I think this is the last time I will think about Fred Phelps for a long while. I’ve only written about him one time, back when the Supreme Court was considering restricting the access he and his followers had to picket funerals. I said yes, the Court said no. My point was the same as my favorite constitutional lawyer Walter Dellinger – picketing funerals is a deliberate attempt to incite violence, not a form of protected speech.
The families of the deceased agreed as well, most of them the loved ones of service members, though the Phelps crew picketed almost randomly; schools, Billy Graham appearances, the funerals of Bob Hope and Fred Rogers.
At funerals, it wasn’t just picketing. Imagine vicious interruptions of solemn services with chants of hatred against your Dad or brother or son or daughter, with your grandmother in tears. It was less an invitation to violence than a dare.
I had that perspective on Phelps and more. Over the course of the 1990s especially, when my father, Dick Snider, was a columnist for the Topeka Capital-Journal, he spoke to Phelps on the phone several times. They were civil conversations, brief without a lot of chitchat, focused on the news of the day surrounding Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church.
My father thought of Phelps first as a politician and a lawyer, both professions satirized routinely in Dad’s column and each a failure for Phelps, as a defeated candidate for several offices and a disbarred lawyer. Though Phelps was a repulsive character, it was clear to my father that Fred was selling; his marketing plan pure notoriety, his outrageousness a strategy.
But it backfired. The volume of hate from a self-identified Christian source was abhorrent to the majority. There were few profiles in courage among Topeka politicians or law enforcement leaders as Phelps revved up in the early 90s, but my sense in a very localized way is that, as time went on, the Phelps Westboro show froze the right and emboldened voices of tolerance whenever it came to town.
Mark Smith, professor of Religion and Public Life at Trinity College has the same view on a national frame. He wrote on the Religion News Service blog, “by their extreme advocacy, I say they’ve increased the sum total of tolerance in America. And that’s something to be thankful for.”
To call it marketing or branding doesn’t diminish the individual pain Phelps produced by his actions. I will never forget one of my sisters instinctively covering my mother’s face as we drove past the signs of the Phelps’ picketers at Dad’s funeral in Topeka, with my father’s column sig on a stick and captions that read “Fag Media” and “Burn in Hell.”
But the real effect of Fred Phelps may have been the success of his own branding at scale, defining a volatile issue by his extremism, forcing people out of the middle of the road as the Westboro picketers roared through by city by city. Judy Shepard, mother of the 21-year-old victim of an infamous hate crime said it plainly, referring to Phelps’ relentless personal attacks on her son and the movement she still helps to lead: “Oh we love Freddy. If it wasn’t for him there would be no Matthew Shepard.”