Thursday, March 27, 2014


When the infamous, sinister minister Fred Phelps of Westboro, Kansas died, I can’t say I mourned his passing any more than I celebrated his existence.  The abusive Bible thumper was of the ilk that used obscure scriptures to preach a message of pure hate; hate for gays in particular, but hate for anyone who was one degree out of line with his preaching.

His followers were mostly family members, and if the sins of the father were ever visited upon the children, the Phelps family lived out that prophesy in spades.  

A few years ago, my Southern Born Woman got a message from Christ Church Cathedral that Fred’s people would be picketing our church, which, like most Episcopal churches, is gay friendly.  We don’t attend very often but we took the message to heart, and thought we’d stand in solidarity with our gay brethren that Sunday.  The message from the Dean of the Cathedral reminded us to avoid engaging in any hostile debate, rather to invite the Westboro folks to attend our service.

We headed downtown to the cathedral, keeping our eyes open for some sign of the usual “God hates fags” and “God hates you” signs that the Phelps group is famous for, but Broadway seemed just as quiet as it always is on Sunday mornings.  The group was nowhere to be seen.  

Later on, we heard that the group had mistakenly gone to another church in Nashville that goes by the name “Christ Church”, a Pentecostal church which, to my knowledge, isn’t LGBT affirming.  I’m sure the folks at Christ Church felt like they must be doing something right with all that protestation.  

I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around hate mongers, no matter what the stripe, but when hatred is done in the name of Jesus, I take it personally.  There are many people who like to use the Bible as their ultimate argument for any number of things, some of them being worthy ideals; pacifism, charity, and personal sacrifice are just a few ideals that are easily backed up by the Bible.  An illogical read of Scripture can be the basis for many crimes of hate, but I fervently believe that a person like Fred Phelps would have to talk himself into the crazy rational that connects hatred and Jesus.  

It just doesn’t add up.  

On the other hand, the story of Redemption is in the air, singing through the trees, whispering through nature, and daring us to believe that we are loved.  Why redemption’s song, that perfect love song, wasn’t on Fred Phelps’ lips is a sad question, but probably answerable in the pathology of his history, found on the fingerprints of whatever insane person raised or abused him.  

But I owe Fred one, I must admit.  

When I decided to make a record called “Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest Of Us”, it was Phelps and his Westboro army that influenced me more than anything, in that "Mercyland" was a reaction to the Haters, and I don't know anyone who hates as much as Fred and Co, whose idea seems to be "God is hate", which I still can't find in my Bible.

When I invited the artists who wound up on Mercyland, I merely said that I wanted to do a record based on the idea “What if God is love?”

Emmylou Harris said “yes” before anyone else did, and once she was “in”, just about everyone I asked agreed to be on the project.  I wasn’t looking for artists who identified with the Christian faith, and didn’t think of the project as a “Christian record”, but I did want to gather artists and songs to identify with the idea that humanity might have hope in Something greater than ourselves.

The idea resonated with the great artists who partook, and continues to resonate when the songs from Mercyland are performed.

I wish Fred Phelps could have heard the message of the music he unwittingly inspired, but perhaps he's listening now.

While Mercyland wasn’t a gigantic seller, it did move people, and continues to do so.  In 40 years of being a music maker, I identify Mercyland as being my most important work.  In juxtaposition to the Westboro crowd, I like holding up my sign that says, “God loves you!”.  It’s something I truly believe, no matter who a person is, and no matter what they’ve done.

Everyone’s mother has reminded them, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything”, and I’ll take it a step further.  The only word worth saying or hearing is “Redemption”.

I like to think that Fred knows that to be true now.  May the Westboro army and the rest of us find it to be so.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for commenting, Stephen!

  2. Tasteful and freaking on target Phil. Fred is a product is no doubt the product of the jacked up environment he was raised in, but to a certain extent, we all have a little bit of what Fred had that pushed him to do the hateful things he did. Religion process seems to unknowingly and covertly instill this in us. Membership, pray this prayer, saved vs lost, christian vs secular, hetero vs homo, etc.... it creates dualistic thinking and this is the product. A vertical line that separates good from bad, holy from unholy. A very wise mentor of mine pointed out that the line we seem to try to identify is in fact a horizontal one. In any given situation, which side of it we are on is a reflection of our cosmology and ultimately our love, which is the true measure of spirituality, if something like that can even be measured.

    Appreciate you sharing your gifts with us my friend.

    Scott G

  3. Scott,
    Thanks for your response, and methinks you need to write a blog, too!

  4. Nice one, Uncle Phil.

  5. Phil, I always look for your words. Ever since Shawn Mullins sent me over this way (through his writing about the Ghost of Johnny Cash) I find a treat when you share a few words.

    Mercyland is one of my favorite recordings. I love the idea that there are hymns for the rest of us.

    Thanks for all the hard work...

  6. Thanks, Jenn!

    And thanks, Ruminator! Looks like Ghost Of Johnny C will be on my next record as well. Thanks for your remarks about Mercyland; we'll be doing Part 2 this year.

    In other news, you might like the book I wrote this year, "God On The Rocks: Distilling Religion, Savoring Faith"...


  7. Beautiful, Phil. I love that song of redemption that's being woven through us all. It's just such a shame that some people choose to stick their fingers in their ears so they can't hear it.

  8. Thanks Carryl,

    Here's to the still small voice.


Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm