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Ex-Westboro Baptist gives input on family, upbringing

By Jenn Schanz
On July 12, 2011

We know them as the "God hates fags" brigade, the funeral picketing Kansas cult, and America's favorite media sluts, the Westboro Baptist Church. But for the now Atheist LGBT advocate living in Calgary, they're also family.

The sixth of 13 children, Nate Phelps grew up with more than just middle child syndrome.

"The older I grew, I became aware of a fundamental difference in how my family and I saw the world," said the now estranged Phelps, who left the WBC on the eve of his 18th birthday.

Having an opportunity to speak with an ex-member of the most notorious religious cult since the Kool-Aid drinkers of Jonestown, I was expecting one of two things: an emotionally paralyzed scripture citer, or an angry anti-faith radical.

Surprisingly, Phelps was neither. He was friendly, candid, and relatable.

We spoke about his childhood, his father, how 9/11 shaped his relationship with religion, and who he is today.

Unlike his family members, Phelps doesn't attribute the world's tragedies to God's anger, but instead to the power and mobility of human thought.

"Bad things happen because of ideas, ideas that people follow. Not because God is angry with us," Phelps said.

Phelps, who lost a personal friend on 9/11, described seeing his siblings praising the day and celebrating the massacre as "a lot to handle" emotionally, but also considers it a tipping point in steering him toward atheist and humanist philosophy.

Currently working on an autobiographical book, he reflected on his Phelps-style upbringing.

"My father spewed hate in his preaching from day one, and as children we learned to obey…it was made very clear that if you were no longer a member of the church, you were no longer a member of the family," Phelps said.

Outlined in his upcoming book and during our conversation was the blatant abuse Fred Phelps inflicted on his children.

"I can say, without a doubt, that my father was physical, verbally, and psychologically abusive," Phelps explained.

In an exerpt from his upcoming book, Phelps describes the night he left Topeka, Kan., for California, and a life of fear for a life of freedom: "A thrill of terror passes through me as I imagine my father's hand clamping down on my neck, pulling me back . My pace quickens."

As emotionally triggering and well written as I found his writing to be, it was difficult to read Phelps' story without a giant question mark popping up.

How does a son of Fred Phelps become an LGBT advocate? According to Nate Phelps, not overnight.

"There was no immediate shift in my ideology or who I was from when I lived with my family to when I left, I just began to notice how drastically different our perceptions of the world were," he said. "I felt this need to counteract what my family was doing."

Nate now has a family of his own, and while he assured me that he, like everyone else, takes life one day at a time and seems quite at peace with who he is.

Unlike the rage-driven demeanor of his father, talking with Phelps was relaxing and enjoyable. Even so, what does he make of his broken family?

I asked him the question I almost didn't ask, but had to know.

"Do you think members of the Westboro Baptist Church, your family, are good people?"

Like much of our conversation, his response was not as I would have guessed.

"My siblings have the capacity to be very friendly people, and good people, yes," he said.

As for his father, patriarch of the WBC Fred Phelps, after a long pause, Nate responded.


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