(RNS) As anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps passes on to whatever is his reward, we need to ask how he managed to inspire a following.
His was hardly an exemplary life. One neighbor remembers seeing his children in Topeka, Kan., in the 1970s and noticing they were bald. He was told Phelps sent his kids out to sell some product, and if they didn’t make their quota, he shaved their heads as punishment.
Another remembers how Phelps beat his wife and children with his fists, a belt and a piece of wood.
Many tell how Phelps and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church sent vicious faxes when gay men were dying of AIDS, picketed military funerals with “God hates you” signs and blamed terrorist attacks and fallen soldiers on America’s growing tolerance of homosexuality.
He was consistent, that’s for sure. Brutish and bullying from home to pulpit to public forum. Filled with anger and hate. And totally unrestrained in how he expressed his rage.
How, then, did he inspire a following? Not a large following, it seems. His church might number only a few dozen. But its members have traveled the nation to further Phelps’ mission and apparently plan to keep at it.
What was appealing about the Phelps brand of bigotry? Here’s what I see:
Like terrorists attacking a hospital, he was willing to do outlandish things without normal constraints and civility. That appeals to the “lizard brain” we all have but learn to master. It was like adolescents bullying a classmate into suicide. Sometimes, even in adults, the irrational and ugly side just wants to get out.
In his anti-gay message, Phelps touched on fears and angers that many people feel. The balance in American society seems to be tipping toward tolerance, but there is still plenty of bigotry afoot. Witness the states of Arizona, Georgia and, yes, Kansas.
Some people are drawn to extremes, because in extreme behavior they feel potent, whereas in normal situations they feel impotent.
Groupthink is more satisfying to some people than negotiation, nuance, rational dialogue and compromise. Groupthink shouts, “We are right!” More rational thought allows room for error, pluralism and change of mind, which some, especially religious people, cannot accept.
Speaking and shouting feel better to some people than listening and learning. Shouters feel in control of situations.
Provoking an angry response gives an odd but meaningful credence to one’s views. If I make you angry, I must be right.
Finally, extremes of hatred and violence always draw crowds. Hence the crowds that still gather for public executions.
These strike me as sick behaviors and attitudes. But they are common. A healthy society works to restrain such sickness and to establish norms that discourage extremism and unbridled rage and hatred.
But societies are never quite as healthy as they need to be. And an atomized society like 21st century America has little appetite for reining in extremes and reinforcing healthy norms. It seems easier and safer, and often more entertaining, just to let the raging bigots have their say and, one hopes, leave me and my family alone.
It doesn’t work that way, of course. If Phelps had been just a bit more pleasing and presentable, his following could have been much larger than a handful. That fact won’t be lost on the next bigot to take up his cause.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
YS/MG END EHRICH