Growing up in America’s most hated family
The mattock, a close cousin of the pickaxe, is used to dig through tough, earthy surfaces—it loosens soil, breaks rock, and tears through knotted grass. Its handle is a three-foot wooden shaft, twice the density of a baseball bat and its dual-sided iron head is comprised of a chisel and a pick. It was Pastor Fred Phelps’s weapon of choice when beating his children, said his son, Nate Phelps.
“The Bible says ’spare the rod, spoil the child,’” Nate explained, “and he would be screaming that out as he was beating us.” One Christmas night, Pastor Phelps hit Nate over 200 times with a mattock’s handle, swinging it like a baseball player.
Nate would hide out in the garage with his siblings, where he could escape his father’s wrath. What he couldn’t escape, however, was the fear of going to hell. He suffered much abuse growing up under the roof of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (WBC)—he still suffers today.
The church, which believes that “God is hateful,” hasn’t changed its grim outlook since Nate’s time there 30 years ago, but it has expanded its fame. WBC has become well known for picketing funerals, where its followers, predominantly Phelps family members, proclaim that God is punishing “fags and fag enablers.” To further the damage, the church frequently targets military funerals.
“WBC will picket the funerals of these Godless, fag army American soldiers when their pieces return home,” their website says. They believe God is punishing America for facilitating homosexuality, which, according to the church, ought to be a capital crime.
More recently, WBC planned to protest the funeral of Tim McLean, the young man who was beheaded on a Greyhound bus. However, they were barred from crossing the Canadian border. It is little wonder that Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary on the Phelps’ was titled The Most Hated Family in America.
Incidentally, it was when I mentioned this documentary that Nate introduced himself to me.
It was a Monday in September and I was on my way to the Cranbrook Airport. Cranbrook, a modest city of about 25,000, hides in BC’s Kootenays. It rests behind a shroud of mountains, clean air, and restful silence.
I began a conversation with my cab driver, who looked to be in his late forties, with a trimmed beard and kind eyes. He told me that he once owned a chain of print shops with his brother, that he liked the BBC, and that Pastor Fred Phelps was his father—only after I had mentioned WBC, unaware. Following this coincidence, he agreed to an interview.
Nate’s story tells of the “shadow—the dark, ugly thing at the back of their minds.” The fear of burning in hell never goes away, said Nate, who is still struggling with it himself. “It’s destructive. It’s hard to live life with that stuff in your head.” But he’s doing his best.
His conditioning began over 40 years ago in Topeka, Kansas, where WBC was formed and still exists today. As its pastor, his father very quickly alienated himself from most of the people who had seeded the church.
“A young lady got pregnant by a solider at Fort Riley,” Nate explained, “and [my father's] response to that was to kick her out of the church…and that sent most of the people packing. There was already that siege mentality developing: us against the world.”
Sundays were particularly strict. Nate was expected to dress formally and present himself in the church auditorium by a certain time. The sermon that followed was always “fire-and-brimstone preaching….
“I know that very early on [my father] was under the influence of those drugs,” Nate said. Pastor Phelps was attending law school and would take amphetamines to stay awake and barbiturates to come down. “It spiralled out of control [and he] was prone toward violence….He just wasn’t tolerant toward the presence of all of us kids running around—and the accompanying noise….He would beat the kids with his fists and kick them and knee them in the stomach.”
Nate doesn’t know why his father was such an angry man; he didn’t know his father very well. “I just know that that’s the way he was and I stayed as far away from him as I could.”
He remembers when his father would force him and his siblings to run five to ten miles around the high school track every night. One evening another boy was riding his bicycle along the outer lanes of the track, and Fred began yelling at him to leave. The boy’s response was to keep riding on the track, and Fred’s was to push him off the bike. The boy left, screaming, and 20 minutes later a truck came screeching into the parking lot. The boy had brought his father, who approached Fred and knocked him to the ground.
“The man was threatening to sue him,” Nate said. “Then my old man yelled at us all to get in the car and we went home, and [my father] ended up beating my mom that night.”
Nate left home the day he turned 18. For a while he worked for a lawyer in Kansas City, eventually moving to St. Louis to work for a printing company with his brother Mark. He and Mark opened up their own print shop soon after. But then, after three years and despite his brother’s disapproval, Nate returned home.
“My sisters were trying to convince me that things had changed….I attended college for a semester and realized that while he may have been less prone to physical violence, he still was the same person. He just used different techniques to violate people—with his words and his deeds.”
In October of 1980, Nate left for good. He found residence above a Volkswagen repair shop, where he went through about six months in a drug and alcohol haze. He eventually ran into Mark’s wife and she suggested that he and his brother reconcile their animosity, which had been caused when Nate returned to WBC temporarily. Nate then moved to California to work with his brother again.
Late one night over a decade later, Nate found himself listening to his father being interviewed on a radio station in LA—it wasn’t long after Fred had gained national attention with his protests. Nate called in under the impression that the interview was a rerun, but realized after calling that his father was on the air live.
“I was freaked out. I got on and I challenged [my father]….That lasted about maybe a minute, and it devolved quickly into him calling me every name he could imagine, and then he handed the phone to Shirley, and she delivered a few diatribes.”
Shirley Phelps-Roper, Nate’s sister, has gained her own reputation for being the church’s other loud voice. Nate said that she has always been their father’s favourite. I contacted her to ask about her brother, and she responded with the following.
“Nathan Phelps is a rebel against God,” she said. “He has nothing to look forward to except sorrow, misery, death and hell….Great peace fell upon our house when Nathan left….He spit on the goodness of his mother and father. In spite of that, his father and mother loved him and did their duty to him…and required of him that he behave while he lived in their house. They loved him in the only way that the Lord God defines love! They told him the truth about what the Lord his God required of him. He was not going to have that!”
Shirley also claimed that Nate “left when he was a raging disobedient rebel with selective memory,” and asked, “What in this world is he doing in Canada?”
Nate met his ex-wife in ‘81 and married her in ‘86. They had three children together and he helped raise a fourth. They moved to a new, pre-planned city, Rancho Santa Margarita, nestled at the foot of Saddleback Mountain in California.
“It was like paradise,” Nate said. “It was a perfect little town, and we were young and starting a family. It all just seemed so ideal.”
They joined a church, where they met many other families, five of which they became close with.
“Every Sunday, I was listening closely and trying desperately to find something in the preaching or in the words that would convince me that this was right. Even while I was doing that, I was always skeptical…but I never voiced it. I was very good at playing the apologist for the Christian faith. In fact, I had quite a reputation for writing and talking in defence of Christianity.”
The turning point was one Christmas, when Nate decided to teach his children about God. In the end, his son Tyler began crying in the backseat of the car, saying that he didn’t want to go to hell.
“He wanted to believe because he didn’t want to go to hell,” Nate said. “I was just stunned because I didn’t know what I had said or how I had left him with that fear. I thought I was doing a good job of presenting it without the fear.
“Thinking about it after the fact, I realized you can’t do that. With a young mind it doesn’t matter. You can try as much as you want to talk about how good God is, but the bottom line is there’s this intolerably frightening punishment if you don’t accept it. And how does a young mind deal with that?”
Nate agrees with prominent atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins, who has said that religion can be “real child abuse.”
Dawkins tells the story of an American woman who wrote to him. She was raised as a Roman Catholic and was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. Around the same time, a Protestant school friend of hers died tragically.
“Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a seven-year-old) as yucky,” she wrote, “while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest, but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to hell. It gave me nightmares.”
“The threat of eternal hell is an extreme example of mental abuse,” Dawkins says on his website, “just as violent sodomy is an extreme example of physical abuse.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Nate asserted. “In so many different ways we have abused children with religion over the centuries.”
Nate said that he is being contacted by nephews he’d never previously met who have made the same choice he did 30 years ago. One of them was Tim, who told Nate that he spends many nights crying himself to sleep. He’s scared. “Once he made the choice, he’s cut off. Everything that he grew up with is taken away from him, and he gets to wonder if he’s going to burn in hell….[He's] living with that shadow.”
Eventually, Nate told his wife that he couldn’t continue believing. Then he told the men from the five families that they were close to, and they responded by disappearing from his life.
“As far as they were concerned, I was a traitor—well, that’s how they behaved.”
In 2005, Nate’s marriage failed. Around the same time, he met another woman online, Angela. She lived in Canada, and Nate knew that he had to make a tough decision.
“The decision was that I was going to come here to her,” Nate said. “When I left, one of the first things [my wife] did was blame the failed marriage on us leaving the church.”
He moved to Cranbrook in December of ‘05. Since then, he’s been doing a lot of reading and thinking.
“I do declare myself an atheist now,” Nate affirmed, “although I’m willing to admit that there’s stuff in life that I’m not real clear on yet.”
Despite this, he still lives with anxiety caused by his experiences over 40 years ago.
“I spent the first 25 or 30 years of my life denying that anything was wrong with me….Then bam: all this weird stuff just starts coming out.
“It’s so, so difficult to go back and look at stuff and try to make sense of it, especially being this far removed from it. I’ll immerse myself in it for a couple weeks, and then I got to back away because it’s too destructive. But I have to believe it’s going to turn out.”
I asked Nate what he wanted for his future.
“I think the best way to answer that is what I said to my wife when we were fighting at the end.” He paused for a moment. “That I just want peace. I want to not wake up fearful every morning.”