A protester from the Westboro Baptist Church. Photo: Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images
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“Love is wise and hatred is foolish”: how a son of the Westboro Baptist Church lost faith

The controversial church has a firm hold on many of its members. But Nate Phelps, son of the church’s infamous patriarch, wanted out.

It’s been four decades since Nate Phelps, then just 18, ran away from home at the stroke of midnight. His getaway vehicle was a rundown car bought from a school security guard.

When we meet in the library of Conway Hall in central London, he tell me he feels “primarily empty” when he thinks of the family he left behind, yet he has spent the last five years speaking out against them.

Nate is the son of the late Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. The group (mainly family members) gained notoriety in 1998 for picketing the funeral of murdered gay student Matthew Shepard.

Holding signs with slogans reading “God Hates Fags” and “No Tears for Queers”, they insisted the young man’s death was a “punishment” meted out by a vengeful God. Despite Fred’s passing last March, the controversial church remains active.

Phelps Jr is a gentle man, who speaks candidly about growing up in an extremist household where his father’s violence was commonplace. “Recalling the look in his eye and what felt like pure malevolence when he was raging or beating one of the kids, it’s like he had demons and had to exorcise them on a regular basis,” he reflects now.

As children, Nate and his twelve siblings would listen to their patriarch preach daily about a raging, unforgiving God. They were told that come the day of reckoning, only they would be saved – a premise Nate found difficult to accept, even as a young child.

Does he feel any empathy for those who are still a part of the church? “You know, it’s funny. Because the only one I feel a level of sadness for now is my father... Just the stories I heard, at the end of his life. The possibility that he might have had an awakening. It’s a side of him I never even imagined I’d consider.”

Nate married Tammi, a churchgoer, in the mid-eighties and has three children (they’re now divorced). He joined the local evangelical church soon after their first child was born in order to feel “part of the community”.

Yet in 1995, he lost his faith. Waiting in the car at a fast food drive-in, his seven-year-old son asked him what happened to those who didn’t believe in God (“bless his little atheist heart”, he says now). When he told him they were condemned to spend eternity in hell, his young son burst into tears. He started crying too. It was then, Nate says, that he decided to forgo religion altogether.

The terror attacks of 9/11 were another turning point. “I watched the country respond and collectively condemn an act of blind faith by turning to blind faith for answers,” he explains. 

Inheriting his father’s knack for oration, the 56-year-old began to speak publicly about his experiences in 2009. Although he had not seen his family in decades, it was a nerve-wracking decision. “It’s one thing to have head knowledge of something, it’s another thing to actually confront it and all the emotions that are associated with it,” he admits.

Now a committed secular campaigner, Nate regularly travels across the US and beyond to share his story. He strongly believes that faith – even in its most benign forms – is “not a virtue”, but something that “allows evil to flourish unchecked”.

What motivates him then, knowing the battle he is fighting is such a long and treacherous one? “There are no guarantees, in life, about anything,” he says. “But if you see something that is moving in the direction which you passionately believe in, it’s worth it.”

On the way out, he stops to take a photo of a portrait of Bertrand Russell hanging above the library entrance. I am reminded of the simple quote that closed his heartfelt speech at Conway Hall last night: “Love is wise, and hatred is foolish.” Whatever your opinion on faith, you have to say amen to that.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.