Everyone uses Fred Phelps as an example of conservative Christian bigotry and hatred. I even used to; he’s certainly walked the walk for many years.
But now that he’s organizing pickets of the funerals of non-gay soldiers so he can tell everyone that it’s God’s wrath on America for tolerating gays, you have to wonder. The connection seems tenuous at best; millions of people are dying, and many of them are in some way connected to America’s tolerance of gays. If anything, in fact, the military contains one of the highest densities of people who would be genuinely offended if you told them they were supporting or tolerating gays.
So, why do this?
The answer, I think, lies in the simple observation that Phelps, although disbarred, was an attorney for many years. Many members of his “church” are also attorneys. And, whaddya know: They have sued people for hitting them.
There’s an old joke about a man who says he’s “in the insurance business”, then runs out into the street in front of a car. I think Mr. Phelps may have figured out that, if you can say things that make people angry, you can make a lot of money. If you can’t get the gays to hit you (and, after all, most gay people seem to view him with a sort of exasperated sense of futility, rather than any kind of real anger, these days), what should you do? You should find a community that is more likely to hit you.
1. Emotionally overwrought. Playing the funeral scene was a good idea.
2. Accepting violence. You want people who are basically emotionally okay with the notion of violence. You’re not gonna get very far picking on Quakers hoping to rack up easy money.
3. Likely to react badly to accusations of gay-friendliness.
And there you have it; the sweet spot is military funerals. Members of the military are already being treated like shit all around; they come home from being underequipped and overextended only to get yelled at over policies they have no influence on. If you can pick on their families, you can probably get someone to pop you one.
I used to think Phelps was for real. Then I saw a man who has openly advocated the systematic slaughter of gays dismiss Phelps as a liberal plot. And I realized that this guy is so far out there that even would-be murderers have to repudiate him. Which is more likely; that he has managed to get together a group of people this crazy, who are so absolutely out of touch that they can’t find any better way to attack gays than to attack the US military? Or is it that he, and the multiple attorneys in his immediate family, have found a way to make a living at picking fights?
Seems to me that, as is so often the case, the money has gradually taken over the operation. Maybe early on they were just trying to collect for expenses to fund their “work”, but now? Now their behavior makes no sense at all unless we look at it in terms of the simplest and most universal motivation: It pays well.
My sympathy goes out to the families who are having to deal with this in their time of mourning. Just a word of advice; don’t hit them. It’s probably exactly what they want. Indeed, I think they’re banking on it.