Son of a Bigot
Nate Phelps, son of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps
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As the pastor of the much-reviled Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps has become synonymous with hatred. The pastor and his family make it a point to carry signs at the funerals saying, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” They show up to media-friendly events with signs that read, “God Hates Fags.”
Nate Phelps is the sixth of Fred’s 13 children, and he has the scars to show for it. He describes his father as verbally and physically abusive. When he was 18, Nate ran away from home and from the fundamentalist Calvinist religion in which he was raised.
Now in his 50s, Nate finds himself publicly squaring off with his father and siblings to reverse their legacy of intolerance. He lives in Calgary, where he has become a public speaker who champions LGBT rights and raises awareness about the connection between extreme religion and child abuse. He is currently writing a book about his life and is the subject of an upcoming documentary.
What was your childhood like?
It was a very strict environment. We were isolated from the community, not so much physically, as ideologically. We heard from the time we were very young that we were to be separated from the world, and we were unique. We were God’s chosen ones. On one hand we had this sense that we were better than everybody else, and on the other hand we had this clear awareness that we were different from everyone else. That cut both ways. And then all of that ideology was supported and promoted with violence and psychological — I don’t know if you want to call it abuse, but you know those lessons we learned in that religious environment were such that we were constantly anxious and frightened for whether or not we were going to upset God.
How did your father explain that to you? That you were one of God’s chosen ones and yet he could mistreat you?
He was able to justify using verses out of the Bible. That was a major criteria for him. If he could find an excuse for it, then it was OK to do it, because God gave him permission. As far as how he justified the idea that we were different from the rest of the world, he made much of the ideas that he found in the Bible about the nature of what God expected of us, that extreme Calvinist ideology that is at the cornerstone of their campaign. The fact that other groups had it wrong or got this or that doctrine wrong was proof that God didn’t find favor with them.
As far as the physical violence, that’s a fairly common idea that exists in fundamentalist Christianity, that the husband is the head of the house and has absolute authority — and has the right to bring his wife and children into submission if they aren’t.
And when you talk about the physical violence was it something that was spontaneous or routine? How do you remember?
It was both. I mean there were some things that you just knew if he found out about it there was gonna be trouble. There was also this tendency to explode without any warning and that actually was far more destructive in the long run because you just never knew, and that’s more terrifying than cause-and-effect.
Did he use his belt or a cane, what was his …?
When we were younger it was a barber strap. That thing got so shredded at the ends that it would wrap around the sides of our legs and tear the skin. It was kind of like a cat o’ nine tails. When I was about 8 or 9 he introduced us to a Mattock handle, which is a farming instrument or tool that you use to pull up roots, and it’s got an axe head on one end and a hoe head on the other end. It’s big. You know, take a baseball bat, add maybe 30 percent to that.