March 27, 2014

Is Fred Phelps a Saint?

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.


9 Responses to Is Fred Phelps a Saint?

  1. Vicki Woods says:

    You have taken a lot of freedom describing Mr, Prichett instead of your own thoughts about Mr. Phelps. It may surprise you to understand a gay man like Chett, no more that a straight man like you I would imagine, bases his theology on his sexual orientation. I would invite you to speak of your theology as it differs and/or reflects that of Mr. Phelps instead of not speaking boldly your truth.

  2. Justin White says:

    I agree with Chett Pritchett, which I don’t see as Calvinistic. If grace is really grace, then I look forward to sitting with you, John, at the heavenly banquet table. Along with St. Fred as you call him, and a host of others. May God’s deep abiding grace and peace be with you,

    Rev. Justin White

  3. Brian says:

    John,

    I thought that for evangelical fundamentalists, salvation was assured the moment they accepted Jesus as their personal saviour. If this is true, then Phelps was saved, no matter how much hatred he preached or how wrong he might have been.

    Or am I missing something?

    • John Lomperis says:

      1. The New Testament notes that just because someone is in a church or verbally names Jesus Christ as Lord, that does not necessarily mean they were ever truly a disciple of Him.
      2. As free-will Arminians, orthodox Methodists believe that it IS indeed possible for someone to become a Christian and later lose his salvation.

  4. Pudentiana says:

    It amazes me to find what legalists these liberals really are. For anyone to seriously accept that an uttered formulaic prayer will fling wide the Heavenly Gates is much like the offer of Papal representatives at the time of the Reformation who promised entrance through the ringing of a coin in the coffer. As our Savior admonished, we are to know them by their fruits, not their promise.

  5. Anthony Fatta says:

    John, you are forgetting that in Wesleyan theology, Fred can continue to be perfected in grace after his earthly death. In that manner, Chett is proclaiming that God’s love for creation triumphs over hate ultimately. Just as someone can backslide from one’s salvation, one can also respond to grace and experience justification after death. Death is not the end!

    • Rev. Bradford B. Wilson says:

      Greetings Anthony, as a lifelong Methodist and student of Wesleyan theology, I am at a total loss to understand how you come to think that John Wesley’s theology of being perfected in grace is something that continues after death?

  6. Kenneth Cohen says:

    “My ways are not your ways”: we can’t presume to know what is in God’s mind, but why presume that a wicked person is a saint? Such a theology is an invitation to bad behavior on this side of the great divide. Grace or not, a rotten person is a rotten person.

  7. Paul Zesewitz says:

    I do not for one minute believe that Fred Phelps is in Heaven! Why a God of eternal love would admit a man who went about spreading a gospel of hate, to the Pearly Gates, is just beyond me. I do believe in hell as a place where the unconverted/ unrepentant go after death. And it is, in fact, a ‘Lake of Fire’– Jesus spoke of it in the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 16 starting at verse 19, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. I can’t even bring myself to acknowledge Phelps as a minister, let alone a Baptist one! Maybe it’s not Christian of me, but I hope that Phelps, like the rich man in that story, is, as we speak, being ‘tormented in these flames’. You see, I am also a veteran. I put on a uniform for 23 years to defend Phelps’ right to spout his most un-Baptist-like gospel of hatred! Hopefully now that he is no longer with us, all the brainwashing he saturated his parishioners with will wear off and Westboro can become like any other Baptist Church with down-to-earth believers who truly love the Lord and every other human being, whether gay or straight. As far as Phelps being a ‘saint’ goes, why anyone would dare to call someone who did nothing but spread hatred a ‘saint’, is beyond me. Perhaps that person needs to have his head–and his heart–examined.

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