Is Fred Phelps a saint?
Last week, the 84-year old founder and patriarch of the denominationally unaffiliated Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) passed away.
As a protest group, the WBC was wildly successful in gaining the attention it seemed to so desperately crave, with such outrageous antics as protesting soldiers’ funerals and proclaiming that “God Hates Fags” (and apparently also hates most everyone else outside of WBC). As IRD President Mark Tooley notes, Phelps and company were also very successful in impressing upon socially liberal minds an enduring caricature of the alleged true nature of social conservatives. In its satirical obituary, The Onion similarly hinted at the role Phelps played in helping gay-friendly perspectives seem more reasonable and mainstream.
When the Methodist Federation of Social Action (MFSA), the oldest liberal caucus within the United Methodist Church, raised the question of the hatemonger’s sainthood, it at least refrained from cynically celebrating how he had been a great PR prop in their agitation for sexual liberation.
Yet the MFSA statement, emailed out on Thursday of last week, does declare that “If grace is true, then God’s love is welcoming Fred among the saints.” And the same MFSA statement concludes: “Rest well, Fred. Rest well, all who sojourn for justice.”
I have to imagine the idea of extending any kind of grace to Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps posed some real challenges for a gay man like Chett Pritchett, MFSA’s executive director and author of the statement. Pritchett’s desire to respond to his avowed enemy with “grace and gratitude” rather than seeking vengeance is in many ways admirable. And Pritchett also commendably injects some humanizing nuance in his take of Phelps, noting the now-deceased firebrand’s earlier history of sticking his neck out to challenge racial discrimination.
Pritchett also evinces hints of discomfort with the sort of anti-nomianism which imagines God merely celebrating people as they are and not really being in the transformation business. The MFSA leader uses Phelps’s death to note that “grace can be convicting” and warn: “We cannot offer or accept grace without expecting that we will also be transformed.”
Evangelical faith is clear that even those who have been given over to a life of spectacular sin in thought, word, and deed can receive the transformative, redemptive divine grace uniquely available through the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. Even if, like the thief on the cross, the moment of repentance and conversion does not come until right before death. By definition, grace is something that none of us deserve, no matter our self-righteous illusions of being “good people.”
But did Mr. Phelps ever at the end finally repent of spreading his false gospel of bizarre hate, of so prominently misrepresenting the triune God, and of hurting so many people created in His image?
It is appropriate to prayerfully hope for this. But neither Pritchett nor I have any way of knowing for sure.
Amazingly, that seems not to even matter for MFSA. According to the theologically liberal United Methodist party line, there is really no Hell in which anyone faces eternal judgment, and Christ’s death on the cross was not really necessary for anyone’s salvation.
Some five-and-a-half decades ago, H. Richard Niebuhr gave an apt summary of the gospel of Liberal Protestantism that is no less true today: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”
For MFSA, “If grace is true, then God’s love is welcoming Fred among the saints.” Which amounts to saying that without St. Fred, grace cannot be true. Thus, repentant or not, Fred Phelps has to be welcomed among the saints, along with everybody else. Or else MFSA’s entire theology falls apart.
So then we have the ironic spectacle of Pritchett, the liberal Methodist, being compelled by his universalism to ditch John Wesley on free will in order to defend irresistible grace as strongly as any militant, five-point Calvinist.
It is worth remembering that Pritchett’s recent predecessor at the helm of MFSA was a former executive director of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
Such shallow everybody-goes-to-Heaven universalism seductively appeals to our own sinful desires to be free from ultimate accountability. But such a worldview promotes viewing God as ultimately indifferent to even the most extreme betrayals of Himself and those created in His own image. This god thus loses any meaningful sort of holiness in the sense of being radically set apart from the evil of our fallen world. And what truly loving father would not be angry, even furious, at those who abused his own children to the point of torture or rape? Such conscience-dulling denials of Hell as an actual, ultimate reality of eternal torment for many people is certainly not rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ – unless we are to do some rather extensive scissor work on the four gospels.
When your belief system leads you to imagine an unrepentant Fred Phelps (or any other unrepentant, self-righteous sinner, for that matter) being welcomed as a saint in Heaven, it is time to start re-thinking that belief system.