In 2007, Louis Theroux from BBC2 spent some time with the people of the Westboro Baptist Church who gave him considerable access to talk with all their members. The resulting documentary called America’s Most Hated Family provided for some absorbing and informative television that I wrote about earlier.
Most revealing to me was that the church consists almost entirely of one family descended from its leader Fred Phelps (he has 13 children, 11 are lawyers, four are estranged of whom one is a gay rights activist), many of whom are college-educated professionals earning a good living (the Phelps family runs a successful law practice in Topeka, Kansas) and whose contributions from their outside income seem to be the entire means of support for the group. What I found disturbing was the indoctrination of the children of the family from a very young age, who seemed to be able to turn on the famed Westboro rhetoric on cue.
It turns out that since that time there have been a considerable number of defections from the church, especially of young adults, two of whom had been featured in the original program. So this year Theroux visited the church again for a sequel to find out what was happening and especially how the parents were dealing with their children leaving. The result is an hour-long documentary that was aired on BBC2 on Sunday and that you can see in four parts. Here’s the first part
It quickly becomes clear that the church is in a state of serious decline. In the 2007 documentary, there was a rambunctious energy and vitality in the group, a sense of purpose and mission in getting in the face of those who disagreed with them. Now they seem just sad and pathetic, an older group trying to keep up the momentum but not having the sharpness and edge they had before and largely going through the motions. There was an air of weariness and resignation and I got the sense that the aging church was on the ropes. The parents of the defecting children maintained a façade that it is good when apostates leave and that they did not care that they had lost all contact with their own children but it was unconvincing, except for a couple of true believers. It was also clear that they are worried that even more children will defect as they reach adulthood and discover the appeal of modernity via the contacts that they make on the internet, promising a freedom that is too alluring to resist compared to the tight embrace of the church.
There was one scene where some of the girls (who are not allowed to date) seemed to be fantasizing about a young Scandinavian TV crew that had come to film them. This scene was poignant because the girls seemed to sense that while such crushes were normal, yet they were told that it was wrong and they realized that it was hopeless to dream of a real relationship with young men as long as they were part of the church.
What is happening to the Westboro church is what is happening to religion everywhere, as my series on Why Atheism is Winning argued. The lure of modernity is taking young people away from religion, leaving religion with an older (and largely female) constituency, plus young children who are not old enough to leave. Religion continues largely because of inheritance. Children have to be indoctrinated while they are young and stay indoctrinated to keep the institutions going, because few people convert into religion from nonbelief. Once you have young people defecting from religion in significant numbers, it is over. Such defections are increasingly likely these days where you cannot keep them insulated within their closed world, and those who have escaped to freedom can still communicate easily with those left behind.
Seeing this documentary, coupled with the larger trends I have written about before about the impact of modernity on religion, tells me that the days of the Westboro church are numbered. It could well be that the church’s recent Supreme Court victory will be their swan song and that within a decade or less, it will implode. Patriarch Fred is 81 and looks feeble and his death without a clear successor may trigger further dissension.
At the very end of the documentary (at the 12:20 mark of part 4), Theroux speaks again with Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of the founder’s daughters and the most visible spokesperson, and she admits her fear that more of her remaining children (she has 11) might also defect. For a fleeting moment the brash confident persona disappears and she looks vulnerable, with the worried look of a mother who might lose her children. I actually found myself feeling sorry for her. Despite all her crazy and deliberately inflammatory rhetoric and air of arrogant certainty, I think she is too smart not to have her own secret doubts and it cannot be easy for her to see the tight world that she has constructed and controlled start to fall apart and be able to do little about it.