8 min

Son of ‘God hates fags’ preacher angry with father’s teaching

Nate Phelps gives Xtra a peek into the world of the Westboro Baptists

Nate Phelps

Nate Phelps, son of the rightwing preacher Fred Phelps, spoke to Xtra about what it’s like to grow up in a fundamentalist household.

Nate, a 51-year-old taxi driver and father of five, now hosts a healing and support group called Life After Fundamentalism. He left the US for Canada in December of 2005 and is working his way through the Canadian immigration system. He now lives in Cranbrook, British Columbia.

What religious denomination did you grow up as?

The church is referred to as a Baptist church, but probably a more accurate description would be Calvinist.

Were you active in the church as a child?
My father ran that church and we were there every Sunday twice. We were under his control and did what he said. If you mean… if I was making decisions or teaching Sunday school. . . No, there wasn’t anything like that.

Are you still in touch with any family or childhood friends?
Very few. I have a brother and sister who also left the church. And I worked with my brother for nearly 20 years. We owned and ran printing companies. Started in Kansas and ended up in southern California.

Would you say you were well provided for as a child?
No, I wouldn’t say so. When you talk about providing for a child, you’re talking about food, clothing and shelter, the necessary training and support to grow into effective adulthood. Our father was suspended from practising law. As a result, we sold candy for seven years and we provided for ourselves.

What activities did you do growing up?

As far as the church structure went, we attended church twice Sunday. There were a couple songs and prayers. Then our father would preach for 45 minutes. There wasn’t a choir. As far as social involvement, we all attended public schools, but we were regularly separated from general population. We didn’t hang out with anyone our father didn’t agree with. We had to leave the classroom if they were singing Christmas carols.

I was involved in theatre. I played football one year in junior high school. As for social activity outside the home, we didn’t have many friends come over, but we did things together and interacted with each other.

This might be a loaded question… but do you love your father?

That is a loaded question. I would say I love the idea of a father. But there’s the nature of my relationship with him and being an outcast. I left when I was 18. I guess the answer would have to be no. Sounds kind of callous, I honestly can’t say I do.

How have you taken to the recent media attention you have been receiving?

I’ll tell you what — it creates a lot of anxiety. It’s not something I’m naturally inclined towards. But I think it’s not something I have a choice in doing. I have to talk with people who want to listen.

I’ve read accounts where you’re estranged from your father and siblings. Have your children ever met them?
My children have not. They have met my brother Mark but not the ones who are there in my father’s church. I have actively spoken against the idea of them ever meeting. I’d be primarily concerned they’d get drawn in.

Your father was well-respected in the black community, taking on cases no one would. He reached out to marginalized communities. He was known as a brilliant lawyer. And then things changed…
I don’t know if that changed. I think if you understand the nature of him, my father was and is a brilliant man. He was a very effective lawyer.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, he saw that as a business opportunity. It was an empty shell. There wasn’t any precedence. He started filing lawsuits for people in the black community who were discriminated against. It was a lucrative time for him.

He caused a lot of changes in how the country treated black people, but it wasn’t an altruistic motive. And I know this because I watched him and understood his personal feelings towards the black communities. It wasn’t consistent with how he acted. It was just a way for him to make money.

Do you know if things changed after he was disbarred for perjury?

Yeah. He had three different encounters with the disciplinary board. And the final one got him disbarred from federal and state court. And when he got disbarred, it wasn’t long after I left home. I can’t speak specifically about what happened in those years, but that’s when the picketing campaign started. He was disbarred in the late-’70s. It was in 1991 when he started with picketing. The way I saw it, he started off by focusing his anger and violence on his family.  And then it kind of transitioned to the legal community. When he no longer had that option, he focused his attention against gays.

Are you embarrassed by your father’s activities?
I guess that would be a fair word to use. I’m angry with it. I completely disagree with their philosophies. From time to time, I feel I have an obligation to apologize for my family’s action. It’s not me doing it, but it points to a notion of embarrassment.

Do you really feel he is spreading hate?

I do.

Is he an ordained minister?

He went to several different colleges’ theological seminars, but never graduated. When he was in Utah, he was involved with a church and they put him through the ordination process. They felt he knew the doctrines well enough to be an ordained minister.

Did you grow up with a prejudice towards homosexuals? If so, why the sudden change?
Certainly we grew up understanding the Bible teaching homosexuality is the biggest sin against God. You believe what your parents teach you. When I left home, I felt strongly against homosexuals.

As I went through life, I challenged what he taught me, and I decided the Bible wasn’t the inspired word of God. It was written by men. I had to challenge my beliefs. When I realized that, I felt there was no justification for treating homosexuals like any other citizens. But this isn’t a recent thing. It’s something I’ve practised for more than 25 years.

I’ve read the website “godhatesfags.” Nowhere does it say the church hates gays and lesbians. But that’s just what they put on their website. Have you ever seen these people disrespect or act violently towards gays?
No, I have not. I know he has said in his pickets, quoting a passage from the Bible saying fags are worthy of death, or at least that’s his version of it. He doesn’t put it out there often, but he has said it. To me, that’s where you get into the danger zone, where you think people should be killed.

You mentioned the Westboro Church could resort to violence to get their point across?
I need to explain that because that’s not what I really said.

I have been asked that before, whether I thought that group was a cult. My understanding, my reading of the components for it to be cult includes the component of a charismatic leader who has absolute control over the thoughts and behaviours of the group. I guess you could use the term “Big Brother.”

If you look at those components of us versus them, the notion of a charismatic leader controlling everything. When people ask me that, I say from my experience, all it would take is my father to come up with an idea and come up with justification for it. And they would act on it. They don’t have the capacity to say no. If he decided the Bible justified violence, ultimately they’d be compelled to violence. I’m not saying he would. But he has that power.

Your website says you’re part of a support group counselling people who suffer from growing up in a  Christian fundamentalist household. How is that going?
Good. A lot of people talk about their stories and get feedback from people who’ve been involved. It’s supportive. Makes them feel less isolated.

From one person to another, I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household. I am a recovering alcoholic, challenging my own religious training. Sexual abuse and inconsistent behaviour was rampant in the community I grew up in. Did you experience similar things growing up?
Well, yeah, I think so. Not the sexual. As far as I knew, there wasn’t that going on. But there was extreme sexual and verbal abuse in that environment. The reason why I have a hard time saying what you say: they do that in public. They are extremely violent in the words they use. The stuff they put out now is relatively mild from what they did in the 1990s.

What crass language was your father using?
The name of the mayor at the time was named Felker. He would call him things like nigger lover and fag. It’s just so rough to come up with the words. He’d say homosexuals eat their own feces and talk about anal copulating. Streams of that kind of vulgarity and disdain for people.

He’d come up with drawings, cartoons, gross stuff. You’d read that stuff, and think, “Are you serious?” It was so extreme and ugly. It’s tame compared to what he was doing in the beginning. Some of that stuff is a good example of how he was with us growing up.

What would he say? Names?

A lot of name calling. A lot of foul language. The opposite of what you’d expect to hear from a minister. He’d rant for hours, saying our hearts were deceitful and worthy of death. He used a lot of crass, ugly language. And it was not just directed at us, but anyone my father thought was close to him. Or someone he hated, which was almost the entire world.

Is it only homosexuality the church fights against? What other causes/people do they go after?
The Bible has all kinds of behaviour they call sinful. Adultery. Lying. Cheating. Stealing. Judeo-Christian values call those behaviours sinful. So they preach against adultery, abortion, divorce. But it always comes back to homosexuality as being the worst. Plus, since the fact that the gay community is fighting for equality, it makes it a hot-button topic with them.

You went back to Topeka recently. How long had it been since you were there?
It’s been about 30 years since I left home. I think I passed through there once or twice on business. Early on, I went back one time to visit friends. It’s been 30 years since I’d been back there.

Was it an emotional time for you?
It was indeed. There were some wonderful moments. I got to see my sister, Dortha. And then I also saw a few friends I hadn’t seen in a few years. I also got to meet two of my nephews I never met before who also left that situation.

Did these people talk to you about your family situation and the actions of the church?
They talked to me about it. That was the main reason why I was there. Everyone knows them and has an opinion. Almost all say what they do is hurtful. And all were grateful I was speaking against them. And then there were some down moments. Seeing where I grew up, knowing I’m an outcast in the family… Some of the comments my family made while I was there — it was to be expected, but that doesn’t make it any less painful.

Your sister Shirley had a child out of wedlock. Do you know how that was received by your family?
It was an epic battle in the family. Because we were taught all those years if one of us engaged in that conduct (sex before marriage) they would be kicked out of the church. My father spent the better part of a month not talking to Shirley. Then he decided at one point she had repented, shown remorse. Then he announced to the church and asked the church if she was in good standing. That created a huge outcry from some of the other members in the family. There was behind-the-scenes infighting inspired by my older brother’s wife. And there’s this battle going on. My father got wind of it. He got in front of the church and chastised my older brother because he wasn’t controlling his wife, Betty. He threatened if she didn’t quit challenging his decision, she’d be kicked out of church. That settled it at that point.

Who are the members of Westboro Church?
It’s pretty much just my family, their in-laws and children.

Do you think you’ll ever have a relationship with your father?
No. I don’t want to talk with my father. I fantasize about seeing my mother before she dies, but I don’t know if that will happen because she’s 84 or 85 years old now.

How do you feel about talking with a gay and lesbian publication? What would you like to say to our readers?
I don’t know if you knew the reason I stayed that extra time. I spent eight days in Topeka. There was a rally they held at Gage Park, a bit of a formal counter-protest to what my family does. And the group is all in favour of the homosexual community and their efforts.

I spoke to a lot of supporters of that group, Saturday, May 1. And basically, my message was, I grew up in that church for 18 years and tested their theology over the last 30 years and I rejected it. They’re so hateful towards so many people. And while they spiritually cloak themselves in their civil rights, they simultaneously demand those same rights be denied to another group.