An Interview with Fred Phelps's Son, Nathan

By Simon Davis

Nathan Phelps (photo via)

Westboro Baptist Church founder and world-famous bastard Fred Phelps died last week – and it doesn't look like he'll be missed. Not even by a large part of his large family (he produced 13 children and 54 grandchildren), who still make up a large part of what remains of the WBC.

So far, more than 20 members of the Phelps family have left the church due to his behaviour and WBC's practices. One of them is Nathan Phelps, who left the Kansas family house at 18, accusing his father, among other things, of child abuse. Having completely denounced the WBC dogma, Nathan now lives in Canada, calls himself an atheist and is an avid supporter of LGBT rights. He has also spent the past few years giving speeches and interviews about his experience as a member of WBC.

Back in 2012, I had the honour of having Nate stay as a guest in my house for a few days. Once I heard about his father's death, and with the Facebook announcement Nate made about it in mind, I got in touch with him again.

VICE: Hey Nate, how do you feel about your dad dying?
Nathan Phelps:
I haven't seen my father in over 35 years. I spoke to him once, briefly, in 1995. Ten years after I left home I went through a deliberate mourning process for the loss of my family. Between that and the passage of time, I believed I would have no feelings when he passed. I was surprised that there were feelings when I learned of his condition and then his death. I've now had a few days to consider those feelings and I think the sadness is over what might have been.

When you revealed that your father was dying a few days ago, you said family members that left the church were being blocked from seeing him. If you had been able to, would you have wanted to see him one last time in person?
In a perfect world, I would have jumped at that chance. I left that place 37 years ago as a fearful young man. The absence of interaction, an opportunity to process that, only means I still have that fear to contend with. If there were the least bit of evidence that our relationship had changed in his eyes, I would be there in a heartbeat. Other than that, my greatest concern was for my family members who had expressed a desire to see him and were being denied that opportunity.

So far, that famous Facebook update of yours from a few days ago has 2,000 comments. I read quite a few of them and there seemed to be a divide between those who wanted to leave comments celebrating his death and those that felt this would be disrespectful to you as his son – even likening it to picketing a funeral. Given that you were one of his biggest critics while he was alive, what are your thoughts on this?
They [the WBC] have done great harm to many people. I cannot expect all of them to be prepared to forgive and forget just because he stopped breathing. Having said that, I don't condone fighting hate with hate. I am fond of something the British philosopher Bertrand Russell said near the end of his life: "The moral thing I should like to say is, love is wise and hatred is foolish." These are not interesting words on a sign, but a way of approaching life and other humans morally.  

You sometimes tweet at your sister Shirley. Does she or any of the other family members who are still in the church ever respond or communicate with you?
Rarely, but I've heard from most of them at one time or another. The interesting thing about those encounters is that we discover quite early on that we have no basis for debate because I roundly reject the foundation for their entire worldview, the divine inerrancy of the Bible.

You had revealed that your father was excommunicated a few months ago by the church he founded. Do you know if this was an indication of any significant changes at the WBC? What do you think will become of it now?
This is tough to answer with any certainty. I've heard he was kicked out because his personality had changed and he was treating the family and other church members cruelly. You will allow me to pause for a moment of bitter laughter at that one. That rationale should have seen him excommunicated 60 years ago. But I digress. The other thing I heard is that he was at odds with a newly formed board of eight elders regarding the direction of the church and this led to his excommunication.

Having said that, it's not clear if it was a complete excommunication or a forced removal from his position as pastor. Some things I've heard from family members suggest that they turned their back on him in the end. Other comments lead me to believe that he was still, in their eyes, in good standing with God.

What effect do you think his death will have on the family? Do you foresee it changing any of their relationships with you?
I won't hold my breath. I do believe that the new dynamics will be very, very difficult to sustain. There is evidence that an outsider, Steve Drain, holds significant power. That same power in my father's hands encompassed so much more than Steve could ever match. If they keep bleeding young members from their flock, I have to believe they will reach a tipping point that will fracture what's left. Stay tuned.

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