Andrew Sullivan mentions Fred Phelps today. Fred's picketing someplace in Long Island for some reason. I'm from Kansas. I know all about Fred Phelps. He's been at it for years. I remember back in the mid-eighties when I was at KU in Lawrence; Fred was already very well-known then. He used to show up on campus a lot with his small flock and his "God Hates Fags" and "AIDS Cures Fags" signs. From what I hear, he still does, but he went nationwide years ago. His website has attracted over 3.5 million visitors.
Fred is the self-appointed pastor of his own minuscule Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, which to my knowledge has no affiliation with the American Baptists or the Southern Baptists or any other legitimate group of Baptists. All of his church's members are his relatives; he has like twelve kids, a few of whom are estranged from their father but most of whom are his followers. Fred may have attracted a few nutcase loyalists outside his family, but since even Jerry Falwell thinks he's crazy, he's well out of sync with the most conservative wing of the Christian Right.
What frightens me about Fred is not that he's going to attract a mass movement of followers; he's too far out for anyone except for those people with nine toes and eight teeth who move out to Idaho or down to the Ozarks and live in incestuous and heavily armed compounds that the Feds roust every so often and some nutjob's poor innocent kids wind up getting shot. I'm worried that some Alan Rudolph type is going to be encouraged by Fred to go on an anti-gay killing spree. In fact, I pretty much guarantee you it's going to happen one of these days, sooner or later.
Also, what is tremendously offensive is the sheer hate that Fred exudes toward gays. He's not a "hate the sin, love the sinner" type; at least those guys are nonviolent. In fact, much of his rhetoric is obscenely scatological, as he continually refers to gays as "filthy" and "pigs" and "dogs" whose sexual practices include "fornicating with feces" and "drinking urine and semen". (I saw a rather attractive young female the other day wearing one of those tiny T-shirts. This one had the Pepsi logo on the front, but instead of "Pepsi" it said "Sperm". If I weren't married I'd have asked for her phone number.)
This, of course, is the good old dehumanizing tactic used by such lovely folks as the Nazis. You really ought to check out Fred's stuff, though, for the ultimate in crude hate propaganda. Here's a collection of his pieces called "God Hates America". Warning: click at your own risk. This stuff is vile.
What can we do to stop Fred? I think nothing. Fred's speech is protected by the First Amendment--up to a point. I don't think the law can close him down until some Fred follower shoots up a gay rights parade; then we can get him for inciting to violence, at least implictly. It looks to me like he's pretty careful (he's a lawyer) to avoid doing that explicitly; that is, he says that gays are sodomite pigs who have destroyed America, but he never takes the next logical step: he never out-and-out calls for violence.
Note to foreigners: Do not assume that Fred Phelps is a typical American from the heartland. He is not. Ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of the population of Kansas, not to mention the rest of the country, thinks Fred Phelps is demented.