The passing of Fred Phelps actually makes the struggle for gay marriage and LGBT equality a little more difficult.
A few days ago I summed up the impact the late Fred Phelps exerted on American society, concluding that he was, ironically, one of the best things that ever happened to the LGBT community’s quest for social justice. A number of other observers agreed, including Jay Michaelson at The Daily Beast and Peter Scheer at TruthDig, who thanked him for “his years of service to the gay rights movement.”
Now that we’ve had a few days to let all that has been written and said sink in, I find myself thinking less about Phelps and more about his fellow travelers who remain. No, I’m not thinking of his family and whatever is left of the “Westboro Baptist Church.” I’m thinking of his more socially acceptable colleagues in ongoing battle against equality. America’s best Christian, Mrs. Betty Bowers, summed it up thusly:
Fred Phelps (1929 — 2014) was just an unpolished version of most “respectable” anti-gay “Christian” organizations, such as Focus on the Family, Heritage Foundation, Traditional Values Coalition, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, et al. The only difference? They have expensive focus-groups that tell them to speak in code — and use hair conditioner.
Exactly. In my post earlier in the week I named a couple of names – Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh – and Frank Dilatush, one of S&R’s alpha commenters, kicked off an interesting discussion over the politicization of the issue. He argued that “[h]ate doesn’t have any particular political affiliation. It’s a voice of unreason unto itself.” I agreed, in principle anyway. However, I argued, fairness and equal rights are political issues, whether they ought to be or not, and explained that there isn’t much in life that isn’t, in some respect, political. I encourage you to read that exchange. It’s not long, but it is thought-provoking, and is a good example of why we value the contributions of smart readers like Frank.
Landover Baptist Church‘s Bowers, who has been one of the best things on the Internet for years, does a lovely job yanking the hoods off those who are identical to Phelps in every respect save tone and wardrobe. As I noted in that comment thread, Coulter is Phelps in an expensive dress. Limbaugh, Focus on the Family, Rick Santorum, the Republican National Committee, and a disturbing percentage of those seeking public office under the GOP banner, to name only a few, believe what the Westboro crowd believes, and if they’re smart enough to dress it up with lipstick and a strand of pearls, make no mistake, their platform is the same pig underneath.
In truth, the respectable wing of the hate movement is probably happier that Fred is dead than are the people he persecuted. With him alive, they had to be extra careful how they framed their concerns for the sanctity of marriage because they really couldn’t afford any side by side comparisons. Now that he’s gone, though, they can more freely sally forth under the cloak of “moderation,” and this makes them even more dangerous.
Whatever the movement, the ultimate value of the radical is that he/she provides cover for the moderates. The zeal of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, for instance, undoubtedly benefited Martin Luther King. Nervous white folk might not have liked King’s horde of peaceful marchers, but they were less terrifying (and hence more acceptable) than Black Power types preaching ominous ideologies like “by any means necessary.”
It’s true for social justice movements and it’s also true for reactionary movements. As such, those of us who care about fairness for gays need to be doubly vigilant now that Fred is gone. We have mid-term elections coming up and as the president noted the other day, for some reason the Democrats always get their asses handed to them in these things. While Dems getting their balls stomped doesn’t bother me, per se, we should all be concerned by who is doing the kicking.
Phelps made a career talking an especially virulent talk. But he had no real – ie policy making – power. His ideological brethren, on the other hand – Congressional reps, senators, governors, lobbyists, “think tank” “intellectuals,” – and the modern day robber barons who own and fund them (the Koch brothers, Art Pope), they have a great deal of power. They have the power to walk the walk. Phelps could say things that outraged us. He is survived by better dressed colleagues who can rig the game against not just gays, but against everyone who dreams of a fair, just America. We should all be deeply grateful for the current intramural warfare on the right between the social conservative, Tea Party and “business” factions – when there really isn’t a party that represents your best interests, an enemy in disarray is the best you can hope for.
In the end, I’m a lot less worried about words than I am actions. Fred Phelps was a symbol and his passing feels, emotionally, like a watershed moment. Ding dong, the witch is dead – it feels like victory.
But this isn’t true. At all. If anything, the battle for social justice just got a little harder.