“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“