Fred Phelps Gave Me My First Big Break

Illustration for article titled Fred Phelps Gave Me My First Big Break

In April 2003, The Black Table, a fledgling internet site started by me, Will Leitch, Eric Gillin, Aileen Gallagher, and Jim Cooke, had its first big, exclusive story, which was an interview with one Rev. Fred Phelps, the "God Hates Fags" preacher who passed away last week. Our full Q&A is reprinted below; here's how that happened.


My first Manhattan writing job, back in 2000, was as a wire reporter for, the first online product of American Lawyer Media, the august publishing giant behind most of the big legal trade pubs. I covered all the hot breaking legal news out of Kansas, home state of the Westboro Baptist Church. Most of Fred Phelps's kids and kin were lawyers—they were always in court fighting for their right to picket pretty much anywhere they thought doomed, homo-endorsing Sodomites would be present.

Margie Phelps was the main mouthpiece of the Phelps clan and also the most respected attorney. She was, if nothing else, a reliable source and a colorful quote. She knew her First Amendment almost as well as her Scripture, and her ability to whip from homophobic invective back into deep Constitutional law was jaw-dropping. It was off-putting and ugly, for sure, but as a young reporter covering a complicated (for me) beat, she was incredibly helpful translating some of the legalese.

The breakthrough moment in our reporter-source relationship came when I politely asked her if she could use another word for "fags." She bristled a bit and sounded annoyed, but I was desperate not to lose her as a source, so I tried to reel her back. "How about 'pillow biters'?" I said. Oh, how she laughed.

From then on, we developed this strange pen-pal relationship, even after I had left We'd check in with each other frequently, sometimes about something story-related, sometimes not. Once, while she was on summer vacation, traveling with her kids to different ballparks, she sent me an exclamation-point-riddled email about how she saw Mark McGwire hit a home run into Big Mac Land, just because she knew I liked baseball.

A couple years had gone by since we'd communicated, but when the Westboro Baptist Church began to make headlines over picketing Mr. Rogers's funeral, I decided to reach out to Margie again to try to get to her father. She remembered who I was ("Well, hello, A.J.!!!"), but I still had to be screened. Rev. Fred was selective about his interviews, so a three-month-old "culture" website with a daily readership of maybe 100 people wasn't an easy sell. But Margie convinced him, and soon after that, I received an unsigned email from the official press department telling me my interview request had been granted. Rev. Phelps would be able to conduct it over the phone, but it would have to be late in the evening, and he would contact me.

The interview was well over an hour long, enough for almost two tapes' worth of material. Plus, I'd asked for an updated headshot, and Rev. Phelps posed for a few with him smiling, wearing a cowboy hat and, inexplicably, a Tony Gonzalez jersey. The problem was, as Leitch and Gillin found out, that it actually wasn't much of an "interview," that it was more like Fred Phelps preaching his patented bit of crazy to an overmatched dope. I knew trying to debate Fred Phelps was pointless, but I also didn't want to sound unprofessional, let alone sound like I was being seduced. When we finally edited it, we decided the best way to keep the integrity of the interview was to showcase how ill-conceived it all was.

Illustration for article titled Fred Phelps Gave Me My First Big Break

When the piece ran in April 2003, it went mostly unread and unnoticed, like most of the early Black Table stories. But weeks later, it started to gain a lot of traction. We finally noticed most of the traffic was coming from, where my interview was linked prominently on its sidebar as "Interview With Rev. Phelps." This was an odd, dubious achievement, seeing that the WBC rarely promoted outside publications who interviewed Fred, since most of them would inevitably turn into hit pieces. But there was The Black Table, front and center, linked to by the most polarizing congregation in recent history. Off we went.


BT: Hello, Pastor Phelps my name is A.J. Daulerio, I'd like to speak with you a little about the war in Iraq and other things.


FRED: Bow-lario? B-a-l…

BT: Duh-lario. D-A-U-


BT: Yes...wait, no. E-R-I-O.

FRED: You sure you're spelling your name right?

BT: Yes, now I am.

FRED: Okay, shoot.

BT: What is it that you're feeling right now about the war?

FRED: You mean about this Iraq thing?

BT: Yes.

FRED: Well, you know we went over there and picketed. Right there in downtown Baghdad, the last time Clinton was going to start this war, remember that?


BT: Yes.

FRED: I got an up close and firsthand look at the situation over there. That don't mean a whole heckuva lot but I'm telling you America is merging so as to become, in fact, Babylon. You know Iraq is generally the beach of Babylon. It was much larger at its height of glory in the days of Nebuchadnezzar—but the Bible tells all about that stuff—and the heaviest part of all of the Bible is in such places as Jeremiah who was preaching in those days of Babylonian captivity. And he gives two full chapters after he gets through talking about the doom of ancient Israel to the doom of Babylon. Two full chapters! Fifty and 51. And two full chapters of the Book of the Revelation takes that theme again—chapters 17 and 18—about the final doom of Babylon.


And it's the final doom, the time of the coming of Christ, the power and glory and the end of the world, it all fits in nicely with what we've been saying, that the take over by the Sodomite lobby is also a harbinger of the end of the world. You can credit these plain Bible versus which I, of course, do.

I knew that America had to merge with Babylon. I knew that all the language was far too expansive for some dinky-little old provision—a provincial situation such as that exists today. They don't have enough power to put your eye out, those present inhabitants, but we do. "And you make your nest as high as the eagles, and take the high ground, and from thence I'll bring thee down…"describes the terribleness of military might. There never has been a time that so much military might existed. I mean we got enough hydrogen bombs to blow up the world, you know?


BT: Well, do you agree with what's going on?

FRED: I agree it has to go on, but it doesn't reduce the evil and the animus of that insane little monster, Bush. I mean you've got a creature walking around with the mentality of a gnat with his hands on all that party.


BT: Had you ever met him when he was a governor of Texas?

FRED: No, but I don't know why. We've certainly been in his face enough, we went down twice to Crawford with signs saying he's a fag pimp and all we ever see is a whole gaggle of secret servicemen.


Laura Bush came here to Topeka because one of the leading proponents of same-sex marriage was one for her high school chum, named Marge Petty. She's the only member of the Kansas senate to vote for same-sex marriage—that's Laura's bosom buddy. She's touted as the number one alumnus of Southern Methodist University and we've picketed them twice. That campus is fag infested, top to bottom, warp and woof.

BT: Right. Speaking along those lines, I understand the next big protest is in Pittsburgh for Mr. Rogers?


FRED: No. That's not the next one. Understand, we do about 40 of these a week.

BT: Forty a week?

FRED: Yes. Forty a week. The next big one is in Washington D.C next week when they're going to have oral arguments on that fag case. You know that? They're revisiting the fag issues since '86 when they said it was okay for states to criminalize sodomy, now they're revisiting it, which means they're going to reverse it. As we speak our flyer is going out condemning the Supreme Court.


BT: Um-hm. Well, do you think that has contributed to the immorality of this country, so to speak, I mean...

FRED: Look, it's a sin to pray for this country. It's a sin. Three times the Lord told Jeremiah just before the Babylonian captivity, "Quit praying for this nation, I'm through with this nation. Don't pray for 'em anymore!" Finally, he said in Chapter 15:1, "I'm telling you Jeremiah, if Moses and Samuel and the prophets stood before me, praying for this nation, I wouldn't hear them either. I'm through with this nation." Second Chronicles 36:16, "They despised his words, they abused his prophets, until the wrath of God arose against his people til there was no remedy." Second Chronicles. 36:16.


BT: Well, do you still consider yourself an American?

FRED: Oh yeah. I still got my Eagle Scout paraphernalia hanging on the wall and two medals from the American Legion for citizenship.


BT: Well, then, when did this country…

FRED: When did this country cross the line?

BT: Yes.

FRED: I don't know, but the fags date their modern movement to June of '69, at what they called the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village—you know that area?


BT: Well, yeah, I live right near there actually…

FRED: (slight laughter) Well, they date their modern movement to then and they've achieved remarkable success.


BT: Now, you guys used to have a whole bunch of media coverage in the late 90s, and it seems to have died down a bit…

FRED: (laughing) Well, we beat 'em into submission. A federal judge gave us $175,000 in fees for having to sue so many of the people over the laws they passed who were trying to run around the First Amendment. That tends to put the kee-bosh on it.


BT: How many members of your family are lawyers?

FRED: I think it's eleven. A couple of kids of mine that are lawyers spend about half their time talking to the police units where we are going to be (picketing) to make sure as much as humanly possible that we have adequate protection. Because we do get set upon.


T: Does that happen a lot?

FRED: It doesn't happen a lot because we spend so much time making sure that there's an adequate police presence. We just got back from Tennessee picketing the city council at Vanderbilt University. And the last time we were there, a month or so ago when they were taking up that same-sex—I mean, uh, adding fags to the protected classes to the city ordinance. Adding fags to the protected classes is hot on many agendas and we go wherever that matter is drawn sharply into focus.


Last Tuesday night at that city council meeting they had about 16 of those cops on horses and about 50 in full riot gear so we wouldn't be set upon. So, when you ask me does it happen, no, not that often, but it's because we take such heroic steps to keep it from happening.

This is an evil nation and fags are violent and lawless and it plainly says that in the Scripture and they certainly manifest it. Especially in Greenwich Village and the Castro District in San Francisco, if you live up that close, you oughta know that that's a very weird place that Greenwich Village.


BT: It's got its share of people, yes.

FRED: I'd say so.

BT: But, New York City as a whole is a den of sin…

FRED: Yep.

BT: Right. So, when was the last time you guys were in New York City?

FRED: Well, it hasn't been long ago. We've been up there three times since Sept. 11 picketing with big signs that say "Thank God For Sept. 11" and that the FDNY is a fag fire department.


BT: Why's that?

FRED: Well because they're laced with fags and their fag agenda and their chaplain was fag priest named Mychal Judge


BT: Oh, yes… that's right.

FRED: And any outfit that's that dumb or evil—I mean an out-of-the closet fag priest?! And they bragged about it! And they need to be picketed. And they're not heroes and we got signs that say all that.


When St. Patrick's Cathedral was honoring them on a Sunday not long after Sept. 11 and they had all those fire trucks lined up there and they're praising them to the high heavens then we were over there with signs saying that they're not heroes and they're all bound for hell. Now, that's the way you preach.

BT: I guess it is. Let's talk about the Mr. Rogers protest. I didn't think Mr. Rogers was gay?


FRED: Well, I don't know if he's gay or not but he's one of the foremost proponents of 'It's OK to be Gay.' And from the church he got ordained by and the Presbyterian church he goes to in Pittsburgh which is one of the few boldly fag-promoting churches, that's one of the few.

You've got a guy (Mr. Rogers) who has got millions of children's ears and he says he's gonna shoot straight to them about the weighty matters of life, death, divorce—and then he steps gingerly around the fact that if you mess with that fag lifestyle you gonna split hell wide open.


BT: Well, he never came out and said that on the show, though, as far as I know…

FRED: Well, no he never came out and told children to experiment with homosexual sex like his compadres do. His compadres being The National Education Association and PBS network. They urge you that it's okay to be gay.


BT: This was the interesting thing about one of the Rogers picket press releases I saw: You had a picture of the image of the Twin Towers after the planes hit, the crew of the Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy, I believe it was Saddam Hussein and Mr. Rogers petting a cat.

FRED: (laughing) Petting a cat…

BT: Yes. Petting a cat. Now, are you insinuating that Mr. Rogers caused all of those things…


FRED: They died for his sins.

BT: They died for his sins, yes…now, are you…

FRED: Look, he went straight to hell. If everybody in the world is holding some candlelight vigil and catawalling about what a wonderful guy he was using the event of his death to preach propaganda lies from the devil and hell, why should it seem strange for an old time Baptist preacher to say 'Wait a moment please…"?


He's in hell. And if you're putting out cartoons depicting that he's in heaven, you've got no basis for it. Do you want to make the argument that he's in heaven?

BT: No, not me!

FRED: But, most of those guys talking don't even believe in heaven…

BT: But, it's Mr. Rogers. Everybody likes Mr. Rogers and all of the good he's brought to the world and I think that's why people are bristling a little more this time around.


RED: Well, we picketed Barry Goldwater's funeral in Tempe and they were making the same sounds.

BT: The same sounds?

FRED: Yeah, the same sounds like they're doing for Rogers talking about what a wonderful guy he was. And we all just told Moynihan that we'd be picketing his funeral because he put that fag, that dyke Deborah Batz on the Federal Bench.


BT: That's true he did do that…

FRED: And those things don't pass any kind of giggle test, if you're trying to maintain that it was appropriate to do and the Judgement Day of God almighty is ahead, well, I'm supposed to be reminding people of that.


BT: Well, how do you repent?

FRED: Well, repentance means to have a hearty, thorough, change of mind and it includes the idea of rejecting and renouncing the sinful, filthy lifestyle you've been living. And for the most part, fags cannot repent because they're proud of their sin. You never heard of an alduterer's pride parade.


BT: Right. Do you protest adulterers too?

FRED: Well, if it comes up.

BT: Well, how about President Clinton, would you protest him?

FRED: Clinton? I don't know why you would ask a question like that. We turned him every which way but loose. And we still let him have it. We just got back from picketing the Southern Baptist Convention World Headquarters in Nashville right down on 901 Commerce Street and had his ugly picture all over it as the #1 Southern Baptist Sodomite.


BT: Right. Stupid question. Has there ever been a homosexual you could relate to?

FRED: Nope. Fifty-five years I've been preaching, and looking for one of these so-called born again fags, and I've yet to find one. I got some Falwell claims that he converted, but the last one I talked to was John Paulk and the next thing I knew he was caught in a fag bar in Washington D.C. with egg all over his face. P-A-U-L-K. John Paulk.


BT: Paulk, yeah. Egg on his face, how do you mean?

FRED: Look, if he gets caught in a fag bar…

BT: Well, maybe he was just thirsty?

FRED: Well, he said he just went in there to use the restroom and he maintained that for a few weeks, but then he broke down and he back-slid.


BT: Back-slid?

FRED: He broke down and admitted that he fell of the wagon, however you want to describe it. He fell back into his fag days.


BT: Ah.

FRED: And he gets paid a big salary by James Dobson—Do you know Dobson?

BT: Not personally, no. I don't know Dobson.

FRED: Focus on the Family. He's got a multimillion dollar radio operation, and he pays him (Paulk) to head his Love One Out Crusade to convert the gays and lesbians.


BT: Will there ever be a time when you relent?

FRED: Relent?

BT: Yes.

FRED: Oh, hogwash. I'm the only one who loves these beasts. I'm the only one that loves them. It plainly says in Leviticus: 19 that "if you love these Sodomites, you've got to warn them that they're going to hell or if you don't you hate your brother and your heart."


BT: So, you're doing this out of love? You're trying to save people?

FRED: Yes, we call them Love Crusades. Look, these kissy-pooh people—what I tell 'em is that I don't think you can repent and you're already in hell now roasting walking sulpher streets, but if you have any hope at all it'll be behind what I'm telling you and not these kissy-pooh preachers that have turned this country into a nation of moral diabetics. Their churces are candy stores and they not only cannot cure you, but they'll make your diabetes worse. You need to be told you're headed straight for hell and you can't do one thing about it. Have a nice day!


BT: Fair enough. I appreciate you taking the time.

FRED: It was my pleasure, A.J. You take care now.