Fred Phelps, best known as the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, one of the most vehemently anti-gay religious leaders of modern history, died Wednesday, March 19. He spent decades blaming nearly every catastrophe on the accommodation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people by the U.S. government and churches like the United Church of Christ. Phelps and the members of his church (mostly his family members) protested LGBT events and gatherings, and the funerals of soldiers and various private citizens bearing signs of hate and judgment. Except for the exercise of free speech rights, nothing about his message or actions represented the values of good citizenship, much less the values of faith.
Phelps was a lightning rod, a caricature of rudeness and disrespect, and as such, he made it easy for many to disregard and dismiss him as merely a crazy, extremist fanatic. He has not been the only religious leader to spread the false doctrine of hate. Evangelicals such as Scott Lively, Lou Engle and Larry Jenkins continue to work throughout the world to enshrine their bigotry in anti-gay legislation, notably in Uganda, Nigeria, and Russia. Having essentially lost the battle against equal rights for LGBT persons in the United States, these evangelicals are counting on complacency from progressives as they take their anti-gay movement abroad.
The actions of Phelps and others have caused harm to many and have too frequently been met by silence from other religious leaders who failed to give witness to the values of love, compassion and peace. These are the values which are at the core of every major religion in the world, including Christianity. And among the guiding principles that undergird Christian ethics are "do no harm" and "honor the God-given worth and dignity of every person" – worth and dignity that human judgment cannot set aside. Religious leadership has a vital role to play in stopping the rhetoric of hate and ending the use of the Bible and other religious texts as a weapon to demean and devalue people.
An essential task is for religious leadership to create safe spaces for dialogue about sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity. The purpose of such conversations need not be to change the moral convictions of those in the room, but to work together to build understanding, identify the things that make the community safe for everyone, and commit to holding each other accountable to respect the dignity and worth of every child of God.
Fred Phelps has gone to meet his maker, who is and will be the ultimate judge. Thus, I pray God have mercy and offer my condolences to Phelps' family. In spite of the harmful witness and actions of Phelps, my prayer is that God is still speaking and present to him, and that in his home-going he may yet be transformed by the very power of God's all-inclusive love. But, this is now between Phelps and God, and our work continues – to heal the breach and further the work of love, justice, and equality on earth.
The Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer is the UCC's executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy.
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