6 Nov 2008

Running from hell: Growing up in America’s most hated family

The Ubyssey - University of British Columbia

October 31, 2008

By Trevor Melanson

The mattock, a close cousin of the pickaxe, is used to dig through tough, earthy surfaces—it loosens soil, breaks rock, and tears through knotted grass. Its handle is a three-foot wooden shaft, twice the density of a baseball bat and its dual-sided iron head is comprised of a chisel and a pick. It was Pastor Fred Phelps’s weapon of choice when beating his children according to his son, Nate Phelps.

“The Bible says ‘spare the rod, spoil the child,’” explained Nate, “and he would be screaming that out as he was beating us.” One Christmas night, Pastor Phelps hit Nate over 200 times with a mattock’s handle, swinging it like a baseball player.

Nate would hide out in the garage with his siblings, where he could escape his father’s wrath. What he couldn’t escape, however, was the fear of going to hell. He suffered much abuse growing up under the roof of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (WBC)—he still suffers today.

The church, which believes that “God is hateful,” hasn’t changed its grim outlook since Nate’s time there 30 years ago, but it has expanded its fame. WBC has become well known for picketing funerals, where its followers, predominantly Phelps family members, proclaim that God is punishing “fags and fag enablers.” To further the damage, the church frequently targets military funerals.

“WBC will picket the funerals of these Godless, fag army American soldiers when their pieces return home,” their website says. They believe God is punishing America for facilitating homosexuality, which, according to the church, ought to be a capital crime.

More recently, WBC planned to protest the funeral of Tim McLean, the young man who was beheaded on a Greyhound bus. However, they were barred from crossing the Canadian border. It is little wonder that Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary on the Phelps’ was titled The Most Hated Family in America.

Incidentally, it was when I mentioned this documentary that Nate introduced himself to me.

It was a Monday in September and I was on my way to the Cranbrook Airport. Cranbrook, a modest city of about 25,000, hides in BC’s Kootenays. It rests behind a shroud of mountains, clean air, and restful silence.

I began a conversation with my cab driver, who looked to be in his late forties, with a trimmed beard and kind eyes. He told me that he once owned a chain of print shops with his brother, that he liked the BBC, and that Pastor Fred Phelps was his father—only after I had mentioned WBC, unaware. Following this coincidence, he agreed to an interview.

Nate’s story tells of the “shadow—the dark, ugly thing at the back of their minds.” The fear of burning in hell never goes away, said Nate, who is still struggling with it himself. “It’s destructive. It’s hard to live life with that stuff in your head.” But he’s doing his best.

His conditioning began over 40 years ago in Topeka, Kansas, where WBC was formed and still exists today. As its pastor, his father very quickly alienated himself from most of the people who had seeded the church.

“A young lady got pregnant by a solider at Fort Riley,” explained Nate, “and [my father’s] response to that was to kick her out of the church…and that sent most of the people packing. There was already that siege mentality developing: us against the world.”

Sundays were particularly strict. Nate was expected to dress formally and present himself in the church auditorium by a certain time. The sermon that followed was always “fire-and-brimstone preaching.”

“I know that very early on [my father] was under the influence of those drugs,” Nate said. Pastor Phelps was attending law school and would take amphetamines to stay awake and barbiturates to come down. “It spiralled out of control [and he] was prone toward violence….He just wasn’t tolerant toward the presence of all of us kids running around—and the accompanying noise….He would beat the kids with his fists and kick them and knee them in the stomach.”

Nate doesn’t know why his father was such an angry man; he didn’t know his father very well. “I just know that that’s the way he was and I stayed as far away from him as I could.”

He remembers when his father would force him and his siblings to run five to ten miles around the high school track every night. One evening another boy was riding his bicycle along the outer lanes of the track, and Fred began yelling at him to leave. The boy’s response was to keep riding on the track, and Fred’s was to push him off the bike. The boy left, screaming, and 20 minutes later a truck came screeching into the parking lot. The boy had brought his father, who approached Fred and knocked him to the ground.

“The man was threatening to sue him,” said Nate. “Then my old man yelled at us all to get in the car and we went home, and [my father] ended up beating my mom that night.”

Nate left home the day he turned 18. For a while he worked for a lawyer in Kansas City, eventually moving to St. Louis to work for a printing company with his brother Mark. He and Mark opened up their own print shop soon after. But then, after three years and despite his brother’s disapproval, Nate returned home.

“My sisters were trying to convince me that things had changed….I attended college for a semester and realized that while he may have been less prone to physical violence, he still was the same person. He just used different techniques to violate people—with his words and his deeds.”

In October of 1980, Nate left for good. He found residence above a Volkswagen repair shop, where he went through about six months in a drug and alcohol haze. He eventually ran into Mark’s wife and she suggested that he and his brother reconcile their animosity, which had been caused when Nate returned to WBC temporarily. And so Nate moved to California to work with his brother again.

Late one night over a decade later, Nate found himself listening to his father being interviewed on a radio station in LA—it wasn’t long after Fred had gained national attention with his protests. Nate called in under the impression that the interview was a rerun, but realized after calling that his father was on the air live.

“I was freaked out. I got on and I challenged [my father]….That lasted about maybe a minute, and it devolved quickly into him calling me every name he could imagine, and then he handed the phone to Shirley, and she delivered a few diatribes.”

Shirley Phelps-Roper, Nate’s sister, has gained her own reputation for being the church’s other loud voice. Nate says that she has always been their father’s favourite. I contacted her to ask about her brother, and she responded with the following.

“Nathan Phelps is a rebel against God,” she said. “He has nothing to look forward to except sorrow, misery, death and hell….Great peace fell upon our house when Nathan left….He spit on the goodness of his mother and father. In spite of that, his father and mother loved him and did their duty to him…and required of him that he behave while he lived in their house. They loved him in the only way that the Lord God defines love! They told him the truth about what the Lord his God required of him. He was not going to have that!”

Shirley also claimed that Nate “left when he was a raging disobedient rebel with selective memory,” and asked, “What in this world is he doing in Canada?”

Nate met his ex-wife in ’81, married in ’86. They had three children together and he helped raise a fourth. They moved to a new, pre-planned city, Rancho Santa Margarita, nestled at the foot of Saddleback Mountain in California.

“It was like paradise,” Nate said. “It was a perfect little town, and we were young and starting a family. It all just seemed so ideal.”

They joined a church, where they met many other families, five of which they became close with.

“Every Sunday, I was listening closely and trying desperately to find something in the preaching or in the words that would convince me that this was right. Even while I was doing that, I was always skeptical…but I never voiced it. I was very good at playing the apologist for the Christian faith. In fact, I had quite a reputation for writing and talking in defence of Christianity.”

The turning point was one Christmas, when Nate decided to teach his children about God. In the end, his son Tyler began crying in the backseat of the car, saying that he didn’t want to go to hell.

“He wanted to believe because he didn’t want to go to hell,” Nate said. “I was just stunned because I didn’t know what I had said or how I had left him with that fear. I thought I was doing a good job of presenting it without the fear.

“Thinking about it after the fact, I realized you can’t do that. With a young mind it doesn’t matter. You can try as much as you want to talk about how good God is, but the bottom line is there’s this intolerably frightening punishment if you don’t accept it. And how does a young mind deal with that?”

Nate agrees with prominent atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins, who has said that religion can be “real child abuse.”

Dawkins tells the story of an American woman who wrote to him. She was raised as a Roman Catholic and was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. Around the same time, a Protestant school friend of hers died tragically.

“Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a seven-year-old) as yucky,” she wrote, “while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest, but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to hell. It gave me nightmares.”

“The threat of eternal Hell is an extreme example of mental abuse,” Dawkins says on his website, “just as violent sodomy is an extreme example of physical abuse.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” asserted Nate. “In so many different ways we have abused children with religion over the centuries.”

Nate said that he is being contacted by nephews he’d never previously met who have made the same choice he did 30 years ago. One of them was Tim, who told Nate that he spends many nights crying himself to sleep. He’s scared. “Once he made the choice, he’s cut off. Everything that he grew up with is taken away from him, and he gets to wonder if he’s going to burn in hell….[He’s] living with that shadow.”

Eventually, Nate told his wife that he couldn’t continue believing. Then he told the men from the five families that they were close to, and they responded by disappearing from his life.

“As far as they were concerned, I was a traitor—well, that’s how they behaved.”

In 2005, Nate’s marriage failed. Around the same time, he met another woman online, Angela. She lived in Canada, and Nate knew that he had to make a tough decision.

“The decision was that I was going to come here to her,” Nate said. “When I left, one of the first things [my wife] did was blame the failed marriage on us leaving the church.”

He moved to Cranbrook in December of ’05. Since then, he’s been doing a lot of reading and thinking.

“I do declare myself an atheist now,” affirmed Nate, “although I’m willing to admit that there’s stuff in life that I’m not real clear on yet.”

Despite this, he still lives with anxiety caused by his experiences over 40 years ago.

“I spent the first 25 or 30 years of my life denying that anything was wrong with me….Then bam: all this weird stuff just starts coming out.

“It’s so, so difficult to go back and look at stuff and try to make sense of it, especially being this far removed from it. I’ll immerse myself in it for a couple weeks, and then I got to back away because it’s too destructive. But I have to believe it’s going to turn out.”

I asked Nate what he wanted for his future.

“I think the best way to answer that is what I said to my wife when we were fighting at the end.” He paused for a moment. “That I just want peace. I want to not wake up fearful every morning.”

This article was found at:



The Westboro Baptist hate cult that indoctrinates children with lullabies about people going to hell

Westboro Baptist Church, the 'christian' family cult that physically, psychologically and spiritually terrorizes children 

Running from hell: Growing up in America’s most hated family

Phelps Kin Charged With Child Abuse Over Anti-Gay Military Funeral Demo

Westboro Baptist Church member charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and negligent child abuse.

10-year-old preacher of hate indoctrinated by white pride parents is face of youth movement in U.S. KKK 

Christian fundamentalist boot-camp for kids indoctrinates them to fight 'bloody' religious war

Radical Christian extremists aim to undermine public education by targeting high school kids for indoctrination into fundamentalist worldview


  1. Notorious pastor's atheist son speaks out at Reason Rally

    By Kim Geiger, Los Angeles Times March 24, 2012

    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.

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    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.

    I went to work for a law office in the Kansas City area and then I later went to St. Louis, went to work for a printing company there that my brother was working at. And we eventually came back to the Kansas City area and started a printing company that would eventually bring us out to Southern California, where we opened eight different stores out there.

    There are a couple of them (still around), but they’re owned by someone else now. I lived in California for 25 years.

    Was that an older brother, the brother who had already left?

    Yeah. That was Mark.

    And how many years did he leave before you left?

    I seem to recall – I think that I was 16 when he left, so he would have been 19 or 20. So it was a couple years before I left, that he left.

    He was – Mark was, he was kind of the, in everybody’s mind, he was the one who was going to follow in my father’s footsteps. As it turned out, he had just figured out that that was the way that he was going to survive that environment, was by being, you know, his father’s yes man.

    So he was still around when he was 19. I think he might have even been pushing 20. And his girlfriend, who had found favor with my father and was attending church regularly and was on the path to being accepted there, came to church one Sunday night and found my father upstairs beating my older sister. And everybody thought – some of the other church members were already there, and we were all just kind of standing around out in the auditorium while all of this screaming and yelling was going on upstairs. And Lueva (sp), who was Mark’s girlfriend, was – she was just freaked out by it. She was like, why isn’t anybody doing anything? And then they got upset at her for even suggesting such a thing.

    So she turned around and marched out and Mark chased her and she basically said I’m not going to raise a child in this kind of environment and forced him to choose between her or that situation.

    So that’s what drove Mark away.

    How do you feel you are treated, as an atheist?

    I mean, the general attitude amongst the Christian community is, as it has been for centuries now, that if you don’t believe in god, that you are the enemy and there’s something morally degenerate about you.

    And you know, that attitude’s been around for a long time. It’s not going to go away. But I think if we’re ever going to change it, just like some of the other misperceptions throughout our history, we have to be honest about it and try to have dialogue with people. And eventually, that perception will change because it’s not based in facts.

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    What is your family’s view of evolution?

    They are young Earthers. They believe the world is 6,000, 10,000 years old. And that evolution is nonsense. At least that’s what they believed when I was growing up there.

    I don’t know how it’s possible to hold to that belief after as much information that’s come out.

    Have you had any contact with the families of people whose funerals have been picketed by the church?

    I had some email conversations back and forth with – I can’t remember his first name now, but the gentleman who sued my family in Snyder vs. Phelps. He and I talked back and forth.

    I have had scores of emails from people who have had to deal with the presence in their town, not necessarily family members, but community members, talking about how upsetting it was for them to be there with the protests. But a lot of that, hundreds of emails, if not thousands, from young gay people who are trying to come to terms with the message that they’re hearing.

    And so I’ve gotten tons of that over the last couple years.

    What do you tell those people?

    I just, you know, apologize, for one. And I try to express to them that that attitude isn’t consistently out there, and that, in my opinion, it’s not accurate. What else can I say?

    Sometimes I get very specific questions asked about theology, and I’ll answer it as honestly as I can as far as what I believe today.

    What are your thoughts on the recent debate over birth control and abortion?

    I have changed my attitude about that a lot over the years. I started out in favor of abortion rights just because my father was against it. But that wasn’t a good reason.

    I guess the bottom line for me is while I couldn’t condone it for myself, I feel very strongly that that is a individual personal decision for each woman to make for themselves, and that the government has no business being involved in it. And it’s frightening to see how quickly and destructively we’ve moved back that direction.

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    Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Snyder vs. Phelps case?

    No. But I think I need to explain that a little bit.

    A lot of people out there believe that the Supreme Court ruled that they have a right to picket at funerals. And that simply isn’t true. In fact, Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, very specifically in that opinion said that they were not addressing that question because they didn’t need to, that they were only looking at the details of the Snyder case and that their First Amendment rights prevailed over that idea of intentional infliction of emotional distress. But they deliberately avoided challenging those forty-some state and federal laws that are on the books right now.

    So, that question hasn’t been answered yet by the Supreme Court. That’s one thing I would want to say.

    The other thing I would want to say is that I think that it is a false dichotomy for Americans to see this as an either-or question, that either they have the free speech rights or they don’t. I think that we can find – because, in my opinion, the right to bury our loved ones in peace is one that we have lived with as long as humans have been around, just because it doesn’t appear in the Constitution doesn’t mean that we don’t have that right or haven’t behaved with that right.

    So I see it as a question of competing rights. And I think that the idea that we could limit the place and time for people to express their free speech, in this instance, is legitimate.

    We can still have a robust, healthy right to free speech in America and give people the time and place and proper decorum for burying their loved ones.

    What do you think is the greatest misperception about atheists?

    Well, the most common misperception is that to deny God is to deny a system of morality or to abandon a system of morality. And the fact is the vast majority of atheists – first of all, atheism is … it’s simply a rejection of the idea of a god. But most atheists embrace a humanist ideology…. Square at the center of that ideology is the idea that we treat humans with kindness and respect.

    So there most definitely is a moral system inherent in the conclusions that atheists draw.