The Westboro Baptist Church is notorious for its anti-gay focus and activities and its claims that god is going to destroy America because of its accommodation of homosexuality. The primary slogan of the church and the most prominent sign displayed at their pickets is “God Hates Fags” and even the church’s website URL is godhatesfags.com.
I have long had a fascination with this group because of its peculiar structure and have written about its evolution many times. The church membership consists mainly of the descendants of its founder Fred Phelps. They are highly educated professionals, a lot of them lawyers who work in the family firm founded by the patriarch, who was a prominent civil rights attorney who fought the Jim Crow laws of his state and received many awards from the black community. I strongly recommend the two BBC TV series produced by Louis Theroux who was given access to talk to the members of the church because of the intimate look it provides. The first in 2007 was titled The Most Hated Family in America and the second in 2011 was The Most Hated Family in America in Crisis.
What most intrigued me about the two TV series was the portrayal of the children. They seemed to be so normal, so appealing in every way, except when it came to spouting their weird theology. But it was clear in the second series that the close-knit family was unraveling with defections among the young and power struggles for control following the decline and death of the founder. The cause of the defections among the young is, as is often the case, the internet. It is hard to maintain a rigid orthodoxy when the internet provides so much access to other people and opinions.
Fred’s granddaughter Megan Phelps-Roper, who defected with her sister Grace in 2013, has given Adrien Chen of the New Yorker a detailed look at her life within the church and what made her leave. (Another of her siblings Zach defected in 2014.) It is a very poignant story of someone who really believed she was doing god’s work and reveled in it. But at some point, some things she observed just could not be reconciled with the Scriptural justifications the church provided and as she tugged at that discrepancy, the whole thing unraveled.