Investigative Scholar Rebecca Barrett-Fox Offers a Glimpse Inside Westboro Baptist Church with “God Hates”

9780700622658“Well, I thought we had a jewel this time.” Not the cruelest words ever spoken by Fred Phelps, founding pastor of the infamously hateful Westboro Baptist Church, but their victim knew them to be as condemning as any of the slogans on the church’s notorious picket signs. They meant that she, Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of perhaps American Christianity’s most famous homophobe, was not only going to hell—she had never been going to heaven at all. “Gramps,” as Megan and her cousins called their beloved grandfather, shared Megan’s eternal fate with his elderly wife as their granddaughter left the church’s sanctuary for the final time, she recalls in a recent article in The New Yorker. Though she might experience the pleasures of life outside the confines of the church’s hyper-Calvinist doctrine, she would suffer the eternal tortures of the hottest corner of hell, the one reserved for former church members who reject the church’s teachings, “[f]or it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them” (2nd Peter 2:21-22).

Megan is one of more than a dozen young adults who have left Westboro in the last few years. Indeed, she left with her younger sister Grace, following in the footsteps of an older brother and several cousins. A younger brother would leave a few months later, bringing nearly half of the children of Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church spokesperson for nearly all of Megan’s time in the church, out of the church. Another couple has lost all but one of their children to the secular world. In the public view, church members report these departures dispassionately. In a public statement on “departed unbelievers” such as Megan, the church writes: “The WBC does not control salvation, nor do we apologize for the ungodly that go out from us.”

Yet in the pews and in the homes of parents, the story is somewhat different. For many years—including during the before, during, and after the departure of Megan and many of her cousins—I studied the church close-up and from afar, attending church services, eating at potlucks, attending Bible studies, observing pickets, and interviewing current and former members as they have made their way out of the church. Their parents—people who were, for the most part, themselves not yet born when the church was founded in 1955—saw them reject the church that they believe is the only “candlestick” shining light into the sinful world, the ark that will carry them, like Noah and his family, to safety while the rest of the world is destroyed for its sins, and the rejection was heartbreaking. The problem wasn’t merely that their children were going to hell; it was the very practical matter that they weren’t going to share this life with them either. They took pictures of their children from the walls and refused to meet their new sons- and daughters-in-law and even grandchildren, but they also cried a lot. Rather than refusing to talk to me about their disfellowshipped children, some women simply couldn’t talk because their voices were choked with tears. “Of course I miss her,” snapped one otherwise softspoken church member when I asked about her daughter’s departure. The question, I realized, was stupid, because I had seen with my own eyes the love that the women had had for each other.

Those relationships are what keep some members inside the church for longer than they would be otherwise. Sam Phelps-Roper, Megan’s older brother and an elder in the congregation, shared with me during an interview that some people stay not for the theology but for the camaraderie. Members of the church share the burden not just of their extensive picketing schedule but of caring for each other. Any day of the week, they will be working together to babysit the many children in the church, fix a leaky roof, build an addition for a growing family, or paint a fence. For Megan in particular, the church was a good place. She was the star child of the star child of the famous pastor, a role that had made her the envy of some of her cousins at different points in their growing up but that she was occupying with relative grace as she entered young adulthood. Smart as a whip, she shares her mother’s best qualities, both intellectual and physical, with Shirley’s strikingly light eyes and curls that have never been cut cascading down her back. Unlike her mother, she skipped law school, a setting where she surely would have excelled, in order to work full time on the ministry of the church. In an office in her parents’ home, she worked alongside her madre, as she lovingly called her mother, organizing and executing pickets and, eventually, pioneering the church’s use of Twitter. She was also changing the voice of WBC, never dropping the fire-and-brimstone but bringing in more humor and pop culture.

And then, in a process that she shares in The New Yorker and in an interview with Sam Harris, she had to leave. At first, she still believed in WBC’s key tenets but felt that the church was changing, growing harsher in ways that repulsed her. She didn’t trust this revulsion because she had been taught that her own feelings were deceptive. As the church grew harsher toward its own members, though, she realized the pain that they had long inflicted on others was now directed inward as well. That seemed to undermine the loving community—the one with the swimming pool they all shared and the monthly gatherings to celebrate birthdays, with one person holding up a sign of all the names of the church members who were born that month so that they could insert all the names into “Happy Birthday,” so everyone could be loved and appreciated. The increased stridency toward members seemed to run counter to the Bible. And when scripture and the church couldn’t be reconciled, then the church had to be wrong; that’s what anyone in the church would have said, too. And so, when their parents asked the departing Grace what the church could do differently, Grace answered  “I want you and everyone else to leave with me.”

In Perfect Children: Growing Up on the Religious Fringe, Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist shares several case studies of what happens when a new religious movement’s second generation comes of age. Unlike their parents, who chose to join the group and shaped its founding, the second generation finds itself socialized into a group that has no history of socializing children and may be unprepared for the challenges that young adults deliver to the group’s theology and practices. Leaders can clamp down, patrolling the border even more vigorously and ostracizing doubters and dissenters. They can change and adapt, neutralizing criticisms and complaints by making just enough change to undermine revolt. And, of course, they can die out. Even if half of their young people left, though, Westboro Baptists, who generally have very large families, have enough people left to continue. The long-term question—and the one that Megan has answered with a definite no—is whether they have enough love in their hearts for each other to make that worthwhile.

–Written by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, author of “God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and The Religious Right

Louis Fisher Offers Thoughts on Presidential War Power

9780700619313President Obama’s plans to expand U.S. military involvement in Syria and Iraq without congressional approval continues the unconstitutional conduct of Presidents after World War II.  Although Congress deserves a strong rebuke for failing to protect its constitutional authority over the war power, the real fault lies with the pattern of unilateral presidential actions.  In June 1950, President Harry Truman launched offensive action against North Korea without coming to Congress for prior authority as required by the UN Participation Act of 1945.  President Lyndon Johnson decided, after receiving the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution for a limited military response, to escalate the war year after year in the face of public and congressional opposition.  President Bill Clinton used military force on numerous occasions, including in Bosnia and Kosovo, without ever seeking statutory authority.  President George W. Bush took the nation to war on the basis of six claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, with each claim proven to be empty.  President Barack Obama, after promising not to repeat the unilateral actions of Bush II, supported military action in Libya in 2011 without ever seeking congressional support, leaving that country as a failed state and a breeding ground for terrorism.  After exceeding the 60-90 day limit of the War Powers Resolution, his administration falsely defended the Libyan initiative by claiming that seven months of military action constituted neither war nor hostilities.  A succession of presidential lies and deceptions from 1950 to the present time have greatly damaged constitutional government and the aspiration for democracy.

–Written by Louis Fisher, author of Presidential War Power (3d ed., 2013).

In Conversation with Lisa Silvestri, Author of “Friended at the Front”

9780700621361Q:  What inspired you to research social media’s role in the American war zone?

A: My brother was on his first deployment in Iraq while I was in graduate school studying communication. At the time, he and I mostly wrote letters back and forth. But I began paying closer attention to advancements in digital communication technologies, especially when the infamous Abu Ghraib photos emerged. At the time, it seemed like new communication technologies (MySpace, YouTube, Facebook) were becoming available at the same time we were becoming increasingly entrenched in Iraq and Afghanistan. So I was personally and academically invested in keeping a close eye on both of these “fronts.” I wondered how all this connection would change what it’s like to be at war.

Q:  What were you most surprised to learn?

A: I learned a lot so this question could easily become very long-winded. So I’ll just share the earliest surprise, which was that no one writes letters any more. The war letter, which was once a staple genre of letter writing, is now an endangered, if not extinct, artifact. Almost all the men and women I talked to said they carried their iPhones in their pockets, just like the rest of us. How will this change the archival aspect of these wars?

Q:  Do you believe social media enhances the lives of those protecting our country abroad, or did you find that it contributed to depression or homesickness?

A: That’s the question, isn’t it? To an extent we are all probably wondering if social media is enhancing or diminishing our lives. For troops in a war zone, the stakes are raised on these types of issues—fear of missing out (FOMO), being distracted, feeling lonely and bored. We can all relate to these social anxieties. But I would say, on the whole, after talking with the men and women fighting our wars, I’m most worried about the broad emotional spectrum they are forced to occupy; Thinking about OPSEC and mission safety on one hand and about how their kids got in a fight at school on the other.  In previous generations, our troops were more “protected” from home front concerns. This is a big change. I wonder how it will affect things like PTSD or the homecoming process more generally.

Q:  What are some of the most common ways social media is used within the American military warscape?

A: In interviews, most personnel said they used social media to “keep up to date.” This can include more intimate information like knowing what your wife had for dinner last night as well as getting a broader idea of what the latest stateside pop culture craze might be.

Q:  What’s the biggest take-away readers will glean from your book, “Friended at the Front:  Social Media in the American War Zone?”

A: One of my chief goals as a writer, teacher and citizen is to cultivate empathy. My hope is that readers will come away having meaningfully related to the men and women fighting these wars. And out of that empathy, maybe they will start to question America’s ongoing relationship with war.


images#TBT: On this day in 1999, President Bill Clinton signed a sweeping measure knocking down Depression-era barriers and allowing banks, investment firms and insurance companies to sell each other’s product.  Learn more about Clinton’s presidency inside UPK’s upcoming “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President.”  Author Patrick Maney goes beyond personality and politics to examine the critical issues of the day: economic and fiscal policy, business and financial deregulation, healthcare and welfare reform, and foreign affairs in a post–Cold War world. But at its heart is Bill Clinton in all his guises: the first baby boomer to reach the White House; the “natural”—the most gifted politician of his generation, but one with an inexplicably careless and self-destructive streak; the “Comeback Kid,” repeatedly overcoming long odds; the survivor, frequently down but never out; and, with Hillary Rodham Clinton, part of the most controversial First Couple since Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Maney’s book is, in sum, the most succinct and up-to-date study of the Clinton presidency, invaluable not merely for understanding a transformative era in American history, but presidential, national, and global politics today.

Let’s Stop Making Veterans

9780700621361Every year on Veterans Day, I call my dad and brother, both Veterans. I’m proud they are, but I wish they weren’t. My hope is that one day we will stop making Veterans, a hope that seems increasingly naive as our president “intensifies” efforts against ISIL by putting “boots on the ground” in Syria. There will be more Veterans next year.

Ten years ago on Veterans Day, my brother was in Iraq on his first deployment—on the road to becoming a Veteran like our father, who had been in Vietnam 37 years earlier. My brother kept a journal during his deployment in East Hit. I want to share some excerpts as we mark the ten years since he became a Veteran.

[Dec 23, 2005] The [locals] have been very friendly thus far, I have even smoked the hookah with them, also got to try some food that I think was bean based, but very good. I do sincerely hope that we do not upset the locals too much and that the rest of days will go on peacefully as they have thus far.

[Dec 31, 2005] The Iraqi troops have quit on us. They no longer want to go on patrol or stand post. I’m not quite sure why that is, hopefully they are not bitter at us. I understand that they are under great pressure from their people and some go to great extents to hide their faces and identities while on patrol to protect their families, but obviously they could not last more than one week out patrolling with us Marines.

[Jan 21, 2006] I honestly do not see how they [Iraqi soldiers] will ever be able to maintain law and order in this country.

These diary entries are from ten years ago. Ten years ago, my brother recognized, with genuine and heartbreaking disconcertion, the impossibility of stabilizing Iraq. Ten years ago, we had far fewer Veterans then we do today.

So here we are on another Veterans Day. And with a mixture of gratitude and shame, I find myself choking on the realization that tomorrow we will have the most Veterans we’ve ever had; and if we keep going at the rate we are going, the fewest we ever will. But we can stop it. We can do something different. When I call my dad and brother to thank them, I will again say a silent prayer for peace, hoping that next year I won’t have to.

–Written by Lisa Ellen Silvestri, author of “Friended at the Front: Social Media in the American War Zone


Jacket Required: On Book Cover Design

9780700620012As Art Director and Webmaster, I’m responsible for all matters pertaining to graphic design at the University Press of Kansas. I design everything you see with our name on it, including books, ads, catalogs, flyers, conference booth signage, and website graphics. The one aspect of my job that readers and authors seem to be the most curious about, however, is book cover design.

In my 16 years here at the Press, I’ve designed the dust jackets or paperback covers of over 500 published books. A book cover serves two purposes. The first is to sell the book, and the second is to educate potential readers of its contents. To accomplish the first objective, a cover has to look attractive, legible, and effortless. It has to be eye-catching and readable whether it’s viewed from across the room at a bookstore or scholarly conference or as a thumbnail image on Amazon. To educate the reader, each book’s cover needs to accurately convey not just the subject matter but also the author’s approach to it. Because one person (me) designs all our covers, to some degree a Kansas “look” is inevitable, but it’s far more important that content drive the design of each cover. A good designer is like a chameleon that blends into the background, or an actor who gets lost in a role. While graphic design is often described as a “creative” profession, self-expression doesn’t make for great book covers. The designer’s job is to be an advocate for the book, and to present that book in its best light. Effective visual communication is essential to realizing the university press mission of promoting scholarship, advancing research, and disseminating knowledge.

Designing for a university press is a dream job for a book lover. You never know what unforeseen subject matter is going to show up on your desk. Military history, political science, and the Great Plains are my bread and butter, but I’ve also done books on birds, bears, greyhound racing, organic farming, UFOs, the Harlem Renaissance, fat studies, fish, and football. Though some subjects are bound to repeat themselves (in my case: the inescapable William Howard Taft), each project is unique in its own right, and that’s what makes the job interesting. To each idea its book, and to each book its cover.

–Written by Karl Janssen, Art Director and Webmaster, University Press of Kansas

The Future of Scholarly Publishing

FB-cover-UPKThis is University Press Week, a time to understand the important role of our not-for-profit scholarly publishers. One need only look at the most recent catalog of books published by the University Press of Kansas (and our many sister presses) to see that university presses are publishing exciting, thoughtful books that help lead us closer to wisdom in so many areas of human endeavor. Some of what we publish is, as Niko Pfund stated in The Scholarly Kitchen, “intra-tribal publications” that are written by and for scholars. Other books are efforts to reach outside the academy and bring the best insights of our scholars to bear on the challenges we all face. While we must deal with rapidly changing technology, dramatic alterations in the way books are bought and sold, and the challenges of funding that face higher education, all of us in university press publishing are united in our desire to overcome these challenges and continue to publish exciting writing and ideas for scholars and the general public. And I think we are doing this better now than ever.

-Written by Charles Myers, Director of the University Press of Kansas

So Much To Celebrate In #CrownTown

9780700603435While America revels in the Kansas City Royals’ recent World Series success, let’s not forget The Kansas City Monarchs:  Champions of Black Baseball by Janet Bruce.  Charter members of the Negro National League, stepping stone for Jackie Robinson, home base for Satchel Paige, and training ground for more than twenty blacks sent to the major leagues, the Kansas City Monarchs survived the entire thirty-five-year span of black baseball (from 1920 to mid 1950) and were widely regarded as the dominant black professional team, “the New York Yankees of the Negro leagues.” Rich in anecdote and illustrated with more than ninety photographs of Monarchs players and scenes, this book is both a tribute to and a celebration of the top all-black team of all time.