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Neighborhood menace

Friday, March 07, 2003

Mr. Rogers would have had nothing but kind words for the Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. In the ancient Christian tradition of blessing one's enemies, the late Fred Rogers would've reacted to Fred Phelps' calumnies by turning the other cheek.

Such a magnanimous gesture would have driven Mr. Rogers' accuser, a disbarred lawyer and preacher of intolerance into convulsions of fury. Mr. Rogers was a profound enough Christian and human being to realize that upon meeting a demon on fire, it's better to give it a wide berth until it burns itself out.

Had the Rev. Phelps dared confront Mr. Rogers while he lived, there was always the possibility Mr. Rogers would've offered him his red cardigan instead of angry ripostes. So the better part of valor for Phelps was to wait for Mr. Rogers to die before confronting him.

After all, Phelps is notorious for picketing the funerals of those he considers "mockers of God." With a handful of congregants, Phelps greeted the mourners at Matthew Shepherd's funeral several years ago with signs assuring them that their loved one, killed days before by homophobic rednecks in Laramie, Wyo., was in Hell.

I called Phelps on Ash Wednesday, a day most Christians reserve for spiritual reflection and repentance. Earlier in the week, Phelps had faxed a manifesto to local news organizations explaining why he hates Mr. Rogers.

Like the publicity whore of Babylon he has consistently proven himself to be, Phelps was attempting to drum up controversy in advance of planned protests here next month. Had he known exactly when and where Mr. Rogers was going to be laid to rest, he insists he would've come to Pittsburgh sooner, with signs and placards in hand.

"Mr. Rogers gave aid and comfort to homosexuals," Phelps said, his Mississippi accent dripping with insincerity. "He was a man who preached tolerance of all sorts of people in ways that directly contradicted the Bible. His syrupy teachings led millions astray. He was a wuss and he was an enabler of wusses."

As it stands, Phelps says he plans to picket WQED, the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Child Development, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Sixth Presbyterian Church in mid-April. He's also been known to take advance publicity and run without showing up for planned protests.

This week, Rev. Phelps' itinerary of hatred included picketing the NAACP conference in Topeka and an evangelical prayer breakfast in that town. He's been an exceptionally busy demagogue of late, with freshly posted screeds on his Web site about everything from the Columbia shuttle disaster to the Rhode Island nightclub fire. He blames "sodomy in America" for everything.

The tract that Phelps sent to the media about Mr. Rogers is an example of such dithering idiocy and spiritual vulgarity that to quote from it would be to indirectly conspire in the defamation of a good man. Phelps was offended by Mr. Rogers' easy going, nonjudgmental ways because it is the antithesis of his own.

But Mr. Rogers is dead and the Rev. Phelps is still very much with us, testing the limits of our tolerance. Phelps deserves as much pity for his fanatical silliness as anger. He suffers from the kind of blindness that would've compelled him to picket Jesus on the cross at Golgotha. After all, there was no bigger enabler of the despised than the Nazarene Mr. Rogers patterned his life after.

So what would Mr. Rogers have done if Phelps had confronted him when he was alive? Fred Rogers would've cut off his accuser's oxygen by simply living the gospel every day. Scoundrels like Phelps pay lip service to God, but run in terror from those who embody spiritual truth in their bones.

Would Fred Rogers have dignified Phelps' hate by returning it? I doubt it. Why debate a noted anti-Semite, racist, Catholic-bashing homophobe about the intricacies of love, especially someone who openly embodies the spirit of anti-Christ with such a vengeance?

If Phelps brings his caravan of hate to town, there would be no greater tribute to Mr. Rogers than to treat those poor devils as he would've: Give them a neighborly smile. Trust me, it will be like pouring live coals on their heads.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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