of gay lifestyle. " – It's a good thing this is a secular nation, so that this will never happen.

      March 21, 2014 at 12:14 pm |
      • Rainer Helmut Braendlein

        Modern anglo-saxon idolatry of too much freedom is as dangerous as former German Nationalsocialism.

        We need political leaders being real "Fathers" of their countries seeking the holistic wealth of their people. We need a healthy extent of freedom: not too much and not too little.

        March 21, 2014 at 12:23 pm |
        • QuestionsEverything

          Modern Christians' desire to have our country run in accordance to their god's desires is as dangerous as present day Iran.

          "If gays would be forced to live at the very edge of society, it would work to their's advantage. They would get a feeling that they indeed aproach a very dark future remote from God's place." Is this your idea of healthy mix of freedoms?

          March 21, 2014 at 12:32 pm |
        • Rainer Helmut Braendlein

          "Modern Christians’ desire to have our country run in accordance to their god’s desires."

          You err, this is not what I wish. Of course, unrepentant gays cannot be allowed to stay in the Church but the state must give them room to exist in an orderly way until they may convert to Jesus. The state is a kind of emergency system where sinners can "exist" in an orderly way outside the Church, and God's patience waits. Of course, true life (Jesus himself) is only within the Church. People outside the Church actually just exist – a very poor life which will end in a catastrophe save they convert.

          March 21, 2014 at 1:03 pm |
        • Akira

          You want to force gays to live on the edge of society, Rainier. Your ideas are hideously bigoted and not in accordance with Jesus's teachings at all.; they are flat out evil. Shame on you.

          March 21, 2014 at 1:35 pm |
        • Rainer Helmut Braendlein

          Just gays not wanting to repent.

          March 21, 2014 at 1:43 pm |
        • observer

          Rainer Helmut Braendlein,

          Skip all your POMPOUS HYPOCRISY.

          It you ACTUALLY cared about sinners, you'd be busy with all the Christian ADULTERERS through divorce and remarriage. There are FAR FAR MORE of them than there are gays.

          March 21, 2014 at 1:47 pm |
        • Akira

          Repent what? Are you going to repent your heterosexuality?

          I want to know where it is Biblically supported that gay people be rounded up and put in concentration camps, as you so desire.
          After all, isn't this one reason you continually gossip and bash the RCC? Because you feel their doctrines are not so-called Biblically supported?

          March 21, 2014 at 2:05 pm |
        • QuestionsEverything

          @Rainer

          Do you also think that all people who refuse to "repent" for anything you deem to be a sin, should live on the edge of society?

          March 21, 2014 at 3:07 pm |
        • QuestionsEverything

          @Rainer

          " The state is a kind of emergency system where sinners can "exist" in an orderly way outside the Church, and God's patience waits." What is this state you speak of?

          March 21, 2014 at 3:10 pm |
        • Rainer Helmut Braendlein

          According to the biblical evidence gayness seems to be an extreme sin.

          March 21, 2014 at 3:10 pm |
        • Akira

          I asked a very specific question. Answer it. Stop deflecting. YOU are the one who brought this up.

          Where is your evidence that your unholy desire to see gay people shunted into concentration camps Biblically based?

          March 21, 2014 at 3:18 pm |
        • observer

          Rainer Helmut Braendlein

          "According to the biblical evidence gayness seems to be an extreme sin."

          Guess again and read a Bible next time. It didn't make the Ten Commandments like adultery by heteros did.

          Oooops.

          March 21, 2014 at 3:46 pm |
        • QuestionsEverything

          @Rainer

          "According to the biblical evidence gayness seems to be an extreme sin." What biblical evidence?

          March 21, 2014 at 3:49 pm |
        • fintronics

          theres that old bible interpretation thing again..... what a crock..

          March 25, 2014 at 4:13 pm |
    • lewcypher

      What exactly is a "true" Christian?

      March 21, 2014 at 5:59 pm |
      • fintronics

        a christian who believes exactly as I do! (LOL)

        March 25, 2014 at 4:15 pm |
  20. Rynomite

    Do I celebrate his death? Nah.

    Did I feel a moment of happiness to know his hate is gone from the world? You betcha.

    Of course, since he believed In Jebus, he's awaiting the rest of the believers in Heaven. That's really gotta stink that yall have to deal with him again.

    March 21, 2014 at 11:00 am |
    • Akira

      Rainier is surely bereft at his mentor dying.

      March 21, 2014 at 2:08 pm |
    • linsea50

      He may have claimed to be a believer in Christ, but he caused a lot of people hurt and pain. He will still have to answer for that.

      March 21, 2014 at 7:35 pm |
    • xusmcvet

      LOL...I get giddy at the thought other like-minded-Christians have to listen to him for the rest of eternity!

      March 22, 2014 at 4:26 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.