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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How the Democratic National Committee Chair contest became a proxy war

The two leading candidates represent the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders factions.

While in the UK this week attention has been fixed on the by-elections in Stoke-upon-Trent and Copeland, in the US political anoraks have turned their eyes to Atlanta, the capital city of the state of Georgia, and the culmination of the Democratic National Committee chairmanship election.

Democrats lost more than a President when Barack Obama left the White House - they lost a party leader. In the US system, the party out of power does not choose a solitary champion to shadow the Presidency in the way a leader of the opposition shadows the Prime Minister in the UK. Instead, leadership concentrates around multiple points at the federal, state and local level - the Senate Minority and House Minority Leaders’ offices, popular members of Congress, and high-profile governors and mayors.

Another focus is the chair of the national party committee. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the formal governing body of the party and wields immense power over its organization, management, and messaging. Membership is exclusive to state party chairs, vice-chairs and over 200 state-elected representatives. The chair sits at the apex of the body and is charged with carrying out the programs and policies of the DNC. Put simply, they function as the party’s chief-of-staff, closer to the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party than leader of the opposition.

However, the office was supercharged with political salience last year when the then-chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was exposed following a Russian-sponsored leak of DNC emails that showed her leadership favoured Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential nominee to Bernie Sanders. Schultz resigned and Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, took over as interim chair. The DNC huddled in December to thrash out procedure for the election of a permanent replacement – fixing the date of the ballot for the weekend of February 24.

The rancour of the Democratic primaries last year, and the circumstances of Schultz’s resignation, has transformed the race into a proxy war between the Clinton and Sanders factions within the party. Frontrunners Tom Perez and Keith Ellison respectively act as standard bearers for the respective camps.

Both are proven progressives with impeccable records in grassroots-based organizing. However Perez’s tenure as President Obama’s Labor Secretary and role as a Hillary booster has cast him as the establishment candidate in the race, whereas Ellison’s endorsement of the Sanders campaign in 2016 makes him the pick of the radical left.

The ideological differences between the two may be overblown, but cannot be overlooked in the current climate. The Democrats are a party seemingly at war with its base, and out of power nationwide.

Not only are they in the minority in Congress, but more than a third of the Democrats in the House of Representatives come from just three states: California, Massachusetts, and New York. As if that weren’t enough, Democrats control less than a third of state legislatures and hold the keys to just sixteen governors’ mansions.

Jacob Schwartz, president of the Manhattan Young Democrats, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party in New York County, says that the incoming chair should focus on returning the party to dominance at every tier of government:

“The priority of the Democratic leadership should be rebuilding the party first, and reaching out to new voters second," he told me. "Attacking Donald Trump is not something the leadership needs to be doing. He's sinking his own ship anyway and new voters are not going to be impressed by more negative campaigning. A focus on negative campaigning was a big part of why Hillary lost.”

The party is certainly in need of a shake-up, though not one that causes the internecine strife currently bedevilling the Labour Party. Hence why some commentators favour Ellison, whose election could be seen as a peace offering to aggrieved Sanderistas still fuming at the party for undermining their candidate.

“There's something to be said for the fact that Ellison is seen as from the Bernie wing of the party, even though I think policy shouldn't be part of the equation really, and the fact that Bernie voices are the voices we most need to be making efforts to remain connected to. Hillary people aren't going anywhere, so Ellison gives us a good jumping off point overall,” says Schwartz.

Ellison boasts over 120 endorsements from federal and state-level Democratic heavyweights, including Senator Sanders, and the support of 13 labor unions. Perez, meanwhile, can count only 30 politicians – though one is former Vice-President Joe Biden – and eight unions in his camp.

However the only constituency that matters this weekend is the DNC itself – the 447 committee members who can vote. A simple majority is needed to win, and if no candidate reaches this threshold at the first time of asking additional rounds of balloting take place until a winner emerges.

Here again, Ellison appears to hold the edge, leading Perez 105 to 57 according to a survey conducted by The Hill, with the remainder split among the other candidates.

Don’t write Perez off yet, though. Anything can happen if the ballot goes to multiple rounds and the former Secretary’s roots in the party run deep. He claimed 180 DNC supporters in an in-house survey, far more than suggested by The Hill.

We’ll find out this weekend which one was closer to the mark.

Louie Woodall is a member of Labour International, and a journalist based in New York.