Journalist Louis Theroux was given extraordinary access to the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, going to their church and homes in Topeka, Kansas and talking to members of the organization and produced two fascinating documentaries for the BBC. The first appeared in 2007 and was called The Most Hated Family in America and I wrote about it here. The follow-up was in 2011 and was called The Most Hated Family IN CRISIS and I wrote about it here. Those posts also give links to the two documentaries.
I learned a lot of what I know about the WBC from those shows, such as who makes it up (they are mostly members of one large extended family descended from the 13 children of patriarch Fred Phelps), how they get money for their activities (a lot of family members are well-educated high achievers, many of them lawyers, and they run a successful law practice and give a lot of their earnings to the church), and how they arrive at their worldview (Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper are the main sources and enforcers of their doctrine).
What I found most fascinating about the two documentaries were Theroux’s conversations with the children in the Phelps clan who looked and acted for the most part like any other young people. They were cheerful, playful, and fun-loving, charming and attractive right up until he got them talking about gays and sin and then they, even the very young, would start saying the most appalling things and you wondered what the hell was going on in their minds. The Phelps clan bought up a block of houses in the city and created a compound in which all the back yards form one contiguous area, like a small park, and you can get a glimpse of the compound and a different side of the young people if you watch a minute of this clip from the 2011 documentary, starting at the 10:25 mark.
In the first documentary, the church members were confident that they were in the right and that they would grow while in the second you could see doubt and uncertainty within its ranks. It was clear that the church was under stress with defections of their young sapping the energy of the organization. As I wrote back in 2011,
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.
Two days ago came word that two young women whom I recalled from the 2011 documentary had defected from the church in November and are trying to make a new life for themselves in New York. What makes this most damaging is that the two are Megan (27) and Grace Phelps-Roper (19), daughters of Phelps-Roper, who is effectively the leader of the group now that her father Fred is 84 and in decline. The two women have put out a joint statement here.
It is interesting to go back to this clip from 2011 where Theroux talks with Grace under the watchful eyes of some other members of the family.
Their mother has responded to the defections with a defiant statement which, once you strip away the biblical ranting, says that one has to expect that some will fall by the wayside. She says “The New Testament is full of people that started right, but then fell away… Christ also said those of your own household would be put a variance with one another” and she quotes 1 John 2:19 (“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.”) to argue that those who leave were never true believers anyway.
This is not the first of Phelps-Roper’s children to defect. Her son Josh left in 2003 (as did her brother Nate over three decades ago) but one gets the sense from the documentaries that the women are the backbone of the church, its real strength despite its misogynistic views, and the two latest defections will be harder to take. Cavan Sieczkowski discusses other defections.
What causd Megan and Grace to leave the church can be read here but it is a familiar and hopeful tale of how modernity and ease of communication can break through the barriers of closed societies. The Westboro family could create what was effectively a commune within the city in which they spent most of their time with each other and thus put their children in an echo chamber, but these days the internet can break through the walls that shelter narrow-minded thinking and bring fresh air to anyone who has a phone.