His dad founded the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Nate Phelps is dedicated to reversing that legacy of hate.
As the pastor of the much-reviled Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps has become synonymous with hatred. The pastor and his family make it a point to carry signs at the funerals saying, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” They show up to media-friendly events with signs that read, “God Hates Fags.”
Nate Phelps is the sixth of Fred’s 13 children, and he has the scars to show for it. He describes his father as verbally and physically abusive. When he was 18, Nate ran away from home and from the fundamentalist Calvinist religion in which he was raised.
Now in his 50s, Nate finds himself publicly squaring off with his father and siblings to reverse their legacy of intolerance. He lives in Calgary, where he has become a public speaker who champions LGBT rights and raises awareness about the connection between extreme religion and child abuse. He is currently writing a book about his life and is the subject of an upcoming documentary.
What was your childhood like?
It was a very strict environment. We were isolated from the community, not so much physically, as ideologically. We heard from the time we were very young that we were to be separated from the world, and we were unique. We were God’s chosen ones. On one hand we had this sense that we were better than everybody else, and on the other hand we had this clear awareness that we were different from everyone else. That cut both ways. And then all of that ideology was supported and promoted with violence and psychological — I don’t know if you want to call it abuse, but you know those lessons we learned in that religious environment were such that we were constantly anxious and frightened for whether or not we were going to upset God.
How did your father explain that to you? That you were one of God’s chosen ones and yet he could mistreat you?
He was able to justify using verses out of the Bible. That was a major criteria for him. If he could find an excuse for it, then it was OK to do it, because God gave him permission. As far as how he justified the idea that we were different from the rest of the world, he made much of the ideas that he found in the Bible about the nature of what God expected of us, that extreme Calvinist ideology that is at the cornerstone of their campaign. The fact that other groups had it wrong or got this or that doctrine wrong was proof that God didn’t find favor with them.
As far as the physical violence, that’s a fairly common idea that exists in fundamentalist Christianity, that the husband is the head of the house and has absolute authority — and has the right to bring his wife and children into submission if they aren’t.
And when you talk about the physical violence was it something that was spontaneous or routine? How do you remember?
It was both. I mean there were some things that you just knew if he found out about it there was gonna be trouble. There was also this tendency to explode without any warning and that actually was far more destructive in the long run because you just never knew, and that’s more terrifying than cause-and-effect.
Did he use his belt or a cane, what was his …?
When we were younger it was a barber strap. That thing got so shredded at the ends that it would wrap around the sides of our legs and tear the skin. It was kind of like a cat o’ nine tails. When I was about 8 or 9 he introduced us to a Mattock handle, which is a farming instrument or tool that you use to pull up roots, and it’s got an axe head on one end and a hoe head on the other end. It’s big. You know, take a baseball bat, add maybe 30 percent to that.
What, he’d have you bend over a chair or what did he do?
Yeah, and then he would beat us anywhere from the lower part of our back down to behind our knees and he swung it hard, he swung it like a baseball bat. And oftentimes what would happen is there would be eight or 10 strokes and then he would go into a 10- or 15-minute screaming session with what we were doing wrong and how it was defying God and that we were evil. You know all of these religious-based threats and insults to the children and then he’d go back to the beating and by then the skin has stretched tight from the damage. So the next blows would just split the skin and so you’d get blood.
Would your father choose to do this in front of your other brothers and sisters?
No, it was very public. It couldn’t help but be public because there was so much noise and ranting, everybody in the house knew that he was on a tear. And sometimes when it got really bad my mom would try to intervene and then he would go after her and beat her for that. He used all of these strategies that appeared to be very deliberate. He required the older boys to start administering the beatings themselves, and if they didn’t do it properly then they would get beat from him because they weren’t hitting hard enough or doing it as he would do it. And that was kind of a pattern he used even with the passing on of the message that he taught. He didn’t just settle for making sure we knew it. He required us to present it the way he did.
Did you have any opportunity to run away?
The thought never really occurred to me. You grow up in that environment, you just kind of accept that’s the way the world is and that you’re there and you’re stuck there. And then my older brother Mark left when I was about 16, and that put the idea in my head. But then my older sister Kathy left, and she was only 17, so he went after her, found her, forced her back home because he still legally owned her, and abused her terrible for the remaining four to five months before she turned 18. So I learned from that that if I was going to be successful I had to wait till my 18th birthday. So that’s what I did. Literally the night of my 18th birthday, at midnight, I had made my arrangements and I walked out the back door.
Were you obliged to be a part of the public protests he would do, whether it was picketing funerals or homosexuals?
He didn’t start the “God hates fags” campaign until after I left. But throughout our childhood there was that inclination toward conflict with neighbors and community members, and he absolutely required of us, whatever form it took, as well as this putting the word out there that everybody in the world was going to hell, that had to be presented with the same kind of vitriolic fury that he did it, or then we’d end up getting in trouble if we weren’t vicious enough. Without a doubt you don’t have an option in that environment, and I’m quite certain that’s still the case that those kids that are out there, the young ones and even the teenagers, they’re not necessarily there because they want to be, they have to be there.