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.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage