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Westboro church: Who are these people?

By Jane Velez-Mitchell, Special to CNN
  • Jane Velez-Mitchell: Nate Phelps, son of Westboro church pastor, says dad abused family
  • She says he claims anti-gay pastor leads protests with group of cowed family members
  • His sister defends dad, but Nate Phelps says he hit family with fists, knees, handle, she says
  • Velez-Mitchell: Pastor judges gays; shouldn't he answer for what he does in private?

Editor's note: Jane Velez-Mitchell hosts "ISSUES with Jane Velez-Mitchell," a topical event-driven show with a wide range of viewpoints that airs every night at 7 ET on HLN.

(CNN) -- What does homophobia look like when it's stripped bare of fancy costumes like family values and tradition? It looks like that group of strange, angry people who protest at the funerals of U.S. soldiers who've died fighting for our country.

You know them. They hold up signs that say "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this month that the group's actions are constitutionally protected free speech.)

The group's hypothesis is that God is punishing America for its acceptance of homosexuality. Many of us wonder, to borrow a phrase from Jerry Seinfeld, who are these people?

Recently, on my HLN show, I got some insight during an interview with Nate Phelps. He's the estranged son of Pastor Fred Phelps, the leader of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, which organizes those anti-gay protests.

Pastor's son describes alleged abuse
Court rules in favor of church
Funeral protest ruling prompts anger

The pastor's middle-aged son tells a spine-chilling story, describing what he says are disturbing secrets from inside the Phelps clan. He says he's doing this because he wants to show that his father is manipulative and practices evil, not just before the world but also behind the closed doors of his own home.

Nate accuses his infamous pastor dad of hitting his mother and beating him and his siblings, saying, "He used his fists. He used his knees and he used ... the handle of a mattock," a pick-like tool used for yard work. Nate says his dad's beatings of his children were so severe, they drew blood.

In an e-mailed response to his accusations, Shirley Phelps-Roper, who Nate said was his older sister, responded, "No, Pastor Phelps and his wife have 13 children, and they raised us all alike, according to the plain words of the God that created all flesh. That includes instruction with words in their ears, and when that fails, spanking them. ... The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame."

Funeral protest ruling painful but right

How is this relevant to the controversy over the Westboro pastor's inflammatory demonstrations at military funerals? Well, it is interesting that Nate tells us that almost all of the people holding those hateful placards at the Westboro funeral protests are members of the Phelps family.

According to Nate, the demonstrators are family members who didn't rebel and get away from the family patriarch, but rather remained in the controversial fold, spending decades on the receiving end of what they call discipline and Nate calls abuse.

Says Nate: "It's nine of my 12 siblings and their extended family. I think there's one other family with, I understand, three or four members. And, other than that, it's all related."

The obvious question is: Are these family members exercising their own free will in inflicting their bigoted views during these protests, or could they be exhibiting the effects of lifelong conditioning? They were told to obey the word of a man who purports to know the will of God while not sparing the rod.

The bigger question is: Why is Pastor Phelps so obsessed with what other people are doing behind the closed doors of their bedrooms? Given that he is so judgmental, doesn't that -- in turn -- give us the right to ask for an answer to the question: "Hey, what's happening behind your own closed doors, Pastor Phelps?"

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jane Velez-Mitchell.

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