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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. burtward

    As soon as he passed on, legions of demons of hell cast lots over his internal organs. The winners get to devour them as he watches over the next 1000 years. He gets to feel the tearing and intense pain of organs being digested by demons. Then after the 1000 years of that suffering. Yahweh will cast his rotted corpse into a lake of fire for eternity. Imagine the feeling you get when you burn a finger. Multiply that by 10,000 and that's the pain he will feel into eternity.

    March 26, 2014 at 1:47 pm |
    • Akira

      Robin? Is that you?

      March 26, 2014 at 2:49 pm |
    • hotairace

      Wow, if that's the punishment for being a good christian, imagine what's going to happen to those who broke a commandment or had an abortion.

      Sure glad I'm not a member of the dead jew zombie cannibal vampire death cult aka christianity!

      March 26, 2014 at 2:55 pm |
      • kermit4jc

        No punishment in heaven for Christians....is Phelps in heaven? don't know....He sure didn't act upon the Word of God..being as God said to love all...not some....and God knows Phelps showed conditional love only to certain people..If he is going to be in torment..it is because of his sins...and will not have anything to do with "being a good Christian" no such thing anyways..either you are one..or your are not a Christian.

        March 26, 2014 at 3:24 pm |
  2. joeyy1

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

    March 25, 2014 at 9:10 pm |
    • CS

      Oh good, thanks.

      March 25, 2014 at 9:28 pm |
  3. Dyslexic doG

    He is a blip in the past. Forgotten already, which is where he deserves to be. Like an unpleasant smell that causes momentary discomfort, clears when you open the window, and is forgotten.

    March 25, 2014 at 2:29 pm |
    • kenmargo

      Sounds like gas to me.

      March 25, 2014 at 4:50 pm |
  4. ihavetopushthepramalot

    As a libertarian, I have a certain admiration for Phelps. That man truly highlighted the meaning of free speech and it frightened people. People like to talk about freedom and support it when they can define it on their own terms. However, when people are confronted with real freedom and its (perceived) negative connotations, they get scared. And when people get scared, they legislate or try to legislate. I loved when people started doing counter demonstrations at Westboro funeral protests. The best way to combat free speech is more free speech, not less.

    March 25, 2014 at 12:47 pm |
    • Akira

      I agree.

      March 25, 2014 at 1:40 pm |
      • ihavetopushthepramalot

        Thank you. I also found it funny (actually, kinda sad) that many Middle Americans couldn't care less about the Phelps family when they were doing things like protesting at the funerals of h0mophobic murder victims, yet as soon as they started protesting the funerals of soldiers, they became the most hated family in America.

        I don't know if you saw the BBC docu.mentary 'The Most Hated Family in America' about the Phelps family, but I recall one scene in the docu.mentary which highlighted the hypocrisy evident in many less enlightened citizens. At a Westboro protest, one man confronted some of the protesters and said (I'm paraphrasing here but I believe it's pretty accurate) "I hate gays too but I love America". That one guy annoyed me more than any of the Westboro members. At least they're consistent.

        March 25, 2014 at 2:00 pm |
        • kenmargo

          I always felt libertarians are people that can't make up their minds. So they take the easy way out and choose to be libertarians to be different. I agree with you to a point, atleast WBC whack jobs were consistent. Personally, I don't like for anyone to picket ANY funerals. Show respect for those that are grieving. Picketing the funerals of soldiers? If it wasn't for them, they (WBC) wouldn't have the right of free speech.

          March 25, 2014 at 5:04 pm |
        • sam stone

          ken: it seems to me that it is the const-i-t-ution that gives us the right to free speech, not soldiers. do not take this as a slam against soldiers, i am a dept of army civilian and i work with them monday through friday. they are dedicated, and i respect them and their service.

          March 26, 2014 at 5:34 am |
        • kenmargo

          @Sam....I'm not sure of the point you're trying to make. I totally respect our servicemen/women past, present and future. Because of that respect NO ONE should protest their funerals. This is a feeling that every person should have. Even if we didn't have freedom of speech, out of common courtesy a person should show more respect than to protest a soldier funeral considering the sacrifice they made as a VOLUNTEER.

          March 26, 2014 at 3:12 pm |
        • sam stone

          ken: i agree totally

          March 27, 2014 at 5:35 pm |
    • bchev

      I respect the judges who had to make the correct but unpopular decision to allow the Westborough Baptist to speak publically. THAT was what upheld the ideals of our Consttution. The Westborough baptists themselves, Fred chief among them, were deplorable bigots and morons, whose whole purpose in life seems to be the pee in the gene pool (except for the kids, I do not hold them responsible for their actions under that family pressure, and look hopefully forward to a time when they become self aware, realize how awful their families are being, and tell them all to pack sand then move and give them a fake phone number)

      March 25, 2014 at 3:24 pm |
      • ihavetopushthepramalot

        Numerous laws were passed opposing Westboro's right to free expression and free assembly, notably the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act and numerous other laws passed on state levels. The lack of support shown for the rights of the Westboro Baptist Church from the judiciary and politicians was deplorable and in no way were their First Amendment rights protected.

        March 25, 2014 at 3:49 pm |
        • hotairace

          Were they ever actually prevented from expressing their opinions? They might have had to be some distance from their targets but I don't think they were ever shut up. At what point does their right to freedom expression trump others rights to peace and the pursuit of happiness?

          March 25, 2014 at 3:53 pm |
        • bchev

          ihavetopushthepramalot,
          I'll freelly admit that I didn't follow every legal case with them, because I can't stand them, and I know that meaures were attempted to prevent their protests, but the major stories I did say all involved those efforst being shot down, and their right to assemble being upheld (though yes, the Fallen Heroes act did mandate they keep some amount of distance. I don't really have a problem with that, we tell people to move assemblies for logistics all the time. You're allowed to peasably assemble, but not in front of a fire exit).

          If I missed a majority of them and there WERE places that put down hard stop laws, my mistake. In that case I will credit those judges who DID make the correct hard decision and allow them to continue.

          March 25, 2014 at 3:59 pm |
        • ihavetopushthepramalot

          The pursuit of happiness is not legally binding as it's not in the const.itution. There is also nothing about the right to peace (not to the best of my recollection anyway). However, free speech and free assembly are very much covered in the First Amendment. Arguably their right to free speech wasn't suppressed but their right to free assembly certainly wasn't. Whenever Westboro picketed a funeral, it was done on public streets just outside the private cemetery premises. When laws were passed forbidding them from being on public streets at certain times, their right to assembly was denied.

          March 25, 2014 at 4:02 pm |
        • ihavetopushthepramalot

          bchev

          You mightn't have a problem with it but I and other First Amendment champions do. The Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act was blatantly designed to silence Westboro just to spare some feelings.

          March 25, 2014 at 4:09 pm |
        • bchev

          ihavetopushthepramalot,
          I would say muffle more than silence. It required keeping distance, not preventing assembly altogehter. If it was for anything else, and the decision was handed down that yes, you can assemble, just not in public streets, that shouldn't be an issue. I believe the purpose of assembly should be so that a group of citizens can get the governments attention, and safely say their piece until they feel their message has beenfully delivered and the government has started to listen, it should not come at be a deterent to other people conducting their day to day lives. BUT, we can agree to disagree.

          March 25, 2014 at 4:15 pm |
        • ihavetopushthepramalot

          Indeed we can. The benefits of the marketplace of ideas in action.

          March 25, 2014 at 4:17 pm |
  5. unsername1

    what happened? is it CNN or the world ran out of bad guys?

    March 24, 2014 at 6:46 pm |
    • observer

      unsername1,

      Nope. There's still plenty of ignorant bigots left. Just look at the comments by a couple of the "Christians" on these blogs

      March 24, 2014 at 7:43 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      They're in Rome. Getting yet another Pope story ready. Can't wait.
      Cough cough.

      March 24, 2014 at 11:49 pm |
  6. Joe

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3J_3mcOwdQ&w=640&h=360]

    March 24, 2014 at 6:14 pm |
  7. kermit4jc

    I didnt say he was an atheist....nor did the person i was responding to..I was responding to some fool who thinks all Christianbs are alike and that fred Phelps speaks and represents us all..i think it was doris..or someone like that

    March 24, 2014 at 5:44 pm |
    • otoh2

      "Christianbs" - stellar comedy!

      March 24, 2014 at 5:47 pm |
    • Akira

      Who are you talking to?

      March 24, 2014 at 6:28 pm |
  8. kermit4jc

    @ velosot.. Also...how about I turn that around...what difference does it make of the "corpse" of the dead they pickets then as well?

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

      Who are you talking to?

      March 24, 2014 at 5:39 pm |
      • kermit4jc

        I was responding to a person with the nic velesot..hence the " @ velesot" sorry for any confusion

        March 24, 2014 at 5:46 pm |
        • Akira

          Must be on a different page.

          March 24, 2014 at 5:53 pm |
    • CS

      That is not English.

      March 24, 2014 at 5:42 pm |
  9. haime52

    Celebrate, no. Ignore, maybe. Give someone publicity and you spawn more seekers of notoriety.

    March 24, 2014 at 4:39 pm |
  10. snowr14

    Celebrate? No.
    Be thankful there is one less hater in the world spreading their hatred? Definite yes.

    March 24, 2014 at 3:56 pm |
    • hotairace

      Agreed. Unfortunately there is now one less recruiter for atheism.

      March 24, 2014 at 4:01 pm |
  11. Augustine

    To celebrate or not?

    Some people will celebrate because they paid too much attention to the words of this man.

    Some people will mourn for the same reasons.

    While some other just don't care one way or the other because they never paid any attention to what this man said.

    Again, who is Fred Phelps and who made his famous?

    S

    March 24, 2014 at 11:51 am |
    • Augustine

      Edit: Again, who is Fred Phelps and who made him famous?

      March 24, 2014 at 11:52 am |
  12. bribarian

    Phelps was a hero.

    March 24, 2014 at 12:48 am |
    • realbuckyball

      Of the seriously insane.

      March 24, 2014 at 12:52 am |
    • tired-of-america.com

      I agree he was a hero to brain-dead Christians everywhere.

      March 24, 2014 at 2:19 pm |
    • fintronics

      Bri......... you're kidding, right??

      March 25, 2014 at 12:03 pm |
    • doobzz

      Aww, a newborn troll. It's so cute when they try to talk with the grownups.

      March 25, 2014 at 12:50 pm |
      • Akira

        I've seen his work before; just a drive by poster who posts something inflammatory every few months. A seasonal troll, I guess.

        March 25, 2014 at 1:43 pm |
        • doobzz

          He's a little late for the vernal equinox, but at least we have till the solstice before a return visit.

          March 25, 2014 at 7:03 pm |
  13. georgevreelandhill2010

    A lot of people want to know where his grave is.
    I have a feeling that it will be "watered" a lot.

    George Vreeland Hill

    March 23, 2014 at 6:25 pm |
  14. malookabear

    good riddance you piece of atheist crap

    March 23, 2014 at 5:38 pm |
    • LinCA

      @malookabear

      You said, "good riddance you piece of atheist crap"
      News flash. The dude was a prime example of a christian. Which, considering the ignorance on display in your post, I suspect you are too.

      March 23, 2014 at 5:48 pm |
      • kermit4jc

        News flash..an example of SOME Christians..dont lump us all together....thats pretty ignorant...I dont hate gays..i personally dont know anyone who hates gays or anyone else..jesus told us to LOVE others...so please dont be so overgneralizing

        March 24, 2014 at 5:06 pm |
        • otoh2

          Poor answer, kermit.

          Yeah, and *you* are the non-ignorant one, of course; and your posts simply ooze high intellect, eh?!

          March 24, 2014 at 5:17 pm |
        • kermit4jc

          LOL...WHo is the ignorant one here? I wasnt even addressing a QUESTION..so then genius..how did I "answer?" And what is this about intellect? ALl I did was to mention about loving and having compassion on others..I guess you dont think much about love and compassion for others....huh?

          March 24, 2014 at 5:21 pm |
        • otoh2

          FYI, kermit, "answer" can also mean respond. I guess you've never played poker (I'll answer your call) nor have you ever answered the call of nature.

          I was just ribbing you, anyway, since you have such a bad habit of deeming the posts of others as "poor" and calling them "ignorant" in your inimitable sLOPPY STyle!

          March 24, 2014 at 5:31 pm |
        • Akira

          Kermit, anyone who thinks Phelps was atheist is a loon.
          It's generally accepted that most people who rail against atheists are most likely Christian, since they make up the majority in this country.
          Those who make retarded statements like bear are anything but loving, kind and compassionate, but bear wasn't who you were addressing, was it?

          March 24, 2014 at 5:37 pm |
  15. Salero21

    What those here rejoicing and celebrating his death are missing is the FACT that they may be next. No man knows what is going to be of himself in the next minute, hour, day, month or year. No one knows how when or where the end will meet us, that's a FACT We all going to go to the same route one way or another, there is no escape to the FACT

    In doing so atheists et al once more prove without a doubt what I've been saying all along and the Bible says so.

    March 23, 2014 at 4:06 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      You were really starting to make some sense until that last sentence. Nice effort.

      March 23, 2014 at 4:11 pm |
    • doobzz

      "What those here rejoicing and celebrating his death are missing is the FACT that they may be next. "

      LOL. More irrelevant drivel from the poster child for irrelevant drivel.

      March 23, 2014 at 5:39 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Oh please.
      Humans knew that all humans die LONG before any Babble was written.
      I hope you understand the Hebrews who wrote the Babble did not believe in immortality, or heaven, or hell.
      Sheol, (where ALL the dead went, and where Yahweh did not reside) was NOT heaven.
      Take a class some day.

      March 23, 2014 at 6:42 pm |
      • kermit4jc

        Pot calling kettle..maybe YOU should take some classes...SOME hebrews did..SOME did not...dont make such a sweeping statement..yuo pretty much showed your ignorance..and if you wanna refer to even TODAYS Jewish people...youought to know about MODEzrn Jews and how they got to believe as they do today....also....there were some sects of Judaism in jesus time that did believe in after life....I believe it was the Pharisees who did not believe in such and the Saduccees who did believe in after life......get some actual lessons

        March 24, 2014 at 5:10 pm |
        • Akira

          There is no Hebrew word for Hell, Kermit: Hell is not mentioned at all in the Hebrew Bible. Nor is it mentioned in the Torah.

          March 24, 2014 at 6:26 pm |
        • kermit4jc

          Didi I sauy there was? they belived in a place where people go that was NOT heaven..they believed that people lived in after life..either in heaven..or another place......you are desperate and ignorant in your studies...you look for particular words and miss the concepts

          March 25, 2014 at 1:54 am |
        • Akira

          What part of what I said untrue?

          I'm not the one getting the concepts wrong.

          Stop insulting people who respond to you; if civil discourse isn't your bailiwick, buy a personal journal and stay off the blogs. As it is, you are persuading nobody towards Christianity; I think some people have had enough of surly Christians and that's what may have drive them to seek knowledge elsewhere.

          March 25, 2014 at 11:49 am |
  16. Salero21

    Though I disliked and disprove personally of his methods. The fact remains that both bestiality and hom.ose.xua.lity are perversions against nature. So he did have a grain of salt in his preaching, but the rest of what he said and the way he said it is to be rejected.

    March 23, 2014 at 3:59 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      "both bestiality and hom.ose.xua.lity "

      I feel the same about poker and deep sea fishing, being so closely related and all.

      March 23, 2014 at 4:03 pm |
    • doobzz

      "So he did have a grain of salt in his preaching,"

      No, you just have sand in your underwear again.

      March 23, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Actually same se'x behavior is as natural as breathing. Clearly you lack any science education. All species on the planet engage in ss behaviors. Google (or look on YouTube) for Dr. David Pizarro (Cornel). He has explained why you think it's "icky".

      March 23, 2014 at 6:44 pm |
    • fintronics

      Saltshaker, your posts are the cause of so much laughter...

      March 25, 2014 at 3:50 pm |
  17. Bootyfunk

    "He believed gays and lesbians should be put to death."
    +++ Fred was following the bible, which says to put g.ays to death in lev. 20.13. aren't christians that don't call for the death of h.omos.exuals NOT following the bible? it seems christians cherry-pick the good passages, and try to ignore the evil ones, but the bible is very clear about what to do with h.omos.exuals. wasn't Fred just being a good christian by closely following the bible?

    March 23, 2014 at 3:24 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      He was a fine Christian man. Who can question that?

      March 23, 2014 at 4:04 pm |
      • djangoboy

        Depends on your definition of "Christian."

        March 23, 2014 at 8:17 pm |
        • tired-of-america.com

          or "fine"

          March 24, 2014 at 2:22 pm |
        • CS

          or "man"

          March 24, 2014 at 5:31 pm |
  18. Central Scrutinizer

    They buried him in his hat; face down with a certain device of which cannot be mentioned here stuck in a certain place that cannot be referenced. He never looked better.

    March 23, 2014 at 11:05 am |
  19. Central Scrutinizer

    Fred Phelps new what had to be done. He had quit smoking years before.

    March 23, 2014 at 10:52 am |
  20. Central Scrutinizer

    There was a point in the distance. Some, undefinable home of Satan that only Fred Phelps could see. His gaze glanced over the heads of his admiring flock to that point…and he spoke to it. What of the fags? The words danced in his head like burning coals.

    March 23, 2014 at 10:49 am |
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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.