It’s tempting to write this way of thinking off as idiocy, but the most striking recollection I have of my long early interviews with Phelps was his intelligence. People want to deny his intelligence, and yet it was striking, to the point where it drew you in. Not the overall message — that was easy to dismiss — but the sharpness and expansiveness of his mind.
Phelps could quote case law and the Bible exhaustively. He’d won awards for defending the educational rights of poor African-Americans. He didn’t speak in the rambling circular tones of many fundamentalist preachers. A long-distance runner, Phelps had great endurance in an argument, relishing a debate.
His bizarre obsession with homosexuality, coupled with his determination never to give up, eventually earned Phelps what he fervently desired: a national pulpit from which to call America back to godly ways.
Phelps was not the only preacher fulminating against the gay menace, but he was the most flamboyant and the best at making a spectacle. As America grew more tolerant of homosexuality, Phelps became more outlandish. He didn’t just attack gay people who died of AIDS but their parents. He didn’t just write angry diatribes about gay bars but against the United States military for allowing homosexuals in its ranks.
For other, less demonstrative Christian conservatives, Phelps was an embarrassment, a walking, talking, faxing parody of their own biblical beliefs. In important ways, he queered the field for them. His desperate attacks helped turn American opinion in favor of toleration.
As his circle of targets grew, America continued to reflect. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a pathetic compromise of a policy, was repealed when the highest levels of our military began admitting that gay soldiers had long and bravely served the country.