Fall From Grace
Written and Directed by K. Ryan Jones
Released March 10, 2007 at the South by Southwest Film Festival
Review by Stephen O. Murray
March 29, 2009.
I don’t know why the documentary about disbarred lawyer and cult leader Fred Phelps was titled “Fall from Grace,” since there is no indication he was ever in a state of grace. Maybe because he has not had to do any prison time for the crimes for which he has been convicted? Or is it an endorsement of the Phelps view that America has fallen from grace?
Phelps regards himself and the children who follow his lead elect in the full Calvinist sense, and most everyone else predestine to damnation. The documentary is short on background. The majority of the running time shows Phelps haranguing his family from the pulpit of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, and family members picketing, brandishing signs saying -America Is Doomed -God Hates Your Tears -God Hates America -Thank God for Dead Soldiers -Too Late To Pray -Your Pastor is a Whore.
The Phelpses—nine of thirteen children and the children of the nine’s children—began picketing funerals of gay men who died of AIDS and of hate crimes, most notably Matthew Shepard. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Phelps praised Saddam Hussein and lauded each American death in Iraq as divine punishment of America.
One long-time gay observer of Phelps notes on camera that his cult/family pickets of gay funerals were ignored, but once he/they started impinging on military funerals, laws about disrupting funerals, particularly military ones, started being promulgated. According to Phelps, “Military funerals are pagan orgies of idolatrous blasphemy,” and he has his children and grandchildren trample the American flag and drag it behind them on the ground, and display it upside down.
In addition to godhatesf@gs and godhatesamerica, he/they have also set up godhatescanada and godhatessweden. (The noncapitalization is theirs.) Young Phelpses—those whose age is in single digits—brandish signs and spout invective. Filmmaker (University of Kansas film student) K. Ryan Jones shows them snarling about “fags” just like the old man. And delighted in desecrating the American flag, combating “flag idolatry.”
A son and daughter who broke away declined to appear on camera, but were interviewed by phone about physical abuse and the incessant rage of their father that was turned on homosexuals and such gay rights crusaders as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush after he could not longer bully people under the guise of practicing law in Kansas or federal courts.
Local opponent Pedro L. Irigonegaray and Topeka mayor Bill Bunten have some screen time, too, and theologian Warren Carter. And there is an extended interview of Kelly Frantz, the widow of a 22-year-old combat fatality in Iraq who had to endure Phelps picketing of the funeral.
The Phelpses claim to be Christian, but Jesus and the Gospels seem entirely missing from their crusade (as from the Christian Right in general). It seems that their copies of the Bible lack the Gospels. I wish that Jones had asked them how Jesus fits into their “God hates” x, y, and z message.
The Phelpses are eager to speak to anyone who will listen and the documentary transmits their bile. I have to question whether writing about a documentary about them and the documentary increase their visibility. (I believe P. T. Barnum’s pronouncement “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is close to the truth.)
I think that the sloganeering of the preteen Phelpses shows that hatred has been taught, but worry that some might find these children’s activities and mindless slogan mouthing admirable. Phelps Sr. was on the ballot in Democratic Kansas gubernatorial primaries in 1990, 1994, and 1998 and received more than 15,000 votes in 1998, before starting to picket military funerals.
Fred Phelps was voted out of his church (excommunicated) in August 2013 and died 19 March 2014. His body was immediately cremated and there was no funeral.
originally posted on epinions, 29 March 2009
©2009, 2017, Stephen O. Murray