The moment he turned 18, Nate Phelps fled his home and his abusive father, Fred, head of the Westboro Baptist Church. That was in 1976, but even now he still bears the emotional scars. After his escape, he spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital, diagnosed with PTSD. He eventually moved to California, married and had a family, ending up in Calgary, Alberta. Today, aged 53, Nate is telling his story, finding healing in speaking out against the hateful rhetoric that has become the trademark of Westboro and its members.
Nate is the sixth of 13 children and one of two – along with his older brother, Mark – to leave the family and the church established by his father, Fred Phelps. The tales of abuse are chilling:
“He had this old barber’s strap and used it so much that the last six inches were frayed, kind of like a cat-o-nine-tails, and he’d hit you with it and it’d wrap around your hips and rip the skin. By the time I turned eight I remember he had started using a mattock handle instead. Similar to a pickaxe handle, it was about 4ft long and bigger than a baseball bat.” Nate says his father would fly into rages and beat him and his siblings mercilessly: “Then he’d set the mattock down and hit them with his fist.”Mark Phelps, interviewed for this story which appeared in The Telegraph, recalls an incident in which his younger brother was bent backwards so far over the back of a church pew that he feared his back would break. As Nate struggled to escape, Fred split his head open. This sort of abuse was a common occurrence, according to the brothers.
Over a decade after Nate left the church began making news by picketing the funeral of Matthew Sheppard. They held up signs reading, “God hates Fags” and “No Tears For Queers,” getting plenty of attention in the process. Nate says that his father has always spoken out against homosexuality and that he has a tendency to use hyperbole and ugly rhetoric. His father believes that there is a special place in hell for gay people. However, Nate says that he didn’t see any hints that this would become a campaign for the church.
Nate also spoke of his father’s involvement in civil rights lawsuits in the early 60s. Fred Phelps earned a law degree in Kansas and, from all reports, was a good attorney. He even received awards from the NAACP and the Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government. But the perception that Fred Phelps was a champion of civil rights was a faulty one. Nate tells of a term that was used by his father to refer to his black clients:
“We would all call black people ‘DNs’ at home. It stood for Dumb N—— and was our private language,” he says. “We thought it was clever to call them that in front of them. He was deeply prejudiced, and he believed the Bible said they were cursed.”The last time Nate spoke to his father was on the phone in the mid-nineties. He called in to a radio show which his father appeared on, thinking it had been a taped segment. It wasn’t and Nate was coaxed into asking his father a question. He quoted a Bible verse, hoping to make Fred justify his behavior. But Nate got the verse number wrong and his father attacked him viciously. That was the last time he has spoken to his father.
Nate first spoke out about his childhood, his father and Westboro Baptist at an atheist convention in Atlanta, sharing the stage with Richard Dawkins. Nate received three standing ovations after he told his story. Then Dawkins asked the first question: why wasn’t Fred Phelps in jail for this abuse? An excellent question, in my opinion. But this sort of thing, as Nate rightly answered, just isn’t seen as a priority and law enforcement often turns a blind eye.
Other family members have recently left the church, also: Nate’s niece Libby Phelps Alvarez and her two sisters left last month. (diaried here and here and here) Nate used to think that the church would die when Fred did – he turned 83 last November – but says that his sister Shirley and younger brother Tim are sounding a lot like their father.
After getting encouragement from many other individuals who had grown up or lived in toxic religious environments, Nate has decided to write a book about his experience. I, for one, am anxious to read it. That Nate Phelps can come through such a horrible childhood still intact and willing to speak out against his father’s brand of hate is admirable. I hope we hear much more from him.
Crossposted at Addicting Info
7:58 PM PT: Coming back from a bite of dinner to find oneself on the Rec list is one of life's small pleasures. Thank you :)