by Pa Rock
The God that Fred Phelps worships is one mean bastard – and that’s the way old Fred likes Him! Fred isn’t one of those “kissy-poo” preachers. He wants you to know that if you don’t follow the literal word of the Bible, as interpreted by Fred, God is going to kill you and send you to a fiery hell. Religion is a true comfort to Fred Phelps.
This week I had the disquieting experience of seeing a documentary on the Phelps Cult (a.k.a. Westboro Baptist Church) of Topeka. The film is titled Fall from Grace and it was put together by K. Ryan Jones, a film student at the University of Kansas.
On one level it should be a simple task to do a documentary on Reverend (sic) Phelps and his family of believers - just turn on the cameras and let them roll. Get those shots of him and his genetic residue carrying signs and shouting about hating “fags” and dead soldiers. (If there's a mourning family in the background trying to bury a loved one, that's all the better.) Make certain to include footage of the ragtag protesters stepping all over the American flag or using it as a football. Get a long shot of the flagpole in front of the Westboro Baptist Church flying the American and Canadian flags upside down. Zoom in on his web site, godhatesfags.com, and see how many days Matthew Shephard has been burning in hell, and then get some interviews with people who show up to be appalled by the Phelps circus.
Jones covered those Phelps’ basics. The strength of his documentary, however comes from his access to the Phelps’ family. The film contains several extended clips of old Fred (and boy, does he ever look old!) preaching (more like yelling and screaming) to his followers, as well as interviews with some of his children, both inside and outside of the cult. Jones even talks with some of the very young grandchildren who tell him that “god hates fags” and “fags are going to burn in hell.” Nice talk, kiddos!
Almost all of the members of the Westboro Cult are members of the Phelps family. Four of Fred’s children are major voices in the film. Shirley Phelps-Roper stated that she is the attorney for the church, and she lamented ad nauseam about how people refuse to recognize god’s word and live by it. Timothy, her brother, wanted the world to know that when his father dies, the church will live on – and it will be more active than ever because he and his siblings are “battle-hardened.” He also defended taking young children to protest at funerals as comparable to others taking their children to Easter and Christmas observances. It’s all religion, don’t you know! Those who try to limit the Phelps practice of their religion in their manner can “go to hell,” sayeth Timothy.
The film’s counterbalance to all of this sickness comes through interviews with some of the more conventional local clergy and public officials from Topeka, as well as telephone interviews with two of the Phelps’ adult children who escaped their father’s wrath and control. Phelps’ son, Nate, who fled the compound on the evening of his eighteenth birthday, talked of being beaten on a regular basis with a razor strap to the point of bleeding, and of his father hitting him unmercifully with a long, wooden implement handle. He said that the kids went to public schools but were not allowed to dress out for physical education because of the bruises that would be revealed. Nate also listed a precise set of reasons why he considers the Westboro Baptist Church to be a cult and his father to be a cult leader.
The other former family member to talk to the filmmaker was Fred’s daughter, Dortha. She described life in her father’s home as being “loveless” and “scary.” She depicted Fred as having “the emotional maturity of a fourth grader – on a good day,” and said that he was “addicted to anger – a rageaholic.” Dortha said that Fred wanted to control her every move, and her primary focus growing up was survival. The saddest part of Dortha’s story was her relationship with God. She was constantly told that her father spoke for God, and she knew that her father hated her, so therefore God hated her also.
While the film’s content was strong and strident throughout, it became absolutely riveting with the interview of Kelly Frantz, a young war widow from Tonganoxie, Kansas. Kelly’s husband, Corporal Lucas Frantz, was killed in Iraq in October of 2005. Lucas had been a high school football player and was loved and admired by the community. Kelly told the interviewer of the emotional pain and grief that she went through on learning of her husband’s death. Before that shock could even begin to subside, she was stunned to learn that members of the Phelps’ cult were coming to Tonganoxie to protest at Lucas’s funeral. Her parents and a local motorcycle club managed to keep the desecration squad away from Kelly, but her emotional farewell to the love of her life was sadly marred by the mean-spirited crazies from Topeka.
This student documentary was solid enough to be picked up and presented by the Showtime Network. It grabbed my interest and held it, and, perhaps as important, it left me wanting to know more about these people. For instance, how are they funded? How do they pay for their continuing nationwide travel? Do they maintain solvency through Internet begging? The compound is a set of mediocre houses and a church (of sorts) on a nice parcel of land. Has the city of Topeka ever considered removing this cancer through the process of eminent domain and turning the property into some sort of Tolerance Park? That might be a bit radical and not overly fair to the residents of the compound, but, hey, when have they ever been known for fairness?
But I digress. Fall from Grace will be rebroadcast by Showtime on December 26th at 8:00 eastern. It’s worth checking out, but keep your hand on the remote because this film could have a sudden, negative impact on your blood pressure!