Reading Megan Phelps-Roper’s account of living in and leaving the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, I kept thinking about Kurt Wise. Wise is a young-earth creationist, but he’s no fool. He studied under the late Stephen Jay Gould and had a promising career in real science ahead of him. Highly intelligent and qualified, he could have made significant contributions to the field of palaeontology. Alas, he was a victim of indoctrination and rejected evolution in favour of pseudoscience. Some of his comments reveal the power of bad ideas:
Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.
Richard Dawkins calls this pathetic. It is also deeply sad.
Even the most intelligent people can be infected by bad ideas. When we think of young-earth creationists, we tend to picture hillbillies. But there are clever and educated people among them, too. Such wasted potential! All of the evidence is in front of them, accessible as never before in the history of the human species, and still they reject it in favour of the safety of certainty.
So it is with the Westboro Baptist Church, as Phelps-Roper’s memoir shows. The WBC is best known for its deeply hateful views, for picketing soldiers’ funerals, holding up signs that declare that GOD HATES FAGS, and singing obscene parodies of popular songs, twisted to express their hatred of Jews, gays and other Christians, to name but a few of their targets. They are easy to caricature as hicks and the preachings of the WBC’s late pastor Fred Phelps can be laughed off as the ravings of a lunatic.
And yet the Phelps family, who made up most members of the church until recently, are highly intelligent and highly qualified. Most of them, Fred included, have law degrees. In 2010, they defended their free speech rights in the US Supreme Court, after being sued by the family of a soldier whose funeral they had picketed (they won the case).
Are WBC members simply evil, then? Clever but twisted villains of the sickest sort? Again, all indications to the contrary, the answer is somewhat more complicated. Phelps-Roper’s memoir shows that, for all the physical abuse inflicted by Fred and his daughter Shirley (the author’s mother), the Phelps family was a loving one.
Shirley cared deeply for her many children, and Fred could be a kindly, loving grandfather. The WBC members supported and loved each other passionately. Their view of outsiders and their theology led them to commit evil actions and to inflict great pain on grieving families, but they were human. In some passages, Phelps-Roper makes the WBC community sound deeply attractive. A large family living together in the vicinity of the small church in Topeka, Kansas, caring for each other and interacting joyfully—it almost sounds idyllic.
Like Kurt Wise, and like the fanatics of Islamic State and other narrow-minded fundamentalists, the WBC members are intelligent people who have been led astray by bad ideas. They reveal the dangers of blind obedience, indoctrination and groupthink. Loving people who did terrible things, not cartoon villains, the WBC members show that even one’s most detested enemies are people too.
Phelps-Roper’s memoir is a testament to the power of reason. Slowly, and tortuously, she cast off her lifelong dedication to the church and is now a doubter working to counter division and promote dialogue across the widest of ideological divides. While the Kurt Wises and Fred Phelpses of the world may seem like lost causes, there is hope, for if Megan Phelps-Roper, once in the front ranks of fundamentalist bigotry, can change, then anyone can.
Heaven Sent and Hellbent
Phelps-Roper’s book details the theology of the WBC, and charts her life as a member. The pastor Fred Phelps began to protest against gays in the early 1990s, in a campaign which, over the years, escalated to the infamous protests at soldiers’ funerals (soldiers fought for America, a nation that allowed gays freedom, thus their deaths were punishments from God). Fred was a pioneering and brave civil rights lawyer in the 1950s, and received awards from groups such as the NAACP for his work. Yet the same principles of Biblical literalism that animated him in his fight against racism led him to target us fags (as well as Jews, Catholics, other Christians, America as a nation, and many other people and things).
The WBC theology demonstrates that fundamentalists are not perverters of the nice fluffy faith that Anglicans and Quakers like to champion. Phelps-Roper shows that the WBC were deeply knowledgeable about Scripture; they knew it by heart and articulated a clear and logical account, rooted in older strands of Christian thinking, of a predestinarian world, in which God has divided everyone into the saved and the damned. While carefully avoiding a direct statement that they were the elect (for only the Creator is meant to know that), the WBC implied that they were the keepers of the true faith, and thus would get to enjoy watching everyone else burn in hell from their perch in heaven.
Fred liked to argue, as did all WBC members: they were blindly devoted to their worldview, but they could back it up logically. They were by no means ignorant of their holy texts, or of Christian theology. Indeed, the fact that such theology can animate a man to deplore racism, while hating almost everyone else, is a reminder of the central failing of faith-based morality. It can justify good deeds, but also terrible ones, and such terrible deeds cannot be deplored except by appealing to outside sources of morality. Faith, in short, is a bad guide to living a good life: those who are righteously certain that they possess a celestial mandate are often hellbent on making others suffer, which they believe is for the good.
Phelps-Roper writes beautifully of her family and her upbringing, and cogently explains the theology of the church. She possesses tremendous powers of description, along with an enviable ability to evoke the most sublime emotions. Who else could make me, an unreconstructed New Atheist and a gay man, almost weep out of pity for Fred and Shirley Phelps?
For they, too, were victims of the church. Shirley was beaten by her father and left with lifelong chronic pain. Still, she doted on him and raised her children with love (and the physical punishment she inflicted on them, while awful, was certainly less severe than what they would have received at the hands of their grandfather).
Revolutions devour their own: Shirley was sidelined by fellow church members in a power grab and has since been subjected to appalling harassment by the new regime. The elderly pastor was kept out of the loop by the group who now rule the church as its official elders. Phelps-Roper describes this as a massive shift. Once, the WBC was democratic, and decisions were taken unanimously. Now, power is consolidated in the hands of the elders, who use their authority to cement their own positions and control others more closely.
In the end, Fred Phelps himself was consumed by the storm he had unleashed. After Phelps-Roper left, she heard that he had been excommunicated, and was suffering from dementia and close to death. She snuck back to see him one last time, in the hospice (other family members later prevented her from seeing him again). In a remarkably touching scene, she describes herself and her sister Grace, who has also left the church, sharing some loving final moments with their grandfather. Phelps-Roper argues that this crustiest of fundamentalists had changed his mind about his beliefs—or, at least, was in the process of doing so.
Fred’s main crime was to have supposedly called out to the inhabitants of Equality House—a house across the street from their church lawn, bought by LGBT activists and painted in rainbow colours—that they were good people. This could have been merely a symptom of dementia, but, Phelps-Roper notes, in his last sermons, Fred’s message was changing to one of mercy and compassion, rather than hellfire and damnation. Was the pastor trying to rein in the church? Phelps-Roper thinks so and notes that the church’s signs have become less inflammatory of late.
Perhaps there is hope after all. If Fred Phelps, who taught the children of the church about gay sex from a young age in order to inculcate a sense of disgust in them, could change, then anyone can. But the main exemplar of this is Megan Phelps-Roper herself. Just how does someone raised in such circumstances unshackle her mind?
Doubt: “Epistemological Humility”
It all started when Phelps-Roper found herself questioning the elders’ authority. Were their actions not unscriptural? Were they not persecuting and shaming her mother and sister, Grace? Were they not abusing scripture for their own ends?
And it also started with the gentle influence of outsiders. Phelps-Roper was the voice of the church on Twitter and picked fights with whomever she could. But she also struck up an acquaintance with a user known only as C.G. and began speaking to him privately via a game app. Their talk was mostly of films, books and music, but C.G. also asked her, in good faith, about her beliefs.
Twitter also led to interactions with the Jewish writer David Abitbol, who, she later realised, set her doubts in motion. Looking at things through a different theological lens, she realised that the church’s doctrine of advocating the death penalty for gays was wrong, Biblically speaking. Or, at least, it could be interpreted as wrong. She stopped carrying signs with that injunction on them, consciously rejecting WBC ideology for the first time.
There were some dramatic turning points. Once, while painting a basement, Phelps-Roper was overcome by memories. She recalled contradictions in church doctrine and felt ashamed of the hurt she had caused. But, mostly, her change of heart was a long, slow process. She and Grace gradually decided that if they couldn’t change the WBC from within, they would leave.
Their attempts failed, and their plans were uncovered. In a heart-wrenching passage, Phelps-Roper describes their hasty departure from the church, which marked not just a break from a religion, but the abandonment of an entire life. Outsiders were cut off from the church—left without family, friends, and structure, in a world that they believed would hate them for their past crimes.
Through reading widely and conversing with people of different views, the sisters slowly began to abandon their past beliefs. Phelps-Roper eventually married C.G. But most of their siblings, their parents and their friends are still members of the church. Phelps-Roper now lives near them, reaching out to them, in an attempt to influence them, as others did her. She holds out hope of change: if self-reflection could persuade her, it can persuade others.
Through reason and discussion, Phelps-Roper noted small inconsistencies in church doctrine, which led her, eventually, to shake off those shackles altogether. In all such ideologies, certainty “hampers inquiry and hinders growth.” “Doubt,” Phelps-Roper writes, “was the point … the most basic shift in how I experienced the world. Doubt was nothing more than epistemological humility.”
The danger of absolute certainty is not confined to fringe groups like the WBC—it is universal. Everyone feels the lure of safe certainties. The secret, as Phelps-Roper has learned, is always to retain some doubts, to seek disagreement and to challenge one’s beliefs, so that they never exert such a hold over one that rejecting them becomes unimaginable. She and others went on “the wandering path of doubt and skepticism and confusion and wonder and awe at how different the world was than we had believed.”
This is the only way any progress in human affairs can be made. Otherwise, we are stuck with the “poison” of certainty, the source of all those one-truth-above-all ideologies that have caused so much suffering throughout history.
Unfollow addresses many of these broader concerns. The Supreme Court rightly upheld the WBC’s right to picket in 2010. One might think that Phelps-Roper would be against such a right now that she has rejected the WBC’s harmful beliefs. But she isn’t. She gives a brilliant defence of the First Amendment and freedom of speech: even though words can cause harm, freedom to utter them is too important to give up. After all, did Twitter not resist calls for her to be banned for spouting hateful bigotry? And did not allowing such beliefs into the free marketplace of ideas lead to her being persuaded out of them? Phelps-Roper is therefore rightly worried about the calls for restrictions of free speech inspired by offence and suchlike.
Twitter, surprisingly, was a force for good in this case. But the WBC are master manipulators of all forms of media. Phelps-Roper’s analysis of their methods is illuminating, and we would do well to bear in mind the ease with which we can be influenced by the bright lights of screens and the catchy tunes of parody songs.
Phelps-Roper’s memoir is an ode to the the individual and to reason and a warning against groupthink, dogma and blind obedience. It also reminds us that religious fanatics really believe what they claim. They aren’t attention-seeking opportunists or trying to get rich. Islamic fanatics are often excused, as a suppressed political and economic minority group, despite the Islamic State’s insistence that they really do believe what they say they do. Maarten Boudry’s analysis of why secular academics fail to understand this is relevant here.
Phelps-Roper also describes reading the atheist writings of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Dawkins, and recalls feeling that they were “illicit” books. This is another salutary reminder that the robust critique of religion undertaken by the New Atheists is still influential and can change minds. I wonder how many fundamentalists, in both the west and the Muslim world, have started their journeys away from their faith because of them? The word “illicit” suggests that they might be akin to samizdat texts for some—a dangerous challenge to cherished beliefs. In many places, reading such books can get you in deep trouble; they are actual samizdat texts.
Radical Hope and Empathetic Engagement
The greatest lesson of Unfollow is that good faith engagement and disagreement, even with the most hateful ideas, can change things—and is far better than abuse and violence. I think there is some value in disavowing the WBC, but Megan Phelps-Roper has softened that attitude a little.
The lessons of this book apply to all societal discourse, Phelps-Roper argues—not just to fringe groups like the WBC. Empathy and reason may seem like unremarkable concepts. But they can effect the most surprising changes. If Megan Phelps-Roper—and perhaps even her grandfather—can be persuaded away from bigotry and narrow-mindedness, then there really is hope for everyone. Phelps-Roper lives near the WBC now and retains the hope that they can change, despite having been rebuffed by them several times:
I want to tell them that the world isn’t evil. That it’s full and complicated and beautiful and good, filled with unknown truths and unbroken hopes, and that it’s waiting just for them. That I’m waiting just for them. I want to tell them that I love them. I’ll just have to find another way.
Megan Phelps-Roper is a shining example—of rationality, of the championing of free speech, of empathy, engagement and intelligence. And of radical hope.