[9 June 2013]
Heaven bend to take my hand
Nowhere left to turn
I’m lost to those I thought were friends
To everyone I know
Oh they turn their heads embarrassed
Pretend that they don’t see
But it’s one missed step
One slip before you know it
And there doesn’t seem a way to be redeemed
—“Fallen”, Sarah McLachlan
In 1946, a young Fred Phelps left home to attend the orientation weekend for West Point, to which he had recently been admitted. It was a life-changing trip for him. While Phelps won’t discuss the details of that weekend, it’s clear that it inspired several major decisions; by the time he left, he had dropped out of West Point, decided to become a preacher, and developed a deep hatred of both the military and homosexuality. One has to wonder, did he accidentally drop the soap in the communal showers?
Today, Phelps is pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, making him one of the most hated men, if not in the world, then most certainly in the United States. That’s OK with him, because, he would argue, he loves you, even though God hates you more than you hate Phelps. In fact, God hates the people that he created so much that he is constantly raining down terror upon them, in the form of natural disasters, “accidents”, and terrorist attacks. The idea that God is a loving, benevolent God is a bastardization of the Bible; God is really a pretty angry deity, and it’s our fault.
This inside view of Phelps’ philosophy of preaching comes courtesy of Lauren Drain’s autobiography, Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church, co-written with Lisa Pulitzer. Lauren spent all of her teen years as a church member, and in her book, she recounts what life as a member of Westboro is like. She presents an image of a church that is run with authoritarian zeal and filled with hypocrisy.
It becomes evident through Lauren’s stories that Westboro operates as a cult. Members who are seen as deficient in some way are publicly humiliated, shunned, lectured, and threatened with expulsion. This last measure is the harshest punishment, as church members are taught that the corner of Hell where flames burn the hottest is reserved for former Westboro members, those who either left willingly or were kicked out. The 0.1 percent of the population that makes it to Heaven will be able to ridicule and taunt their loved ones in the flames below (although, realistically, it would seem difficult to single them out in the seas of billions of lost souls). Members aren’t just encouraged to police and report on one another; it’s mandated, even if it means exposing flaws in your own spouse, parents or children.
The pressure to be an obedient church member insures active participation at the pickets that have made Westboro well-known. Failure to throw oneself into a picket—whether it be during a protest of a fallen soldier or a lunchtime protest of one’s own high school—invites intense scrutiny and declarations from the church’s driving force that the member may not be worthy. Surprisingly, though, that driving force isn’t Fred Phelps, the pastor.
Phelps provides the message; his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, runs the business of spreading that message. Nothing happens in the social structure of the church without her approval. She organizes protests, assigns weekly and daily chores for church members, and oversees all aspects of operations, from budgeting to legal issues.
Westboro Baptist Church has a lot of legal issues to deal with, too. The most notable is their victory before the United States Supreme Court in Snyder v. Phelps, in which the court ruled that the church does have a Constitutional right to protest military funerals. Still, one of Shirley’s primary legal jobs is insuring that the group has all of the proper permits filled out for each protest and informing members as to such matters as where they can and cannot legally stand (don’t stand on the sidewalk as it inhibits people’s right to walk unobstructed) and what to do if threatened or harassed.
It isn’t surprising that the majority of Fred Phelps’ children are lawyers, and they run one of Topeka’s more successful law firms. Their clients know the lawyers’ extremist views, but hey, they win their cases. The only case the lawyers won’t take on is a first divorce; they will take on a divorce in a second marriage, in hopes that the divorcee will return to his or her first spouse.
So many busy lawyers have afforded the Phelps a comfortable lifestyle. Shirley’s house, the largest in the community of Westboro member homes, has “twelve bedrooms, six bathrooms, two living rooms, and a basement reception hall.” The house is fully equipped with technology, as kids are supposed to use their laptops and media centers to become more educated about the world and the sins that are in it. The internet, Fred Phelps argues, was invented so that God’s message of hate could be spread.
One of Shirley’s primary strategies for members faced with opposition is to laugh or greet opposition with a smile and Biblical quote. This is evident in this 1996 clip from The Tyra Banks Show, which featured Shirley with two of her daughters, Megan and Rebecca. Despite her enthusiasm shown here, Megan has since left the church.
As fascinating as this view into the workings of the church are, Lauren’s personal story is equally captivating. Her family was hardly a candidate for membership. As a preteen, Lauren’s father was an atheist and her mother a non-practicing Roman Catholic. In Lauren’s eyes, her father was flighty, unable to settle on any one direction for his life. When he chose to become a filmmaker, he decided his first project should be on the hatemongers of the Westboro Baptist Church. His plan to expose them and get inside their heads backfired; instead, they got into his head, and it wasn’t long after spending a month in Topeka with the church that Lauren’s dad packed up the family and moved them from Florida to Kansas.
Lauren claims she suffered considerable physical and emotional abuse from her father after he became devoted to the church, so the move allowed her to jump fully into the church’s teaching in an effort to please her father. She was eager to attend pickets, help with chores, babysit, and assist her dad with the videos and posters he made on behalf of the church. She worried constantly about her demeanor, appearance, and actions, forever fearful that disappointing the church would bring more rejection and abuse at home.
Her only friends were Phelps’ granddaughters, to whom she was constantly being compared. Since Shirley’s children could do no wrong in Shirley’s eyes, Lauren always felt that she came up short. While Shirley’s daughters wore short skirts and exposed their cleavage, it was Lauren who was told constantly that she dressed like a slut, even though her outfits exposed considerably less skin. If Shirley’s kids asked questions during Bible Study, they were inquisitive and wanted to better serve God; when Lauren did, she was accused of being a contrarian. It didn’t help Lauren’s feelings of isolation that her parents would consistently take the church’s side over defending her.
When Lauren was caught making out with a local school boy, her status as a"whore” and persona non grata was complete. She was shunned, and other members had no qualms about telling her she didn’t belong, a heavy burden for a teenage girl. Around this same time, Lauren began having her own questions about whether she belonged, her questions to the elders focused more and more on what she saw as contradictions between church teachings and Biblical passages.
How could God celebrate the deaths of Americans when Ezekiel 18:32 says, “For I have no pleasure in the death of he that dieth” and Ezekiel 33:11 taught “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” The second part of the last passage also seemed to argue that maybe we are not all predestined as fags or fag-enablers to go to Hell; maybe there was a chance of redemption. Yet, Lauren’s questions went unanswered.
Ultimately, Lauren was banished from the church, which meant no more contact with her parents or younger sister and brother. In light of this, it would be easy to view her book as “payback”, Lauren’s attempt to retaliate by spreading falsehoods and misinformation about the church, the position that Westboro has taken on the book. However, so much of what is in the book is confirmed by other members who have departed—20 of them since 2004—bodes poorly for the church, considering its small size and inability and lack of desire to recruit new members outside of the Phelps clan.
Among the most notable of these departures were Shirley’s daughters Megan and Grace. Megan, who was particularly critical of Lauren and became the Twitter voice for the church, often sending over 100 tweets per day, is a crucial loss, as it appeared that she was a leading candidate to inherit her mother’s throne. Today, though, Megan has a different message, which she shared while visiting the Tolerance Museum in Los Angeles with Grace:
“There’s so much that we didn’t know about the way people believe and how they live. And we thought we did. We thought we knew. And we did not have a clue… There was a disconnect between the way that I felt and the way I was taught. We were told a lot of things that weren’t true, and we assumed they were true because we didn’t see any evidence otherwise. But we weren’t really looking… There’s so many different ways of looking at things. And when you listen to why people believe what they do and they explain it, it makes sense.”
(“The Westboro Defectors Speak: Phelps Granddaughters Embrace Tolerance” by John Avlon, The Daily Beast, 8 March 2013.
Others who have left the church include Nate Phelps, Fred’s son, who left in 1976, and can be seen here in an interview with Joy Behar:
One gets the sense that the worst thing that could happen to Westboro is to be ignored. Walk past them as they picket without paying them heed, don’t engage them in arguments, refuse to cover their antics in their media; church members freely admit that they love confrontation. Adversity results in press, and press makes Fred Phelps happy.
In all, Banished is a fascinating read, eye-opening in its presentation of the inner workings of the Westboro Baptist Church and compelling in its story of a young woman treated as an albatross. The bottom line of Fred Phelps’ message isn’t that he wants to save our souls, it’s too late for that, nor does he want to convert us, we aren’t worthy. He simply wants us to know that we will spend eternity in Hell. As for Lauren, she already spent her teens years there.