Apologetics Index

Fred Phelps: Extremist

Fred Phelps (November 13, 1929 — March 19, 2014), founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, is listed in the Encyclopedia of Modern American Extremists and Extremist Groups:

Phelps, Fred (1929–)

Fred Phelps, the leading anti-gay extremist in the United States, was born on November 13, 1929, in Meridian, Mississippi. His father was a detective on the Southern Railroad, and his mother died of cancer when Phelps was five years of age. After schooling in Meridian, he was ordained as a Baptist minister at age seventeen in Utah. Phelps enrolled but never graduated from Bob Jones University. He moved to Topeka, Kansas, in 1954 where he formed the unaffiliated Westboro Baptist Church in 1956. Phelps earned a law degree in 1961 at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, and worked for several years as a civil rights lawyer. He was disbarred by the state of Kansas in 1979 for improper conduct and lack of legal ethics. Phelps also had political ambitions and twice has run for governor and was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kansas in 1992.

Phelps is aggressive in his gay-bashing activities and uses the Bible as the basis for his opposition to homosexuality. Most of his time is spent in leading demonstrations at parks, funerals, government buildings, schools, churches, and newspaper offices protesting against gay rights. He started his anti-gay campaign in June 1991. His protests at the funerals of AIDS victims led the Kansas legislature to ban such demonstrations in 1992. In 1994 Phelps earned national attention for his violent verbal confrontation with poet Maya Angelou, forcing her to cancel a speaking engagement at Emporia State University. He attacked her because she had spoken at a public function with President Bill Clinton. Phelps believed in retaliating against anyone associated with President Bill Clinton because he believed Clinton was pro-gays. Several times Phelps has been arrested for assault, but he has never served time in jail. Phelps has spent the last decade traveling around the country promoting anti-gay demonstrations, including those at the funerals of former U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, Frank Sinatra, and President Clinton’s mother. Anyone that Phelps interpreted as soft on gays was a target. Phelps’s most high-profile protest came at the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was killed because he was gay. His financial support comes from members of his church, most of whom are members of his family. Three of his thirteen children have repudiated him and have accused him of being an abusive parent, but the others strongly support him with funds gathered from their law practices. Eleven of his children are lawyers.

Phelps intimidates his opponents by threatening and instituting lawsuits. Politicians in the state of Kansas have been reluctant to confront him. His insistence that the only true Jews are Christians and his attacks on gays horrify mainstream religious leaders. Phelps spends around $250,000 annually traveling around the country fighting gay rights. Phelps also operates a Web site that advances his anti-gay program. See also Gay Bashing; Gay Liberation Movement.

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Suggested readings: Stephen Braun, “Pastor Who Takes Pride in Hate Traces the Emotion to Bible,” Los Angeles Times (November 16, 1999), p. A5; Sandi Dolbee, “Witness for the Persecution,” San Diego Union-Tribune (June 2, 2000), p. E1; Annie Gowen, “Holy Hell; Fred Phelps, Clergyman, Is on a Crusade,” Washington Post (November 12, 1995), p. F1; Jim Henderson, “Preaching Hate,” Houston Chronicle (August 2, 1998), p. 1; Southern Poverty Law Center, “A City Held Hostage,” SPLC Intelligence Report 101 (Spring 2001): 19–27; Southern Poverty Law Center, “Halting Abusive Lawyers,” SPLC Intelligence Reports 101 (Spring 2001): 60.

Encyclopedia of Modern American Extremists and Extremist Groups by Stephen E. Atkins. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 2002. Page 243

Article details

Category: Fred Phelps, Hate Groups, Westboro Baptist Church
Related topic(s): , ,

First published (or major update) on Thursday, January 5, 2006.
Last updated on March 20, 2014.

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