Fred Phelps is dead.
We all knew this was coming. After all, he had been in ill health and recently moved into a hospice.
Now, I am one of the last people in this world who would ever defend him. Still, I hope that nobody pickets his funeral as he and his congregants did at the funerals of Matthew Shepard and soldiers who died in Iraq. After all, do we want our community (or any level) to descend to the level of non-civility exhibited by the Westboro Baptist Church?
But, as awful a legacy as he left with his "God Hates Fags" protests and campaigns, he actually did quite a bit of good. Believe it or not, he was once a civil-rights lawyer who fiercely advocated on behalf of African-Americans who experienced discrimination in schools, work and the American Legion, and abuse at the hands of their local police. He also sued President Ronald Reagan after Reagan appointed--for the first time in US History--an American ambassador to the Vatican. Phelps argued that the appointment violated the Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state.
Then, of course, there are his family members, some of whom were excommunicated and others, like his son Nathan, who left the Westboro church. They mourn the loss of a father, grandfather and uncle, even if they came to disagree with his teachings.
The life and death of Fred Phelps Sr. should, if nothing else, help us to remember that tragedy begets tragedy. Somewhere along the way, a sense of righteous anger turned into resentful hatred that caused him to be estranged from the very community he built around it.