The angels weren't very impressed by Mr Phelps. Photo: Getty
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What happened when the Westboro Baptist Church’s Fred Phelps arrived at the gates of heaven

It didn’t go quite as he’d imagined. . .

“Next!” says Saint Peter, beckoning an old man with cold blue eyes and a cowboy hat towards the Pearly Gates.

“Ah, Mr Phelps,” says the gatekeeper as the old man approaches. “What time do you call this? Twitter has had you down as practically dead since Monday.”

“Tweeter. . .” says Phelps, gazing furrow-browed into the clouds.

“Never mind. Right, let’s get started, shall we? I’m afraid we’ve had to up security here a little, since the Thatcher Incident last year. I’m going to start by asking you a few questions about your time on earth.”

“By all means, sir. I know darn well I’ve led a righteous life. Ask away.”

“Great! Right then, Mr Phelps,” says Saint Peter, picking up a clipboard, “I’m going to present you with some statements. In response to each one, I need you to tell me if you strongly agree, agree, somewhat agree, disagree or strongly disagree. All clear?”

Phelps slowly nods his Stetson-topped head.

“Number one: ‘To the best of my ability, I did unto others as I would have them do unto me.’”

“Strongly agree,” shoots the unblinking Phelps.

“Right,” says Saint Peter, chewing on the end of his pen. “I’m afraid that answer presents us with a slight administrative problem. I’m not actually cleared to deal with this sort of thing yet – these security measures really are very new. I’m going to have to get Maureen from the Department of Heavenly Prerogatives and Standards to come and lend a hand. Please bear with me.”

“But sir,” says Phelps, eyes widening into vicious blue marbles, “I’m a true Christian. I lived my entire life according to the Lord’s word. Surely there’s no need for this?”

Ignoring Phelps, Saint Peter picks up a crackling walkie talkie, “Maureen,” he says into it, “We have a possible A1327 violation here.”

The walkie talkie squawks something indecipherable to Phelps, but a winged woman in a pencil skirt, with a Heaven Border Security tag on a lanyard, soon appears.

“Hello Mr Phelps, my name’s Maureen. I’m going to be helping you through security today.”

“This is a downright outrage!” bellows Phelps, “I did not dedicate my life to preaching the word of our Lord Jesus Christ to be held here, outside of Heaven’s Gate, like a godforsaken sodomite.”

“I understand that you’re upset, Mr Phelps” says Maureen in a tone that suggests that she has no experience dealing with the upset whatsoever, “But I’m afraid you’ve violated section A1327 of the Heavenly Security Code – that’s the Love Thy Neighbour clause.”

“This is BS!” says Phelps, raising his arms.

“Please, Mr Phelps,” says a decidedly bored Maureen. “If you’ll just bear with us. . .”

“I want to speak to God,” says Phelps, “He knows I’m a good Christian.”

“Mr Phelps, I’m afraid it’s that church of yours,” says Maureen, emphasising the word “church” with a pair of elaborate air quotation marks. “Your whole ‘God hates fags’ thing. See, what you’ve actually done is libel God. And to put it mildly, Mr Phelps, he’s not a happy bunny.”

“Libel?!” shrieks Phelps, his red face twitching like an electrocuted rump steak, “Leviticus 18:22: ‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable’. Those are His own words.”

“I’m sorry Mr Phelps, but all of that. . . wrathful stuff was overwritten in the Gospel of Matthew. You know, ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’. God decided to do a bit of a rebrand at that point, you see. And to be quite honest, you can’t just hate your way into Heaven like in the olden days. In fact, all of these security measures are part of Operation Cuddly Pants. Jesus has personally demanded a crackdown on all the ‘haters’ (his word, not mine) getting through the Pearly Gates.”

Phelp’s jaw creeks into its full extension.

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to fill out these forms,” says Maureen.

Phelps is nudged out of his catatonic state by the thud of a War and Peace-thick stack of paper hitting Saint Peter’s desk.

“It’ll take six to eight months to process,” adds Maureen, “In the meantime, you’re in luck – a room has just become available at the YMCA in Purgatory.

Two muscle-bound angels appear.

“Adam and Steve,” Maureen addresses them, “Please will you escort Mr Phelps downstairs.”

 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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How the middle-aged became the hedonists

When they next open a bottle of wine (or three), the parents and grandparents of today’s teens should raise a glass to their responsible offspring.

Rare is the week that passes without more horrific tales of the debauchery of the youth. One photo has come to embody their supposed recklessness: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench in Bristol with bottles of booze scattered beneath her. The photograph is now a decade old, and the image it portrays is in urgent need of updating. The startling thing about today’s youth is now how much they indulge but how well behaved they are. They are putting their hedonistic parents and grandparents to shame.

Wherever you look, the picture is the same. Over a quarter of those aged 16-24 today are teetotal; just 29 per cent drink heavily in an average week, compared with 44 per cent a decade ago. Only 23 per cent of under-25s smoke, a 10 per cent decrease since 2001. Conception rates among under-18s are at their lowest since records began in 1969, and the number of sexually transmitted infections among those under-25 has also declined in the last five years. Today’s youth haven’t been resorting to narcotics, either: drug use among under-25s has fallen by over a quarter in the last decade.

Young fogeys are not only on the rise in Britain. In America teen sexual activity has decreased by one-fifth since 1988, and only 38 per cent of 12th grade students (those aged 17 and 18) said they have been drunk in the past year, compared to 52 per cent in 2001. Something similar is happening throughout Western Europe: in Spain, wine consumption has halved since 1980.

These trends reflect how times have changed for young people. The rise of online entertainment and socialising has its downsides, such as increased loneliness and anxiety, but teenagers and those in their early twenties have many more alternatives to boozing or smoking a spliff. “In past decades, teens might have smoked, drank and had sex because they didn’t have much else to do,” says Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me. “Now, teens have a world of entertainment and digital communication available on their phones 24/7.” And savvy youngsters know that social media has given debauchery an online afterlife. About half of recruiters in the UK already look at a candidate’s social media profile, according to a study last year from Career Builder, and a third of all recruiters have rejected candidates about finding evidence of binge-drinking or drug use online. Small wonder ambitious young people are so reluctant to indulge.

Today's youngsters have less money for booze and drugs. They have become poorer in the past decade: in real terms, full-time wages for those aged 18-21 and 22-29 were over 10 per cent lower in 2013 than in 2004. Add to this soaring housing costs, and Generation Rent is too preoccupied with saving to spend a great deal on drink and drugs: 670,000 more people aged 20-34 live with their parents in Britain today than in 1996. 

Parenting has become better, making it harder for children to drink away their teenage years. A quarter more 11-15-year-olds say their parents don’t like the idea of them drinking than in 2008. Parents have become older – the average age of a woman giving birth has passed 30 for the first time in history, and is four years higher than in the 1970s – and are having fewer children: the average number of children per UK woman has decreased from 2.93 to 1.83 in the past 50 years. “Over the last 20 years, parents have become more attentive and involved, more playful, less harshly punitive with their children. They are more educated about parenting, and monitor their children more closely,”  says Frances Gardner, Professor of Child and Family Psychology at Oxford University. “Women have also become more educated in general, and now have children at later age. So this may have improved the behaviour of young people.”

The government has also made life harder for youthful hedonists. Schemes like Challenge 21 and Challenge 25 and an increase in fines dished out to shops, pubs and clubs that allow those under-18 to drink have made it more difficult to source drink under-age. The ban on smoking in enclosed public places, including pubs and bars, and workplaces in 2007 has ushered in an era when smoking is increasingly regarded as an inconvenience. Meanwhile taxes on cigarettes and alcohol have been ramped up: across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today. Selling alcohol below cost price was banned last year.

But the decline of youthful excess is about far more than the cost. If price were all that was driving youngsters away from booze and fags, then use of drugs, which have become significantly cheaper in real terms, would be on the rise. That young people are far better behaved owes to something much deeper than a thinning out of their wallets: it is the result of a generation who know how competitive the workplace is and are ambitious to get ahead.

The recession and globalisation mean have made the employment market far tougher. Most important to making the workplace more cutthroat is the rise of skilled female graduates. Women outnumber men at university today – including Russell Group institutions. Thirty years ago, only 56 per cent of women aged 16-64 were in work; today, 69 per cent are.

Young people have never faced more competition for the best jobs. They know it, too: even at university, freed from the prying eyes of their parents, young people are shying away from drugs and booze. The trebling of tuition fees to £9,000 a year five years ago makes university an awfully expensive place to go if your only aim is to get hammered. And students know that indulging while their contemporaries swat up in lectures will make them less employable after they graduate. Greater competition in the workplace means that “the cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of consumer trends agency Future Foundation.

Some fear that as real wages increase, so will underage drinking and drug taking. Yet it seems more likely that young people will become even better behaved. Even as the economy has ticked up young people have not changed their habits. “If you grow up in the middle of a recession it will effect what you spend your money on,” says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. Young people who have discovered alternatives to late-night drinking have learned there are plenty of other ways to be entertained than binge drinking into the early hours.

The changing face of Britain is making youthful excess less common. Although London is the richest part of the country, it is also among the least hedonistic: a third of adults in London do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any British region. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” says Dr James Nicholls, Director of Research and Policy Development at Alcohol Research UK. Not only are ethnic far less likely to indulge in booze, drugs and fags, but the effect seems to rub off on their white British friends.

While millennials have proved better behaved than the previous generation of young people, they are now being outdone by those born in the new century. Children are a third less likely to bunk off school now than in 2008. Just 22 per cent of under-16s have tried a cigarette, half the number who had in 2003.

“All I need are cigarettes and alcohol,” Oasis sang 22 years ago. While the spirit of excess is dying among today’s young, it remains alive among their parents and grandparents. Sexually transmitted infections, which are declining among the under-25s, are rising fastest among those over 45. Those aged 65 and above are now more likely than any other group to drink alcohol at least five days a week, with those aged 45-65 not far behind. Perhaps, as Katherine Brown of the Institute of Alcohol Studies says: “Watching your parents get gozzled might put young people off.”

When they next open a bottle of wine (or three), the parents and grandparents of today’s teens should raise a glass to their responsible offspring. And when politicians complain about “broken Britain”, they should make it clear that they have middle-aged hedonists in mind. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war