On March 19, 2014, Fred Phelps, founder of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, passed away at the age of 84. Though his death was not unexpected, due to his advanced age and declining health, it still sparked a tremendous response from the American public and media. Unlike deaths of other widely-recognized public figures, Phelps' death was not met with tears or candlelight vigils of remembrance. Many Americans instead expressed feelings that ranged from indifference to delight. Unfortunately, expressions of celebratory emotions in response to Fred Phelps' death are the very best tribute that could be paid to a man who dedicated much of his life to advocating hatred and making active efforts to disturb the peaceful remembrance of deceased American citizens, particularly military servicemen, by staging loud protests at funerals nationwide. Furthermore, not only does applauding the death of Fred Phelps essentially honor his memory and legacy of hatred and disruption, it does nothing to combat hateful actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, or other groups with similar messages, or to help protect and preserve the rights of those citizens the WBC aims to harm and oppress.
Media outlets have been fairly vocal in their responses to celebratory or joyful reactions to Phelps' passing, taking the position that to express delight or to picket or protest the funeral of Fred Phelps (an event which will not even occur) is to give homage to the deceased founder's goals. Interviews with Christian leaders of different branches of Christianity have reminded us that it is directly contrary to Christian values to fight hatred with hatred, and that Christianity calls upon us to love even our enemies. Despite being the group most aggressively targeted by Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, gay and lesbian rights organizations have also spoken out in opposition to a celebratory reaction to Phelps' passing. Many have been quick to remind Americans that there is an important difference between taking delight in the death of Fred Phelps, or any other WBC member or any other anti-gay activist, and taking delight in the end of the Westboro Baptist Church's hateful messages and actions. Phelps' death does not signify the end of hatred for the WBC or any others who share in the groups' mission or positions. Phelps' death does not guarantee any greater amount of respect or acceptance in the United States. And celebrating Phelps' death does not guarantee progress either.
Regardless of your opinion about Fred Phelps, his death, the Westboro Baptist Church, and the church's messages and missions, civil society requires us to hold and share our opinions in a way that is respectful to all. Celebrating the death of human being is not a respectful way to express an opinion, and does nothing to advance the messages of tolerance, acceptance and love needed to undo damage done by Phelps and the WBC. People can, and should, continue to celebrate victories against hatred, bigotry, oppression and violation of human rights in the United States, but the objective should be proactive, rather than reactive. Instead of reveling in the death of Fred Phelps, we can take positive actions that help to reduce his footprint on our society. Take the time to listen to a person whose choices or lifestyle you may not quite understand. Resist the urge to make a negative, mean, or hateful comment, even when you may have been offended by another's words or actions. Write to your representatives in Congress advocating for human rights issues about which you feel strongly. Refrain from passing judgment or characterizing an entire group of people based on the actions of one individual member. Donate to an organization that helps those struggling with mental, physical or emotional problems beyond their control. But whatever you do, just remember that death is never a victory.