Nate Phelps: ‘Everything I had been taught was a lie’
Nate Phelps is the 2020 recipient of FFRF’s Henry Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism Award for his years of speaking out publicly for freethought and humanism as the son of Fred Phelps. Nate has received $10,000, thanks to FFRF Member Henry Zumach, who has so generously set up this annual award to reward individuals who are making a difference in fighting religious fundamentalism. Since the 2020 national convention had to be canceled this year due to COVID-19, instead of delivering this speech in person, Nate has submitted this moving article about leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, founded by his father Fred Phelps, known for its inflammatory hate speech.
By Nate Phelps
I am the sixth of 13 children born to Fred and Margie Phelps. I was raised in the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Our childhood was defined by my father’s interpretation and application of the fundamentalist ideology of John Calvin.
Twice every Sunday, we sat in his small church learning the doctrines of his faith. Absolute Predestination, the cornerstone of Calvinism, turns a key aspect of Christianity on its ear. The notion that one can ask God into their heart and be saved is rejected. Instead, Calvinism argues that humankind is dead in his trespasses and sins and has no capacity to receive salvation unless God first acts on the heart. Humankind has no say about its salvation. God decides. This key doctrine, coupled with the biblical notion that only a “remnant” of humans will be saved, led my father to the conclusion that only those within his church would go to heaven.
Other ideas gleaned from Calvin’s bible (the subservient position of women, corporeal discipline, and lifetime dominion over his children), coupled with Fred’s predisposition to extreme black and white thinking, created an environment of physical and emotional violence in our home.
Because Eve had been fooled by the snake in the Garden of Eden, women were second-class citizens in the Church. They were to be silent. Men were to have dominion over them. They were to wear head coverings in the sanctuary to cover their shame. Paul’s instruction in Corinthians that a woman have long hair became a rigid biblical standard that no woman in our church could ever put scissors to her hair.
Returning from school one day, I found my mother weeping in the vestibule of the church building where we lived. A scarf covered her head. My older brother Mark rubbed her back, trying to console. Suddenly, she tore the scarf from her head exposing the butchered remains of her hair. Her white scalp showed through in several places. “He cut my hair off!” she cried. I recall the feeling of horror, not just for her distress, but because I knew this meant she would go to hell. My father was all-powerful, consigning the disobedient to their eternal destinations.
When the barber strap that he used to beat his children began to fray at one end, he went in search for a new tool of discipline. Calling a meeting of all the children, he held up the handle of a mattock. Quoting from Proverbs, he reminded us that “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” This would be his new rod of correction. He called my brother Mark up for an example blow. Swinging the mattock in a high arc like a baseball bat, he struck him on the backside. Mark went white and the lesson was learned.
Several years later, in the early 1970s, my younger brother Jon and I brought home less than perfect report cards from middle school. Forty blows later, the skin on the back of our legs was broken and bleeding. Suspecting abuse, the principal of our school notified the police. An investigation led to charges of child abuse, but my father’s combative and litigious predisposition succeeded in getting the charges dropped. The long-term fallout was more violence for subjecting the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ to ridicule and shame.
Another passage claiming that our physical bodies were God’s temple became the impetus for several extreme experiences in our youth. It began with a health scare when Fred collapsed in his bedroom. Rushed to the hospital, his excess weight and abuse of drugs was determined to be the cause.
Back home from the hospital, Fred read the back of a box of Wheaties where exercise guru Jack LaLanne had outlined an exercise program where one could earn “benefit points.” Within a few days, we were all at the local high school track running laps. Soon, Fred decided he needed to find a way to drop the weight quicker. So, he went on a fast. No calories . . . zero. Days passed and he soon retired to his bed from the weakness. Weeks passed. He dove deep into the bible for inspiration and motivation. At one point late in his fast, his body and mind muted, he spoke of seeing an angel at his bedside. Too weak to move, he used a bell on his nightstand to summon his wife or a child for his every need.
Forty-seven days and nearly 100 pounds lighter, he rose from his bed and rejoined the world. To avoid regaining the lost weight, he returned to the track with renewed vigor and motivation. Like in so many other areas in his life, he went to extremes. A regular running routine quickly morphed into a rigid training regime to run a marathon. Charts were displayed in the back of the church showing the activity and benefit points each child had earned. If a child fell behind, the mattock came out of the corner.
Reading everything he could find on fitness and health, he began imposing a variety of unusual nutrition experiments on his family. One book extolled the virtues of raw eggs, so each child was required to slide two or three eggs, “Rocky” style, down their throat. A variety of nutritional supplements soon became standard fare in our diets. It was not unusual to sit down to a dinner plate of 25 brewer’s yeast tablets, 10 bone meal tablets, rose hips and a half head of steamed cabbage.
Eventually his focus on health turned dark. Our mother, having gone through 16 pregnancies, had lost her youthful shape and that was unacceptable. Entering puberty, several of the children were also putting on a bit too much weight for his liking. Again, citing God’s instruction to treat the body as a temple, he demanded that the weight be dropped. A daily routine of weighing outside his bedroom door led to violent beatings if a child had not lost weight that day.
Several years after Fred began practicing law in Kansas, he was suspended for two years for ethical violations. Without an income, he hit upon the idea to send his children out to sell candy. The official line was that we were raising money for a new piano for our church. Early successes prompted a more expansive effort where the children were spending three or four hours every evening after school, covering the entire city over and over.
When people questioned whether we had raised enough for a piano, it became new carpet and a new organ. After several years, sales in town began to dry up so we started working other communities nearby. On Saturdays, we would travel greater distances to Kansas City and other larger cities. On weekend nights, young children would canvas the bars where drunken patrons were more apt to buy candy and offer generous tips. If a bit of violence occurred, it was a small price to pay to insure the solvency of the Church. And like everything else, corporeal discipline was instilled to motivate the children to maintain proper sales volumes.
Our lives were soaked in his religious ideology. Verses were posted and required memorization. At a young age, the children were required to memorize the names and order of all the books in the bible to minimize the time it took to look up passages while he preached. As the children grew, Fred’s sermons became interactive experiences. A child would be called upon to look up a verse and be prepared to read it aloud when directed. Sometimes commentary on the passages read were demanded. Any misstep in this process would lead to a command from my father, “Someone smack that kid!” He was building his army for God and had no patience for ignorance, incompetence or delay.
While all of this was going on, we returned every Sunday to the pews to be trained up in the way we should go. Much like Fred in those years, his God was an angry God. His brand of Christianity beat us over the head constantly about our sinful, evil nature and the righteousness of God’s wrath if he were to condemn us to an eternity of flames where the worm that eats on you never dies. Throughout our childhood, we were constantly reminded of our duty to church and family. It was made clear early on that Fred would have absolute authority over us for our lifetime. An obscure passage in the bible about a man leaving his father and mother to cleave to his wife secured his authority, as our father, until marriage.
From that point on, his authority was derived from his role as our pastor. Any attempt to defy that authority, to forge our own paths in life, meant banishment from the Church and family and eternal damnation.
Approaching the age of maturity, several of the older children attempted to assert control over their own lives. Our father was not having any of that. When my oldest sister left several months before turning 18, he mounted a posse of minions and kidnapped her back home. For several months, she was locked in a room upstairs at the church. My father was determined to beat the rebellion out of her by regularly abusing her and forcing her to fast. When the two oldest boys left as adults, he employed a variety of means to coerce them back. When the second oldest boy, Mark, succeeded in leaving, Fred exploded with anger. Behind the pulpit he made sure the entire congregation knew they were subject to excommunication and other discipline if they had anything to do with him.
Observing Mark’s success, a guttering flame of hope ignited within me. You see, I had taken Fred’s message to heart. I knew that Christ was going to return around the year 2000 and I knew when he did, I would be cast into Gehenna, the final hell of punishment. But perhaps I could live life just a little outside the violence and control of my father. So, at the age of 16, I began to plan. Over the next year, I worked out my strategy. Each violent encounter with my father reinforced my determination. Late in my 17th year, I purchased an old Rambler Classic from the security officer at my high school. I kept it hidden from my family. As my 18th birthday approached, I quietly packed my meager belongings, a box at a time, and hid them in the cluttered garage.
On the night before my 18th birthday, I waited until the household was quiet. I walked down the street to my car and backed it into the driveway. Checking to ensure no one had awoken, I returned to the garage and packed my belongings into the trunk. Returning to the house, I stood in the dining room and watched the clock move slowly toward midnight. I was both excited for a future away from this place and terrified that God would strike me down. When the clock reached midnight, I turned and walked away from a childhood of extreme religious indoctrination and violence.
For years, I lived in fear, certain that God was waiting for the best time to exact his revenge. Walking down the sidewalk in downtown Kansas City, I recall looking up to see if a piece of the building was falling toward me. As much as possible, I avoided thinking about it. I moved to southern California and got married. When my wife announced that she was pregnant, I was elated and terrified. I had never told her that I was certain God would never give me children. My father was clear on the message that children were a gift from God. He surely would not bestow that blessing upon me. The birth of my son changed everything. As I considered my responsibilities for that tiny life, I was forced to confront the past that haunted me. How would I raise this child? What would I teach him about this God I lived in fear of?
I entered counseling for several years. At the same time, we joined an Evangelical Free congregation, where I began my search for the kinder, gentler God of mainstream Christianity. Meanwhile, we had two more children, twins. My most fervent desire was to raise them in a healthy, happy environment where they could grow into self-realized adults.
Angry God of Calvin
As I studied the bible with a new focus, I could not reconcile its words with the messages from our pastor. Where they preached an all-loving, all-caring creator, I saw passage after passage that pointed squarely to the angry God of Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. As I began to ask questions of religious leaders both locally and nationally, I was shocked to discover that their answers were shallow and unresponsive.
When I confided in a few close friends that I had doubts, their response was unsatisfying. One day, my oldest son asked me about Jesus. I tried to describe him in the loving terms I hoped for, but he interrupted me with a question. “What about the people who don’t believe?” Bless his little atheist heart. I had no better answer than to tell him they went to hell. He began to weep and my heart burst. What was I doing? How could I expose my little children to such an idea? So, I began to pull away from Christianity.
When the Gulf War came along, roughly the same time my family began their campaign of hate against the gay community, I was terrified that Armageddon was starting. The undefinable fear returned. Weeping at the dinner table one night, I told my wife I did not want to go to hell. But the year 2000 was rapidly approaching, and with it my eternal destruction. The new century arrived without any sign of Jesus. As the months passed, a tiny spark of hope came with it. While I continued to try and reconcile my own experiences and my doubts with the message of the bible, I was quietly entertaining doubts about the whole thing. Then 9/11 happened.
A young lady in our community who had attended school with my stepdaughter had just graduated from Boston College. She was returning home on the second plane that flew into the World Trade Center. The impact was devastating locally and nationally. Then, I noticed something that struck me as odd, even dangerous. The entire country was responding to a violent act of faith by turning to their own blind faith. For the first time I considered, in a personal way, the harm that religion was causing the world. I considered the world my children would inherit, and I was afraid all over again.
In 2005, following a painful separation, I moved to Canada. By this time, my birth family had gained international notoriety as they focused their “God Hates Fags” campaign on the funerals of soldiers who had died in the war on terrorism. For the most part, I avoided requests for interviews about my family. Then, in 2008, a young journalism student climbed into the back of my cab. As we drove to the airport, he mentioned a documentary he had recently seen on a small church in Kansas. I told him I knew about it, that it was my family. After the shock wore off, he requested an interview. The ensuing article garnered several hundred thousand views online. He called me one day and said he had contact information requests from several people who had read the article. I gave him permission to provide it.
I had recently read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and for the first time in my life I was willing to consider that I might be an atheist. That was such a horrible, terrifying word that I would not say it out loud. But this was much bigger than that. This would be, for the first time, me embracing my own ideas about God publicly. At the same time, I would be openly defiant toward my family and their campaign of hate. You see, even in all that had passed, I still hoped for a reconciliation. If I did this very public speech, if I was finally truthful to myself and the world, that hope was lost. I also knew that the hard-wired message of my rebellious, sinful, damned nature would be forced back out into the open. The words . . . the emotions that were so psychologically destructive would be laid bare.
No answers or evidence
And what was that truth? The story of a god that I grew up with was wholly predicated on the words written in the bible. But no one could provide answers that satisfied the lifelong question I struggled with, the question, by my estimation, that is at the heart of faith: What evidence proves that the bible is the inspired, inerrant, immutable word of a divine creator? Absent adequate evidence supporting that claim, everything I had been taught was a lie.
Every effort to discover the truth of this matter was met with more and more strident, defensive challenges to my lack of faith. Challenging this claim, I came to understand that faithful ideas, by definition, are unaccountable to reality. Injecting an all-powerful, divisive, punitive entity into a belief system robs the adherents of any hope of analysis and reason. Really, what choice does a person have if they believe not believing will cause separation from all they love AND an eternity of unspeakable pain? Surely, you can argue that those who embrace it wholly are happier for that choice, but at what cost?
At a social level, a system that judges and condemns those who act outside their moral parameters must be harmful. Any attempt at social change is stymied and corrupted by the truculence of immutable faith. We see a rich history of that with Christianity. From using scripture to justify slavery for generations, to the longstanding assault of our LGBTQ brethren, Christianity — this unsustainable assertion that an all-knowing, all-powerful lawmaker hates them — has been the spear tip of condemnation and injustice for broad swathes of our fellow humans.
Since my family began their picketing campaign in 1991, Christian America has, with one voice, condemned their message. But I would argue that Westboro Baptist Church is just giving voice to the same destructive ideology at the foundation of even the most moderate iteration of that faith. How do we sit idly by considering that reality? So, I gave my first public talk before a gathering of nonbelievers. Then, I gave more talks. I talked about the ugly truth behind the ugly, God-ordained placards of my family’s protests.
Today, I embrace the humanistic ideas that this life, this brief moment in time we share, is all we have. I see concern and love toward our fellow humans as paramount. I reject any idea that marginalizes one group over another. Today in America, as we once again face separation and division inspired by religious ideology, the words of British philosopher, Bertrand Russell come to mind.
When asked what message he would want people to take from his example, he said: “I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth those facts bear out? Never let yourself be diverted by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effect if it were believed. But look only and solely at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say. The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple: I should say love is wise, and hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like.
We can only live together in that way — and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”