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Fred Phelps (1991 – 2014)

As Hyles star began to fade in the 1990’s, a new surge of anti-LGBTQ+ activism was on the rise in Topeka, Kansas. Fred Phelps was born a few years after Jack Hyles but his infamy wouldn’t come until much later in life. Unlike Norris and Hyles, Phelps grew up in a middle class family in Meridian, Mississippi. His mother passed away when he was 6 years old and his aunt helped Fred Sr raise the two children. Phelps graduated in the top of his high school class and was prepared to enter West Point when a revival meeting changed his plans. Instead, Fred went off to the Baptist super college, Bob Jones University. But quickly became disillusioned with the school that he considered too watered down and liberal. So he headed to California and took up street preaching for several years before meeting his wife Margie and settling down.

[A young Fred Phelps]

In 1955, while the world of fundamentalism recovered from the recent loss of J. Frank Norris and Jack Hyles was just beginning his ascent into IFB notoriety, Fred Phelps took over leadership of Westboro Baptist Church at age 35. It was at this time that Phelps became an Independent Baptist, though he dismissed the practices of men like Norris and Hyles. He didn’t like Sunday Schools or anything that turned a church service into a parade. Instead he wanted the focus solely on him as he raged behind his pulpit for hours at a time. His incessant fixation on Judgement Day – a Baptist belief that one day we will all stand before God and have to answer for every sin we have ever committed – eventually drove most members away. While Phelps had the same anger and hate of Norris and Hyles he didn’t have the charm. And therefore he didn’t have the support and wealth the other two men acquired. Instead, his 13 children would go door to door selling candy bars in an attempt to help support the family. This led to a lawsuit in 1972 when two companies charged Phelps with failing to pay back the companies.

Yet even with his raging about the ‘End Times’ Phelps had not yet become so unhinged. In 1964 he finally graduated from college, this time with a law degree from Washburn University. His first case was a civil rights case and, in a grand departure from the IFB, Phelps actually opposed the Jim Crow laws of the era. Mother Jones once reported Phelps as saying “I systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town”. His daughter added, “We took on the Jim Crow establishment, and Kansas did not take that sitting down. They used to shoot our car windows out, screaming we were n***** lovers”. But Phelps returned to the IFB old ways in his hatred for Catholics, even suing President Ronald Reagan in 1986 when Reagan appointed an ambassador to the Vatican. Phelps claimed it was a violation of church and state, yet never saw the irony later when he wanted America to adopt the anti-LGBTQ+ stance of the IFB.

The unraveling and ‘fundamentalizing’ of Fred Phelps really began in 1977 when he sued a court reporter because she didn’t have a transcript ready for him on the date requested – even though the timeline was not consequential to his case. During the trial against the court reporter, Phelps perjured himself and was disbarred from practicing in Kansas in 1979. Six years later, 9 federal judges filed complaints against Fred Phelps and several of his children for spreading false claims against the judges. This resulted in the ’89plea deal where Phelps agreed to stop practicing law in any federal court. Just as he had driven most of his church members away, he also made no friends outside of the church. Attacking everyone from Princess Diana and Mr. Rogers, to all of Sweden and Ireland, and the entire continent of Australia. While most of the world enjoys a good laugh, the truth is many in the Phelps family and Westboro Baptist have long lived in fear.

Throughout the 1970’s two of Phelps’ children fled the dwindling church claiming severe abuse. Nathan and Mark Phelps both reported that their father beat them with the handle of a mattock (a type of pickaxe). As we stated in the Roloff segment, the IFB prides itself in its encouragement of extreme abuse against children. Hyles wrote three books on rearing children and instructed his members to begin hitting their children before the age of one and increase the severity of the beatings until the child reached age 18. Another popular book in the world of fundamentalism is the book To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl. Parents are taught that the Bible wants them to hit their children until they are black and blue. The book drew national outrage in 2012 when reports of two children’s death were linked back to the methods encouraged by the Pearls and to the IFB as a whole. Fred Phelps’ abuse of his children was no different. Those who didn’t want to leave, or who could not escape, stood by Phelps as he began his work against his greatest enemy yet.

[Westboro Baptist Protest]

Westboro Baptist’s extreme hatred of the LGBTQ+ has drawn ire even from many fundamentalist. The anger from the outside hasn’t always been about why Westboro hates queer people, but because of how they protest their disdain of the LGBTQ+. The story was told by one member that Westboro’s efforts against homosexuality stemmed from the cruising done at Gage Park in their local town of Topeka, Kansas. One of Phelps children claimed a park was “taken over by sodomites” [16] and that a homosexual had tried to lure one of their children into the bushes. The church tried to rally other congregations to protest the park but were shut down. When a council woman doubted that the park was actually being overrun by the gays, Fred Phelps called her a “Jezebellian switch-hitting whore”. Eventually taking matters into their own hands, Westboro launched the first anti-gay picket at the park and the rest is history.

Over the next 22 years Fred Phelps, his large family, and their few followers could be found regularly picketing one event after another holding their infamous “God Hates F*gs” signs. They harassed and bullied LGBTQ+ people in bars, at concerts, and during Pride events. Eventually picketing replaced everything else and for a period the church protested in at least 6 places a day and up to 15 places on Sundays[17]. Upon the death of Matthew Shepherd, the cult upped their antics from nuisance to pure cruelty. In 1998 the protested at the funeral of the young many who was tortured and murdered for being gay. Phelps and his crew taunted the family and shot forward in the national spotlight. A few years later after the events of 9/11, Westboro began to blame the tragedy on America’s acceptance of the queer community. The group began to picket the funerals of soldiers deployed in the Iraqi War. They stood outside of gravesites holding signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates America” and “Thank God for 9/11”. It was clear their only motives were to stir attention and outrage.

While a few family members have been arrested for minor charges such as assault (for spitting on a person), trespassing, and disorderly conduct, most of their abuse has been the endless emotional harassment placed upon the queer community. The group stated on their website in 2009 that since 1991 they had held more than 41,000 protests, in over 650 cities, across all 50 states. And spent an average of $250,000 a year in travel to picketing locations. Their work resulted in several lawsuits, community fines, travel bans, and Canada’s first hate-crime law (known casually as the Fred Phelps law)[15]. By 2006 nine states had passed laws prohibiting protests near funeral sites and 10 more were considering laws but activism around the issue fell off as Westboro’s pickets began to decline. Ironically their hatred of the LGBTQ+ helped to draw attention to the discrimination queer people face daily. While we wouldn’t give any credit around LGBTQ reforms to Westboro, we can certainly thank them for loudly drawing attention to our cause.

In 2012 Fred Phelps health began to decline and his daughters assumed the face of the movement. The same year Planting Peace bought the house next to Westboro, painted it Rainbow colors, and dubbed it the Equality House (three years later they would buy a second house and paint it the colors of the transgender flag). In 2013 Phelps was excommunicated from the church, essentially, for having dementia. One legend has it that he called out to people at Equality House and told them “you’re good people!” which promptly called for expulsion. The church soundly denies this happened. But whatever the reason, Phelps was moved into a facility where he stopped eating and drinking. He passed away on March 19, 2014. His family did not have a funeral for him.

[Equality House across from Westboro Baptist]

In the mid 2000’s several members began to leave the church again and in 2011 only around 40 members were left in the church. Since then a few people have joined and others have left. The aggressiveness of Westboro has dimmed slightly as they don’t use the F slur quite as much. Still, the daily picketing continues and a new generation is being trained in the hate of the old Westboro. Their work compliments that of a new ear in the IFB. No longer attempting to attract the large crowds that followed J. Frank Norris and Jack Hyles, today the IFB is more radical and dangerous than ever before. They have even rebranded a little and call themselves the NIFB (New Independent Fundamental Baptists). Though their leader trained at the college run by Jack Hyles, his methods are more that of Fred Phelps. But the focus on promoting queer people as the biggest threat to American still remains the same.

Steven Anderson (2009 – Present)

Steven Anderson has only been in the public eye for the last 10 years but at 39 years old he already has more notoriety than any of his predecessors had at his age. The effects of his growing cult are still to be determined but already his demands around the death penalty for the LGBTQ+ are chilling. Born in Sacramento in 1981 little is known about Anderson’s early life or what brought him to the IFB. Upon graduating from high school he headed to Europe to convert the lost Europeans to fundamentalism. He won at least one person, his wife Zsuszanna. Who identifies herself as a former liberal, feminist, agnostic that was saved from that lifestyle when her husband witnessed to her. Today they have 10 kids with “A new baby joining every couple years or so”. In the early 2000’s he briefly attended Hyles-Anderson as he was, and still is, quite a fan of Jack Hyles. Yet for whatever unknown reason Anderson dropped out of college and never earned a degree. In the IFB there is no requirement or oversight board to demand an individual have any kind of technical training before declaring themselves a pastor.

In 2005 Anderson started Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona. And while radio programs aren’t as popular as they used to be, Steven has still taken a page from IFB pastors before him. Using the media has always been crucial in spreading the IFB’s message of hate as well as attracting and recruiting members who support racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other isms and phobias against anyone from the outside. Anderson has found his nicht with YouTube. And though he only has 3,700 followers, his videos have had millions of views (often from viewers who are horrified by Andersons teachings). Yet even with YouTubes lax standards on hate speech, Anderson still often finds himself censored and his videos reported. So he started his own site, ifbtube.com which allows free reign for fundamentalist pastors to be as abusive as they like. We have added a link and warn you before you venture onto the site. About the only thing it’s good for is notifying viewers of any local hatemongers.

Immediately upon starting the church, Anderson began to preach against the evils of homosexuality. He stridently advocates the death penalty be administered for all queer people. In one of his now deleted sermon transcripts Anderson stated:
“The same God who instituted the death penalty for murders is the same god who instituted the death penalty for rapists and for homosexuals, sodomites and queers!”[20]
But it would take four years before he gained national recognition, not for his comments on the LGBTQ but for his comments on the President. In 2009 The New Mexico Independent reported that Anderson told his congregation that he wished that President Obama would die.
“I’m going to pray that he dies and goes to hell. When I go to bed tonight, that’s what I’m going to pray. And you say, ‘Are you just saying that?’ No. When I go to bed tonight, Steven L. Anderson is going to pray for Barack Obama to die and go to hell.”[20]

He clarified that he did not want Obama to be assassinated as that would make the former President a martyr and added “It’s not like we need another holiday”. Yet it was this attitude that also drew attention to Anderson vicious hatred of the queer community. A few years later Anderson delivered a message on World AIDS Day. An annual commemoration of survivors and those lost to the disease hosted on December 1st each year. The fundamentalist read the passage in the Bible from Leviticus 20:13 and spoke out again in support of killing LGBTQ+ people. The Independent reported as such:

“Telling his audience to turn to Leviticus 20:13, Anderson read aloud: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, even both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.”

He then said:

“And that, my friend, is the cure for Aids. It was right there in the Bible all along – and they’re out spending billions of dollars in research and testing. It’s curable – right there. Because if you executed the homos like God recommends, you wouldn’t have all this AIDS running rampant.”[21]

The Biblical literalism of J. Frank Norris time is still being applied today, only now used to justify killing queer people. And of course ‘the gays’ aren’t the only ones the New IFB hates. Like all the IFB leaders before him Anderson also hates Catholics, liberals, and feminists. Along with Jews, which is a newer theme in the IFB. Steven’s 2015 so-called documentary Marching to Zion denounced Judaism and just a few months later Anderson shared a second anti-Jew film titled The Holocaust Hoax Exposed. In the areas of racism the IFB has swung back to the days of J. Frank Norris with white supremacists finding a home in the New IFB. Martin Luther King Jr. is vilanized and Anderson created another film he cleverly called Marxist Lucifer King. And his proximity to Mexico allows for plenty of racist fodder in his sermons and videos. The pastor has also taken pains to really spread around his hate towards other religions. Targeting Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, but pouring most of his rage at Jews and Muslims.

Yet with so much hate to give there is plenty left over for the queers. The Southern Poverty Law Center labeled Faithful Word Baptist Church a hate group around 2014 when news first broke of Anderson’s advocacy for killing the LGBTQ+. They re-confirmed their status in 2016 when news of the Pulse Night Club Massacre drew this comment from Steven Anderson:

“The good news is there are 50 less pedophiles in this world..Because these homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles. That’s who was [sic] the victim here — a bunch of just disgusting homosexuals at a gay bar…The bad news is a lot of the homos in the bar are still alive, so they’re going to continue to molest children and recruit children into their filthy homosexual lifestyle,”[22]

Though it seems we’re currently stuck with Andersons hatefulness, much of the rest of the world has decided against listening to him. The pastor has been banned from 30 countries and counting including every developed English speaking country other than America. In addition, the New IFB – headed by Anderson – recently suffered a split amid some controversy. It was revealed in early 2019 that pastor Donnie Romero, Andersons close friend and strong supporter, hired sex workers, smoked marijuana, and engaged in gambling. Romero had been pastor of the Stedfast Baptist Church of Fort Worth. SBC is actually a web of several other New IFB churches all with the title Stedfast Baptist Church of________ (whatever city they are located in). SBC has also been labeled as a hate group and a cult.

Anderson stepped in to ‘ordain’ a new pastor, even though his church is not an SBC church. This caused an uproar when another SBC pastor refused to recognize the authority of Steve Anderson and his new placement in Fort Worth. Both sides of the argument then erupted in a battle of name calling as they each called the other side a cult. In 100 years of practice the ego of IFB pastors is perhaps their most consistent attribute. However, though one could hope the infighting might distract from the regular stream of hate it was not to be. Just a few months ago the New IFB had their annual Make America Straight Again Conference. A small convention devoted solely to eradicating the LGBTQ+ from the U.S. and deliberately held as close to the Pulse NightClub Massacre as possible. As a new century of fundamentalism begins we can be sure these extremists will only increase in their aggressive fight to end the Queer Resistance. We can also be sure that we have faced worse and we say – with PRIDE, Bring It.

Your recommended resources are the book Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain. You can also check out the various episodes done by BBC titled The Most Hated Family In America or check out the TED talk by Fred Phelps granddaughter Meghan Phelps-Roper available on youtube.

Jeff Sharlett The Family

J Frank Norris (1920-1952)

Lester Roloff (1950-1982)

Jack Hyles (1969-2001)

Fred Phelps (1991-2014)

Steve Anderson (2009 – present)

REFERENCES:

  • Preacher Boys Podcast – https://www.preacherboysdoc.com/blog
  • Fundamentalism in America Culture by George M. Marsden
  • The Shooting Salvationist: J Frank Norris and the Murder that Captivated America by David R. Stokes
  • Norris (Wiki) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Frank_Norris
  • Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson
  • Jack Hyles –
  • Billings – https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/VA-news/VA-Pilot/issues/1995/vp950601/06010439.htm
  • Is the Homosexual Sick or Sinful? – https://www.jackhyles.com/Jesus-short-hair_Homo-sick-or-sinful.pdf
  • Star Telegram Story – https://www.star-telegram.com/entertainment/living/religion/article222576550.html
  • Jack Hyles Books/Sermons – https://www.jackhyles.com/index2.htm
  • Dave Hyles Blog – https://www.falleningrace.com/13-individuals-coming-out-of-the-unnatural-lifestyle/
  • Peron Medium (Hyles) – https://medium.com/the-radical-center/when-conservative-men-misbehave-blame-women-e5da67a6e2a4
  • NWI Times original article (copied and made accessible) – https://web.archive.org/web/20121026023652/http://www.nwitimes.com/uncategorized/detroit-station-probes-abuse-church-link/article_14a337d0-f46b-5ad5-95bf-0410dca96668.html
  • Phelps (wiki) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Phelps
  • SPLC (Phelps) – https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/fred-phelps
  • Mother Jones (Phelps) – https://www.motherjones.com/politics/1999/03/man-who-loves-hate/
  • Westboro website – https://web.archive.org/web/20070102151809/http://www.godhatesfags.com/main/index.html
  • Westboro today – https://religionnews.com/2018/07/17/theyre-still-here-the-curious-evolution-of-westboro-baptist-church/
  • Anderson (wife) – https://www.stevenandersonfamily.com/about-1
  • Anderson (gays) – https://web.archive.org/web/20121014134155/http://newmexicoindependent.com/42647/kokesh-and-the-guy-who-brought-an-assault-rifle-to-an-obama-event
  • The Independent (Anderson) – https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-pastor-steven-anderson-says-gay-people-should-be-executed-for-an-aids-free-christmas-9903543.html
  • The Phoeix New Times – https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/tempe-pastor-hails-orlando-massacre-for-leaving-50-less-pedophiles-in-this-world-video-8372346
  • Texas Monthly (Roloff) – https://www.texasmonthly.com/politics/remember-the-christian-alamo/
  • Mother Jones (Roloff) – https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/08/new-bethany-ifb-teen-homes-abuse/2/
  • Juvenile Justice (Roloff) – https://jjie.org/2014/06/30/tough-love-or-abuse-inside-the-anchor-home-foroys/#:~:text=The%20Anchor%20Home%20for%20Boys%20was%20founded%20by%20the%20radio,adolescent%20disobedience%20to%20adult%20alcoholism
  • Leaving Fundamentalism – https://leavingfundamentalism.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/a-handy-guide-to-tough-love-teen-reform-homes/
  • Roloff (wiki) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lester_Roloff
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