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.