Former atheist may be the new leader of Westboro church

The power struggle in the Westboro Baptist church since the death of founder and patriarch Fred Phelps seems to be ending with new leadership emerging, says Fred’s son Nate Phelps who defected from the church a long time ago but who keeps in touch with other defectors who still live in Topeka, Kansas.

The once loosely, almost democratically structured congregation came under the control of an eight-man board of elders, Nate says. During this time, more of an emphasis was placed on Bible passages highlighting female inferiority—part of the effort, Nate says, to remove his sister Shirley Phelps-Roper from her role as the church’s spokeswoman and, in Fred Phelps’ later years, as its de facto leader.

The report goes on to say that a non-family member Steve Drain seems poised to take the reins. He has an interesting history.

In 2001, a then-35-year-old Drain set out to make a documentary exposing the gay-hating, disruptive church he’d become familiar with while in graduate school at The University of Kansas. Instead, Drain wound up moving his family from Tampa to Topeka to join the congregation.

Drain was raised Presbyterian but spent much of his youth searching for more from his religion, later identifying as a staunch atheist, according to his daughter. According to a 2011 interview with Kansas City’s The Pitch, he spent one Thanksgiving weekend in grade school going door to door in his Tampa neighborhood and asking people, “What do you believe? And why do you believe it?”

It’s hard to understand how someone who so astutely questioned religion as a child could possibly become converted by the fanatical fearmongers he set out to expose. But his daughter, Lauren, paints a slightly darker picture.

Lauren’s detailed description of how her father became converted makes for fascinating reading and also a sobering lesson that being a fervent atheist does not inoculate you from succumbing to hateful religious doctrines.

Incidentally, Fred Phelps himself was once a respected civil rights lawyer and involved in Democratic party politics before he too got religion, founded the Westboro Baptist Church in 1955, and made it into the distinctive institution it is today.

I am not sure how Drain’s ascension will affect the church. The church gets its finances mostly from the contributions of members of the large Phelps extended family, many of whom are well-educated and successful professionals (the family has its own law firm) earning good money. Will they be as generous now that an outsider has ousted one of their own? Or will it become even more cult-like, hard as that may be to imagine. Drain seems to have the requisite controlling and messianic personality.

Stay tuned.


  1. Seth says

    Steve Drain’s early life has some interesting (and, to me, somewhat worrisome) parallels to my own, but Lauren Drain’s description of him as a father paints a picture of a patriarch in search of a rigid ideological structure through which he might impose his will. So Steve wasn’t so much an atheist as a solipsist, taking no other gods before himself, and in Topeka he found a cult particularly suited to his authoritarian designs.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Seth @ # 1 – Please don’t go try to make any documentaries about Steve Drain, okay?

  3. Seth says

    Pierce @ 2: That’s good advice! Luckily I don’t have any skill with film-making, nor have I any children which I might try and force to live according to anachronistic tribal principles on the whim of a stranger.

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