Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church fame recently passed away. He won't be a man who will be remembered as the civil rights activist who started a law firm to help take down the Jim Crow establishment. He will be remembered as the kooky, hate-mongering, anti-gay pastor who indignantly protested military funerals and other locations. It's safe to say that the vast majority of people are not going to miss him, myself included.
As nice as it is to see one less bigot on this planet, he still did some good, even if it wasn't his intention. For one, his picketing tested the limits of the First Amendment (Snyder v. Phelps), which shows just how much free speech is valued in this country. What is more interesting is how he affected the gay rights movement.
Phelps thought that the 9-11 attacks, the roadside bombings during the Iraq War, and Hurricane Katrina, amongst other tragedies, were G-d's way of punishing America of being so tolerant of the LGBT community. I'll set aside the fact that this country has a while to go before reaching LGBT equality, but even so, how does a man who virulently hates homosexuals become such a help to the gay rights movement?
Phelps wanted Americans to have absolutely no respect for LGBT rights, but the more he picketed, the more supportive people became of same-sex marriage. This is not to say that Fred Phelps was the single most important factor in the progression of LGBT rights because there were other factors that played a significantly larger role. Nevertheless, Phelps became the embodiment of all that is anti-gay. He made the people over at the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council look like moderates. This was more than showing the dangers of religious fundamentalism. Phelps showed Americans just how much hate one has to harbor in order to be anti-gay. Being anti-gay and/or against gay marriage went from being commonplace to an opinion of hate and bigotry. Not only did he fail at his goal of spreading his anti-gay message across the country, but he helped propel the gay rights movement forward while putting a good number of Christians on the defensive about this issue. His legacy of hate helped more and more churchgoers become loving and accepting of their gay co-religionists. Phelps inadvertently framed the issue not in terms of "traditional marriage versus marriage equality," but in terms of "hatred versus acceptance." Phelps didn't expect acceptance to defeat hatred, but his hatred was such a turn-off that people realized the ugly side of being anti-gay.
As tempting as it would be to judge Phelps, I will leave that up to G-d. Phelps is no longer with us, and the fact that he failed in his fear-mongering is all the more pronounced by the progress made by the gay rights movement. Phelps should slip into obscurity and become a mere footnote in history. At this point, I will simply delight in the fact that people are becoming more and more accepting of LGBT individuals and realize that everyone, gay or straight, deserves the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.