How Compassion Helped One Woman Leave an Extremist Group
By Jeremy Adam Smith
I first became aware of the Westboro Baptist Church when it threatened to picket my son’s preschool, which was at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
I wondered: Why in the world would anyone do that? Some Googling revealed that Westboro was based in Topeka, Kansas, and for a quite a few years had been very active in picketing Jewish organizations and the funerals of people who died of AIDS/HIV or gay-bashings, with signs that famously said things like, “God Hates F**s.” Then I discovered that Westboro didn’t just target ethnic and sexual minorities. Its members also picketed funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, which surprised me. Weren’t conservatives supposed to be patriotic?
In her new book, Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan Phelps-Roper writes about why they did that: Dead soldiers were God’s punishment for America’s sins. Like most of the 70-odd members of the congregation, she is related to the church’s founder and pastor, Fred Phelps, her grandfather. As he explained at a military-funeral protest: “They turned America over to f**s; they’re coming home in body bags.” Phelps-Roper describes how, later, when Westboro was sued over the military protests, “The men took turns making elaborate prayers to God to kill [the lawyers and plaintiffs] that very weekend, before they had the opportunity to attack the Lord’s church in this way.”
Phelps-Roper grew up in Westboro, hearing such sentiments every single day of her childhood and young adulthood—and, indeed, she promoted them herself on picket lines and through Twitter, which became an enormous part of her life. In fact, as she describes in her memoir, it was a personal contact with an individual she first knew as C.G. on Twitter that eventually led her to question her beliefs and the church itself, which she finally left, with her younger sister Grace, in 2012. She was shunned by the church and her grandfather, who died two years later.
I spoke with Phelps-Roper about her book and Westboro Baptist Church in October, onstage at an event hosted by the Greater Good Science Center in the Hillside Club in Berkeley, California. This Q&A is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Jeremy Adam Smith: Have you ever been to Berkeley before?
Megan Phelps-Roper: Only to picket.
JAS: In reading your book, I was struck by how much love there was in your family and within your church. It was a very tight-knit group of people, who defined themselves in part by the opposition to everything around them. So, there was love within the group, but a stunning amount of hate for outsiders.
For example, when your grandfather would talk about homosexuality in church, he was very crude. That surprised me, because I tend to think of homophobes as not wanting to dwell on the sexual details, let alone shove them at children. You were very young when you began hearing this obscene, explicit language in church. What was your grandfather trying to do, exactly?
MPR: I think he was trying to inculcate us with this instinctive sense of disgust. That’s what my mother would say: “There’s something that rises up inside of you when you hear what these people do, and it rises up inside of you and makes you yell, ‘Yuck!’”
That was one side of it. On the other side, there was this completely contradictory idea that what we were doing was the fulfillment of God’s commandment, which was to love thy neighbor. That’s why we were out preaching, to warn people to not incur the wrath of God in this life and then face hell in the next.
So, you’re supposed to be disgusted, but you’re also supposed to be loving them. As the church went further and further along, it leaned more and more toward the extreme, negative side.
JAS: The childhood described in your book is much different than what I had unconsciously imagined. Your family is well educated; they’re almost all lawyers. You were well read. You went to public schools—and in the book you describe your relationship to your classmates, whom you saw as “children of Esau”—that is, the Biblical figure who founded a tribe that turned away from the Hebrew God.
There were only two kinds of people in the world, and my classmates were firmly in the Esau category. They didn’t seem to care about the Bible, their parents were divorced and re-married, and some of them were as good as committing fornication already, what with all the hand holding and kissing they were doing in the hallways. They might be friendly to me, but these “friends” of mine were all enemies of God—and therefore must be my enemies, as well.
That’s pretty intense. It’s almost as though you were a secret agent, going into school and spying on the people of Esau.
MPR: There are people who are very isolationist, who cut themselves off from the world, and refuse to watch television. But we were not like that at all. We were constant consumers of pop culture, and when people like fundamentalist Christians would say things like, “We got rid of our television so many decades ago,” my mom would chastise them. She’d say, “How can you preach against the sins of this nation if you don’t even know what they are? You have to be paying attention.”
There were some people who look at the fact that we were so thoroughly exposed to the outside world and ask me, “How could you not have known better? How could you not have seen earlier?” The analogy that I use is that we were inoculated against ideas. Before I was ever exposed to those ideas, my parents, my aunts and uncles and cousins—all of Westboro—would say, “These are what people will say to you, these are the arguments they’re going to make, and here are the Bible verses that show why they’re wrong, the chapter, the verse—memorize them.”
Raised on the picket line, starting from the age of five, you’re constantly having people challenge your beliefs, and because you’re surrounded by lawyers, who are very intelligent and logical, you’re ready to push back. That internal consistency is a strength—until it cracks. As I discovered since I left and since talking to people who have left other restrictive and ideologically closed systems, it is internal inconsistency that helps people find their way out. It’s the beginning of the thread that unravels, it’s the thing that can shake their faith, because—even if, just for a minute, I accept everything you believe in your own system—there is still a contradiction. That was the wedge for a lot of people, and it was for me, too.
JAS: I was very surprised to learn that there were only 70 people in Topeka who formed Westboro, because somehow you managed to exert this really outsized influence. It seems to me that you invented internet trolling before there was an internet—and Westboro’s shock-tactics have been enormously influential. I mean, we elected a troll as president, who mastered the art of trolling people on Twitter. This is the world we’re living in—it’s the world of Westboro Baptist Church. I’m curious what forces came together to make that happen.
MPR: It’s really funny, because the protest sign is even more restrictive than Twitter’s 140-character limit. How do you fit on a sign, three to five words of five to six letters? We were going to be standing on public sidewalks, people were going to be driving by, so it has to be big enough for people to read. I think the reason they chose the most provocative language possible was because of the attention that it got.
Part of it was also a matter of timing. In the early ’90s, with the 24-hour news cycle, Gramps recognized that that was the way to get attention almost immediately. The media is the way to spread the message. And because Westboro believes in pre-destination—that they don’t have the power to convert anyone, or to change anybody’s mind, and that that’s exclusively the prerogative of God—all they have to do is preach the message as plainly and clearly as they can, and everything else is in God’s hands. And so, if you try to make the message as palatable as you possibly can, that will lead you to abridge the word of God, because there are a lot of sharp edges and hard corners in the Bible. Westboro wanted it plain and clear, and far from what Gramps would call the “kissy-poo preachers.” He was going to become the opposite of that.
In the time leading up to, and after, I left the church, I realized that’s not the Bible. Like in the New Testament, the apostle Paul talks about, To the Jews I became as a Jew, to the Greeks as a Greek, and to the weak I became as weak, so that I might gain the weak. We did not do that. We saw that as evil, and so instead we went to the most outrageous and cruel places to preach. Outside of funerals—that was primarily for attention. I sat in on this interview with Gramps and this reporter, and she said, “Some people think you’re just doing this for attention,” and he looked at her like she was an idiot, and he said, ‘Well, of course I’m doing it for attention. How can I preach to these people if I don’t have their attention?”
Everything else that was going on in the world, everybody else’s lives, their tragedies—those were just a platform for our message. That very cynical use of other people’s lives for attention, I think, is very reflective of Donald Trump, because he sees everything through the lens of, “How does this affect me? How can I use this for my own purposes?” There’s very little reflection on the impact it has on other people, especially the people he sees as Other.
JAS: There’s a paradox at the core of your book. You’re talking about really aggressive trolling, both in real life and also on social media. A lot of us think of Twitter as a very antisocial place, a place where people are very mean and aggressive and snarky in order to get attention. And yet, as you describe in the book, Twitter also became a place of life-changing connection for you. I’m curious about what made that change and that connection happen.
MPR: Yeah. There are some things that I think Twitter as a platform could improve to improve conversation there, but I also think that even in the absence of action from Twitter, we get to decide how we use this tool, and it seems to me that the reason Twitter gets such a bad rap is that people want them to just fix it.
The way I talk about it is that they’re looking for a technical solution to a cultural problem, and so there are things I think that we can do to improve things. We talk about information silos and echo chambers. Well, instead of only following people who confirm our beliefs—which is a very common human cognitive bias, confirmation bias—we try to find people we can recognize as smart, intelligent, well-intentioned people who genuinely believe differently than we do, and so expose ourselves to different ways of viewing the world.
For me on Twitter, the conversations that eventually changed my mind and helped me see outside of Westboro’s paradigm started with me going and attacking people, targeting people—people in Jewish communities initially—and their willingness to engage. And not everyone can do this well; it’s definitely a skill.
I would say that during all that time that I was on Twitter, the vast majority of the communication I was having on there was extremely negative, and yet that limited number of individuals who would ask questions, they didn’t assume bad intent.
On Twitter, you have to ask questions because you’re trying to figure out where somebody’s coming from so that you can better build a bridge from where you are to where they are, and you’re also signaling to them that you’re listening, that they are being heard, which tends to make people more willing to listen up. You need to stay calm, which is important to do when you’re talking about something super-contentious. One of the great things about Twitter was that there was this buffer of time and space between me and other people, so when things did start to get heated, we could just pause and come back to it later. You can feel on Twitter like you have to respond immediately, but you don’t actually have to. The person’s still going to be there tomorrow, or in two weeks, and so the effect for me of that interaction over time was that I was building rapport with people even though I wasn’t interacting with them all of the time.
There’s this idea I learned about called non-complementary behavior. The idea is that we as human beings are wired toward complementary behavior, so if somebody comes at you aggressively, we respond defensively generally, and if people are nice to you, you want to be nice back. Non-complementary behavior is really difficult, so if somebody is angry, confrontational, and hostile, it’s not easy to stay calm and to respond compassionately and empathically to them, but it can have this enormous power to change the dynamic of the conversation.
So, even though I had been taught by my family that, as the Bible says, Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful—even though I had been taught every day to be wary of the kindness of outsiders—I still found myself compelled by that, and moved by their kindness. That tells you how deeply engrained complementary behavior is. If you can find a way of flipping the script, basically, it can have an enormous impact on people, and it doesn’t have to take forever.
JAS: What barriers did you have to overcome to write this book?
MPR: Growing up at Westboro, you understand that if somebody leaves, you are completely cut off. You have no interaction with them whatsoever. And when people would ask, “What would you say to somebody who has left?,” you’d just draw a complete blank. There’s nothing left to say. You have, completely, demonized them.
“It’s very easy to look at groups like Westboro and see them as crazed doomsayers, and to not recognize that they are complex human beings, just like everybody else”
Beyond that, what draws Westboro’s ire even more is if somebody leaves and talks about it. So, you understand, I still dearly loved these people, and had this sense that I would be betraying them, and that I would be fulfilling this Bible passage that they would reference: Oh, that mine enemy had written a book. People who were among them, who had been a part of them, who leave, they are the worst of all groups. More than people in the LGBT community, or Jewish people, more than other Christians, the most demonized are ex-members who talk about it.
I didn’t want to betray them. Getting over that feeling was really difficult. The thing that got me over that was that I initially started writing, and I wrote an essay for my husband. Because the destructive things that I had learned were becoming an issue in our relationship. That was the beginning of the book, actually. That was one of the first things that I wrote. I just felt like I needed to explain some things about my history to him because I’d realized that as much as we had talked about it, he still didn’t understand, and that I’d really needed to illustrate for him.
JAS: So, the book began as an act of empathy—to try to be understood. You were part of an in-group that was very, very insular, that had very internally consistent, extremist beliefs. Then you had contact with the outside world, and you had an experience that no one outside of that in-group could understand. And you wanted to be understood, starting with your husband.
MPR: Yeah, exactly. I have a friend who writes about ISIS. I think he does a really good job because he talks about the need to write in multiple registers, so he is writing for a broad audience, but he also wants ISIS members to look at what he’s writing, and to be able to recognize themselves in it, not to see caricatures of themselves. Which is to say, to be true—to represent their actual beliefs, their actual intentions, the actual way that they operate, and not some narrative that people want to hear.
It’s very easy to look at groups like Westboro and see them as crazed doomsayers, and to not recognize that they are complex human beings, just like everybody else. Deeply flawed, deeply misguided—but just human beings like everybody else, the product of their experiences and their biology, and their circumstances. That’s what makes us human beings.
JAS: At the Greater Good Science Center, we try to talk about bridging differences in terms of skills. One of those skills is to be able to look at the idiosyncrasies of individuals and pull them out, so that they’re whole people. Your book does that beautifully, especially with your mother, who really comes to life. I’m curious: What do you really want people to know about the humanity of people who are a part of Westboro Baptist Church?
MPR: There’s a lot of resistance to seeing the humanity of white nationalists, or Nazis. They’re saying terrible things, they’re doing terrible things—so, why would I want to know that they have children that they love and care about? I see this a lot on Twitter. There is an instinct, I think, to isolate people with terrible ideas. We want to isolate them. We feel like we don’t want to be a part of them, we don’t want to be a part of what they’re a part of, we find it abhorrent, and I think it’s a completely human and normal instinct, but it doesn’t change anything.
I would reply that seeing the humanity is not for its own sake. It’s for the sake of what it can teach us about how they can be reached. We want people to be able to leave these groups, and we want them to be able to see outside of these destructive paradigms in which they were taught—for the sake of their impact on the rest of society, so that other people don’t fall prey to their recruiting strategies. It needs to be a part of our language, and a part of our culture—why have we rejected the ideas of these groups? What specifically is wrong with them? Because it doesn’t work to just isolate them and hope that it goes away. It tends to just fester.
And that’s how it was at Westboro. We faced constant opposition, constant shaming, people being violent toward us, driving their cars toward us, people throwing things at us, and it was constant from the time we started picketing when I was five years old to when I began on Twitter. But it was this random group of people—who believed that I was sincere, that I really believed that I was doing the right thing—who were willing to have this engagement with me, who were willing to bring me into this community, even in the limited way of Twitter and social media. And that was far more powerful than anything that came before that.