The New Fred

Shirley Phelps-Roper is just like her notorious father — except in one crucial way.

"Another soldier in hell," Jonathan screams from across the street. "Whoo-hoo, yeah, baby!" He starts to grind out a dance.

"Jon's trying out something," Phelps-Roper tells the caller. "I don't know quite what."

"He said, 'Another soldier in hell, whoo-hoo," Noah repeats excitedly.

Paulette Phelps (Fred Phelps' daughter- in-law) defies Patriot Guard riders at a picket organized by Shirley Phelps-Roper.
photo: Jay Soldner
Paulette Phelps (Fred Phelps' daughter- in-law) defies Patriot Guard riders at a picket organized by Shirley Phelps-Roper.

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Editor's note: This article appeared originally in The Pitch, our sister paper in Kansas City, Missouri.

It's time for an exit strategy. Phelps-Roper stops a cop on a bicycle and explains that they want to leave, but she doesn't want her crew walking across private property to get to their vehicles. She suggests to the cop that they walk down the middle of the street. The cop agrees. But first, the Phelpses pose for a quick family photo.

They bunch together on the sidewalk, prominently displaying their brightly colored signs, and smile.

Once again, Fred isn't in the picture.


The house is eerily quiet. Quiet is good. After a week of ringing phones and flying to New York City for TV appearances, Phelps-Roper is worn "clean slick," as she likes to say. On this Monday after the media storm, she's stepping back.

"If this nation hadn't brought the wrath of God down on their heads, you wouldn't know and you wouldn't care who I was," she says. Sometimes, she says, the anonymity of such a life tempts her. "But we've searched these scriptures," she says, and Westboro Baptist Church must sound a crucial warning. "There's going to be a lot of people in trouble."

Today, though, she's Mom. She hovers over a pot of chili, reflecting on the past week.

There was the screeching "banshee" — Fox News commentator Julie Banderas, host of The Big Story Weekend.

"It's personal," Phelps-Roper says of Banderas' tirade against her and her family. "It's to the point that there's not even a professional hint on the landscape."

Not that the Westboro Baptist Church has ever been above personal attacks. But the paradox is apparently lost on Phelps-Roper, who's trying to figure out why Banderas has it out for her family.

Megan pulls up a computer video of Banderas' interview with Mike Gallagher.

"These people should be arrested, and I understand the right to protest," Banderas says, "but when you disgrace not only our fallen soldiers, but when you disgrace innocent young children, I swear. Lock 'em up. Throw away the key. Uh, uh, give 'em the death penalty. I think it's disgusting."

Obviously, Banderas doesn't quite understand the right to protest. (In July, the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri filed a lawsuit on behalf of Phelps-Roper, challenging the constitutionality of the Missouri law restricting funeral pickets.)

"Give 'em the death penalty," Phelps-Roper repeats. A smile of satisfaction crosses her face. "Did you see him [Gallagher] on Bill O'Reilly? All those words they said, it's like we're bigger than life."

Fred Phelps established that legacy for his family.

Phelps-Roper has her father's features — his round face and pointy nose. She's lean like him, too. She admits she's probably more like her father than she is like her mother.

"As I get older, all of a sudden I'll realize, I'm just like my dad," she says. "You just don't realize how much of your parents you have in you as you get older, and then you start to realize it."

Phelps-Roper denied the Pitch's requests to speak with her father for this story. She says if people want to see her dad, they can go to Westboro's newest Web site (one of four), Thesignsofthetimes.net. "You can see and hear him and see for yourself if you think he's being ravaged by cancer or whatever."

Fred Phelps' schedule isn't made public, she says, because of safety concerns.

"This is a violent nation, and he is a target," Phelps-Roper says. "If you happen to turn up at the right picket, you'll catch him there."

Fred's most recent appearance was on an October 10 "WBC Video News" report on Thesignsofthetimes.net, ripping O'Reilly, Hannity, Colmes, Banderas, Gallagher and CNN's Glenn Beck for their treatment of God's prophets. He called them a "satanic media mafia."

Margie tells the Pitch that there's never been any talk of a succession plan for when Fred dies.

"It's improper," she says. "We don't pick. The Lord picks. Should it happen that he dies before Christ returns — and that's highly unlikely, but should it happen — whoever is supposed to be the preacher in this church will become clear."

One thing is already clear.

It won't be Phelps-Roper.

"She won't be the pastor of this church," says Phelps-Roper's mother, Marge. "We don't believe in women being pastors. One of the males has to be the pastor."

"I have absolutely no desire, and I wouldn't dare do it," Phelps-Roper tells the Pitch. "I just wouldn't do it. I know better."

That leaves Fred Phelps' three loyal sons — Jonathan, Fred Jr. and Tim — as potential successors to the pulpit. Or Westboro could look outside the Phelps family to another member of their congregation, possibly Steve Drain, a filmmaker who joined the fold in 2000.

Though, for all practical purposes, she's now the one in charge, Phelps-Roper seems content with knowing that her role will never be official.

"I don't think there could be any better life than this," she says. "I don't think there could be anything that is more satisfying."

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