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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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue