Reporting from Washington — In what has been billed as “the largest secular event in world history,” athiests will gather in Washington D.C. today to rally in support of secularism.
The event, known as the Reason Rally, also will feature a collision of estranged family members. Nate Phelps, the atheist son of Westboro Baptist Church Pastor Fred Phelps, will address the crowd as his father’s church pickets the event in protest.
The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., has become infamous for using military funerals as a backdrop to promote an anti-gay, anti-military message. The church believes that the United States is too tolerant of sin and that the death of American soldiers is God’s punishment.
The church was sued by the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder – a Marine killed in Iraq – after it staged a protest at Snyder’s funeral with signs such as “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates fags.” In a controversial ruling last March, the Supreme Court said that the church’s speech was protected and therefore it could not be sued for the offensive protest.
Nate Phelps is one of 13 children of Fred Phelps. A professed atheist, he is among four of Phelps’ children who have defected from the church. When Nate Phelps, who has not had contact with much of his family for decades, learned that the church planned to picket the Reason Rally, he decided to counter the protest by speaking out at the event.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Phelps discussed his childhood, the day he left the church, and his views on religion and free speech.
LAT: What was your religious training like growing up?
Phelps: The actual theology is called Calvinism. And at the centerpiece of Calvinism is this idea of absolute predestination, that God is the one that picks the saved, as opposed to us making that decision for ourselves. And it was, you know, the environment was such that whatever our father defined as the doctrines of the Bible was what we were required to believe. So there really wasn’t any choice in the matter.
I don’t know, I guess that’s probably it, in a thumbnail.
Have you always been an atheist or was it a personal journey that led you to your beliefs?
Well, no, I haven’t always been an atheist. You know, growing up in that environment, atheism was a frightening proposition. And, you know, everything pushed us in the direction of looking for – and I think at the age of 14 or 15, I actually declared myself saved, which was the necessary process for being in that church, and was baptized.
I will say that I always had questions centered around the behavior of my father and the ideas that he espoused there. But it wasn’t until years after I left, and I would say probably only the last five or six years, that I have been willing to finally let go of the idea of a god. So it’s been a journey.
How did you get along with your father as a child? And was he aware of your beliefs, or did you keep it to yourself?
It was not an option to openly discuss any doubts which you might have. It wasn’t safe, physically or otherwise, to even consider such a thing.
So I learned early on to keep my thoughts to myself. And, you know, plus there was a component, you know, we heard regularly that we were just dumb kids and didn’t have any idea what we were talking about. So that played a part in the amount of validity that I gave those thoughts.
As far as the relationship with my father, the best way I could describe it was I was afraid of him from very early on. That never really changed, growing up. But it never got to the point where it was a sense of having a, you know, father like you might imagine that was an educator, a helper, you know, that kind of father figure. So he was always the disciplinarian and a threat in my mind.
When did you leave the church?
I left on the night of my 18th birthday, literally at the stroke of midnight.
I bought an old car, used car from one of the people that worked at the high school, and I packed all my stuff up without anybody knowing about it. And on that night, when everybody was asleep, I went out and got the car and put it in the driveway and loaded the trunk with my boxes and then went back in the house and waited at the bottom of the stairs, watched the clock go up to midnight, and I left.
Where did you go?
The first three nights, I had a friend who was the manager of a gas station near the high school I went to, and he gave me a key to the front door and I slept in the bathroom of the gas station for the first three nights.
And then my brother’s girlfriend’s mother found out about it and she offered me a room in her house. So I went from there and then eventually getting a job and getting my own place.
When did you end up in California?
That was actually like five years later.