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Mole's Progressive Democrat

The Progressive Democrat Newsletter grew out of the frustration of the 2004 election. Originally intended for New York City progressives, its readership is now national. For anyone who wants to be alerted by email whenever this newsletter is updated (usually weekly), please send your email address and let me know what state you live in (so I can keep track of my readership).

Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

I am a research biologist in NYC. Married with two kids living in Brooklyn.

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  • Friday, April 30, 2010

    The Westboro Baptist Church: a Story of Extremism from the Inside

    I had a near encounter with the Westboro Baptist Church when they came to protest at my local synagogue (because they hate Jews) and nearby high school (because they hate gays and think all kids should hate gays). I was not impressed and coming to NYC probably didn't get them anywhere since even high school kids upstaged them.

    To people like me these fanatics are simply a tiny bunch of medieval throwbacks who seem to have the free time and money to travel the country trying pathetically to spread their particular brand of hatred. But to their children they provide a living hell. I recently learned that Nate Phelps, a son of the head of the Westboro Baptist Fanatics, escaped that living hell when he turned 18. More power to him! And he has written about what life is like among medieval throwbacks. Some excerpts from his website: (check out his site for more)

    At the age of 7, I could recite all 66 books of the Bible in 19 seconds. My father insisted on this because he was frustrated at waiting as his children flipped back and forth trying to find the verses he was preaching from. Afterwards, if one of us took too long my father would stop in the middle of his preaching, cast a gimlet eye on the offender and demand that, “Somebody smack that kid!”

    For me, the story of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is a very long and painful one. But the first time that the wider community became aware of them was in 1991, when my father led his church in Topeka, Kansas to stage a protest against gays at a local city park. (Almost the entire membership of the church consists of 9 of my 12 siblings and members of their immediate families.)

    The community reacted with outrage at the mean-spirited and hateful nature of the protest, and sentiments on both sides escalated quickly. However, far from discouraging my father, this incited him to much greater efforts at publicly protesting all that he decided was wrong. The church was soon staging dozens of protests every week, against local politicians, businesses, and citizens who dared to speak out against him and his church.

    So Fred Phelps is one of those fanatics who thinks he knows everything and the fact that most people, even in Kansas, think he's nuts means the REST of the world is wrong and he is the only person who is right. Funny...that sounds a lot like Charles Manson or David Koresh. I strongly suspect if Fred Phelps felt he could get away with it, he'd stone women who showed any skin, stone gays, burn Jews and Catholics and otherwise carry on his own Kansas Inquisition if he could. I think he'd find he has a lot in common with the Imams in Iran. More from Nate Phelps:

    The church’s original website, godhatesfags.com, now links to companion sites, each of which is more outrageous than the last. The latest addition is godhatestheworld.com, which intends to list, for every nation, the reasons why God hates them...

    My father is a self-styled Primitive Baptist, adhering to the teachings of John Calvin...

    the heart of Calvinism is the doctrine of absolute predestination, which posits that in the council halls of eternity past, an omniscient and omnipotent god preordained who would be saved, and who would be damned. Mankind would have no say or choice in this, since they are dead in their trespasses and sin. If you are selected you gain eternal life. If you lose, you suffer the most extreme physical and mental anguish forever. My father has simply refined Calvin’s doctrine to the point where the vast majority of us are going to hell. And he and his followers are among the privileged few chosen by God.

    This doctrine is very important to understanding the Westboro Baptist Church. My father, and those who follow him, are not preaching to try to convince people of their truth. Unlike street evangelists, who are trying to convert people, my father has no intention of converting anyone, since conversion is impossible...

    You know, if that is what Fred Phelps thinks, then why the hell does he have to come to my local synagogue to disrupt some poor kid's bat mitzvah or to high schools disrupting studies if he is just doing it to make himself feel smug? He can do it much cheaper sitting at home in Kansas and mumbling "get off my lawn" at imagined "sinners."

    But Nate Phelps shows an intelligence that eventually led to his getting away from his father's abusive fanaticism:

    One of my earliest doubts about our faith rose from the question that if, in fact, the Adamic race is so thoroughly cursed with this moral corruption, how is it that we so willingly turn to the writings of corrupt men to find our salvation?

    Many Sunday sermons were spent poring over the nuances of Old Testament stories where Yahweh had brought his people to the point of despair then delivered their enemies into their hands with some violent, miraculous intervention. While it was clear that god was unyielding toward his enemies, it was equally clear that he seemed quite willing and even eager to violently strike down his appointed ones at the slightest provocation.

    This violence was a fact of life in our home, and is interwoven from my earliest memories as a child. Already facing the responsibilities of a wife and 13 children, my father made the decision to go to law school. The physical and mental demands led him to take prescription amphetamines to keep him going. Barbiturates were soon added to the mix to help him sleep at night. The combination of stress and this chemical cocktail fueling his system meant that his temper was quick, violent, and indiscriminate.

    Now, I always wondered how this abusive fanatic could afford traveling all over preaching hatred...well, turns out it's basically using his kids as slave labor. Wow, big surprise:

    The suspension meant the loss of our family’s primary source of income; so my father came up with the idea of having the children go out and sell candy for the church. At first, it started as an interesting challenge to see who could sell the most candy to our neighbors; but that market soon dried up, and we still needed money. Soon, we were making weekend trips through the Midwest, from Omaha to Wichita to Kansas City. During summer holidays we would spend 15 hours a day, with10 kids at a time, canvassing large territories, and generating thousands of dollars in candy sales.

    It didn’t take us long to figure out that one of the easiest ways to make money was to hit the bars in the evening. Friday and Saturday night would find 10 to 12 year old children working their way through dark taverns, selling their candy while strippers performed a few feet away. More than once, the violence that is inevitable in such places resulted in direct injury to one of us. Yet in spite of this obvious danger, we were required to continue this for over seven years.

    But Fred Phelps' abusive sadism seems mostly turned on his wife...again, big surprise.

    Women were second class citizens in our church and family, and my father proclaimed this adamantly, with no room for compromise. The bible was very clear on the subject. Eve was deceived by the snake in Eden, and was therefore the weaker vessel in every respect. Paul bolstered this misogynistic attitude in his letters to the early churches. Wives were to be in subjection to their husbands; and by extension, it was a husband’s responsibility to bring his wife back into submission if she strayed. Women were to keep silent in the church. Women were to have the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit. These were just truths that we took as fundamental.

    Yet when my father turned his instructive fist on my mother, I instinctively felt internal conflict. For me, it was intuitively wrong that a 6 foot 2, 250 pound man be allowed to beat up a woman barely half his size. But we dared not intervene or even question his actions, because his behavior was sanctioned by god.

    In one instance, as my father was stalking our mother at the top of the stairs, she stumbled and started to fall. Reaching out to catch herself she ripped her arm out of the socket. My father refused to let her get medical treatment to repair the damaged muscles and tendons. In subsequent, years when he was angry with her, he would inevitably grab for that injured arm. On a few occasions he managed to get hold of it and re-injure it...

    He came away from that fast with a finely tuned disdain for over weight people. Of course there was bible for his position: The passages that talk about your body being a temple. As the children entered their teen years, hormones shifted and weight started sticking. First he targeted my oldest sister Kathy, demanding that she get the weight off. My mother, whose body had suffered the effects of 16 pregnancies over 18 years found it very difficult to lose the weight that had accumulated. Unable to view the world from any perspective but his own, my father regularly beat and berated her for her weight...

    What a fucking bully Fred Phelps is. This guy should be in prison, plain and simple.

    There is a LOT more of the same kind of stuff in Nate Phelps' story. Drug use, fanaticism and abuse of all around him defined his father. But more interesting to me was Nate's escape.

    The doubts, contradictions, and fears kept building in me; and no matter how much I tried to subject myself to god’s will, as interpreted by my father, they would not go away. So on the day of my 18th birthday I left home.

    Following is an excerpt from a book I’ve been working on, that best explains my state of mind at that time:

    The November night is chilly, winter is nearly here. I draw deeply on my cigarette, and then blow it out, not sure which part is smoke, and which part is my breath. I’m alert as I near our house. At this late hour no one should be awake. Flipping the cigarette over the fence, I slip quietly through the back door. I steal down the porch steps and into the back room. I pause here, slow my breathing, and listen.

    I’m fearful, but also tremendously excited. I have no thoughts for what tomorrow will bring, only the sense that a freedom I’d never expected to attain is just over the horizon. I am not yet aware of the numerous issues that I am carrying with me, of the emotional baggage that my father has equipped me with. There is, in the back of my mind, a visceral fear that my decision condemns me to join the ranks of the unsaved, and that both my physical and spiritual self will suffer for my decision...

    My 18th birthday is very important, even central to my planning. My brother left after he was 18, and he was successful. My oldest sister Kathy, on the other hand, tried to leave before she was 18. My father tracked her down, and I watched as he physically forced her to return home. The physical and emotional damage that he inflicted on her in those last few months took a terrible toll on her. She was never the same, her spirit was broken.

    There is a great deal more. The part about how Nate approached raising his own kids and the PTSD he suffered because of his father's abuse are riveting. But I will leave ample reason for you to go to his site and read about it.

    My question is: why is Fred Phelps allowed by our society to abuse his wife and children with no retribution? This is a case that could become as explosive as David Koresh's fanatic cult and the development of this abuse and fanaticism is being done very publicly. I believe in a free society, but freedom does NOT include the right to beat your wide and kids.

    I don't believe in heaven or hell. They don't make sense to me on any level. However, if there was a hell, people like Fred Phelps would be condemned to the worst corner of that hell.


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