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Early Thursday morning, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., founder of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, died at age 84.
His death and the lead-up to it have brought an onslaught of reactions. Many center on Phelps' effects on society overall.
Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church have been a controversial subject in the American dialogue because the church has picketed soldiers’ funerals and ridiculed sports teams for their team colors. The church has also been notoriously known for its anti-gay position and incredibly tight stance on interpreting the Bible’s text.
On Monday, March 17, however, it was reported that Phelps was excommunicated from the Westboro Baptist Church after he called for members to increase kindness, according to The Topeka Captain-Journal. The Examiner said the church excommunicated him because he approached the anti-gay “ideology with a softer touch.”
Phelps’ son, Nate Phelps, wasn’t complimentary of the church for excommunicating him.
“They took the one thing that meant everything to the man,” Nate Phelps said. “That old man and his reason to exist have gone away.”
Controversy has surrounded Fred Phelps’ potential funeral, too. The church said it wouldn’t be having a service for the reverend, The Huffington Post reported.
There’s also been talk by some religious groups of defacing Phelps’ gravesite. And hit pop singer Lorde has dished out her own suggestions to strike back at the church, which planned to protest Lorde’s Kansas City concert, the Kansas City Star reported.
But is picketing Phelps’ funeral or defacing his grave the right thing to do, especially for those who were denounced and shamed by Phelps and his church? Slate recently looked into the direction gay people should take to eulogize the late reverend. Instead of protesting his service and crudely shouting against the founder, Slate writer Tyler Lopez said gays should stick to promoting their rights.
“If you’re truly bent on sticking it to Westboro’s fallen founder, focus instead on the mundane battles for LGBTQ equality taking place in church congregations and courthouses across the country,” Lopez wrote. “While these events may lack the spectacle that Phelps commanded, they will surely change more hearts and minds. What better way to commemorate the life of America’s most famous anti-gay bigot?”
In general, praying and mourning for Phelps is a controversial issue, The Guardian reported. Twitter trends featured anti-Phelps messages and readers have spoken out against the leader since he neared his death, according to The Guardian.
God “clearly had a purpose for Fred Phelps, which was to show just how repulsive his ideas about man and God really are, and to warn us off them,” The Guardian said, adding that Phelps and the Westboro Church showed an extreme case of how far people can take God’s plan and religion.
But The Daily Beast had a more optimistic view of what Phelps brought to the world. Because he was so “outrageous” and “mean-spirited and vicious,” he actually helped the groups he spoke out against, wrote Jay Michaelson for The Daily Beast. He was so off the map, Michaelson said, he actually gave those groups power to appear normal and uncontroversial.
“So while many activists said the best thing to do was ignore Phelps — ‘don’t give him any more attention than he deserves,’ they said — I always wanted to shine a big, bright light on him,” Michaelson said. “The more he was the face of the anti-equality movement, the better.”