Nate Phelps spoke at Clayton High School, March 10 before an audience of over 500 people comprised of students and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. He is the son of Pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) which made headlines throughout the 1980s and 1990s by targeting the LGBT community; including protesting funerals of prominent gay men and women; and in recent years, the funerals of U. S. soldiers’ across the country.
The seventh of 13 children, Nate was taught his father’s extreme version of Calvinism from an early age. This was accompanied by extreme physical punishments and abuse, strict dietary and health requirements, and other rigid expectations. He left home at midnight on his eighteenth birthday and moved to California where he built a new life away from his family.
Fresh off of their U. S. Supreme Court victory, The Phelps family are known the world over and are no strangers to the St. Louis LGBT Community. The WBC has brought their anti-gay signage here on many occasions protesting everything from military funerals and area high schools for having Gay/Straight Alliances to Lady Gaga concerts and even the St. Louis Cardinals. But at almost every visit the St. Louis LGBT community has countered the message of hate with a physical demonstration of love and acceptance.
What is not well known, according to Nate, is the brutality and abuse that his father inflicted upon their family. The audience learned that there has always been an inconsistent message coming from Pastor Phelps and the WBC. Nate recalled selling candy bars as a child to raise money for the family in bars around strippers. He maintains his father balanced attending law school with a wife and a dozen-plus children by relying on a cocktail of barbiturates and amphetamines to cope.
The younger Phelps painted a horrific family portrait where violating the rules meant being ostracized or being beaten; where fire and brimstone evangelism was complimented by fists, feet, knees and a handle of a mattock (a farm tool similar to a pickax) all for the sake of restoring order within the household.
“In my childhood I was consistently at odds with my father,” Nate explained. “His actions eventually led to doubt, contradiction and fear. I think that he’s a sociopath. I think that he fits that based on his inability to empathize with others, his calculated cruelty, and by laughing at the harm he causes. I’ve seen that growing up with him.”
Prior to his escape, two of Nate’s older siblings attempted to leave: Mark, who successfully escaped at 18 and fled to California and Kathy, who left at 17 but was reportedly forced back and beaten. Nate was present during his sister's recapture and recalls her being submissively reconditioned into the church through forced fasting and other abuses. Nathan knew that in order to escape successfully, he had to wait until he was old enough to legally act as an adult.
"I left the night I turned 18, literally at midnight," Phelps said. "I knew I was going to do it when I turned 15 or so. I bought a car when I was 17—hid it—no one knew it was mine. [I] packed my stuff up and at 11:30 on the night of my 18th birthday, I backed it into the driveway and loaded it up and went inside. [I] waited for the clock to hit midnight, and then I left."
The next 25- years posed a struggle for identity with Nate Phelps. Fleeing to California to partner with his brother’s (Mark) printing business, Nate occasionally went to church, always hearing reverberations from his father’s sermons. Married in 1982, Nate headed a family of four by 1989 and initially struggled with making large life decisions absent from his father’s consent. Even after being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, Nate eventually returned to Bible study and became a quiet apologist for Christianity. It wasn’t until Christmas of 1994 when his son inquired about Jesus, hell and eternity that Nate really began analyzing the role that religion would play with his children.
Nate and his wife realized that what their children needed most was coaching and encouragement in critical thinking. Often playing the devil’s advocate on various issues, Phelps wanted to ensure that his children could process new ideas through critical thinking, compared to blindly accepting doctrine as he did in his own childhood.
After years on the sidelines, Phelps has gone public against the WBC and what it stands for. It's his way of atoning for the evil, he believes, that his own troubled family has inflicted.
“I have concluded that any system sustained by hatred, any theology that acts with deliberate cruelty to others and laughs at the suffering it causes, any ideology that marginalizes a group of people based on whom they choose to love is morally bankrupt and I reject it.”
Today Nate lives in Calgary, Alberta and works for the Center for Inquiry. He is a vocal LGBT advocate, and speaks out against the dangers of religion and child abuse. He is currently working on a book which covers his exceptional story, and is the subject of an upcoming documentary film.
The March 10 event was organized by Cooper Minnis, a Co-President of Clayton High School’s Equality Club.
Stay tuned for an in-depth interview with Nate Phelps by Drew Baumgartner coming soon at www.TheVitalVOICE.com
BY: COLIN LOVETT