How Twitter Helped Change The Mind Of A Westboro Baptist Church Member
Editor's note: This interview contains a homophobic slur.
Growing up as a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan Phelps-Roper was taught that God hated gay people. The church, which was founded by Phelps-Roper's grandfather, Fred Phelps Sr., became infamous for picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers — whose deaths it believed were a punishment for America's sins and its tolerance of homosexuality.
Phelps-Roper began protesting at funerals when she was 19, though she started picketing at a younger age. "We held signs that said, 'Thank God for dead soldiers.' 'Thank God for IEDs.' 'God hates you,' " she says.
It wasn't until a few years later, when she began running the Westboro Twitter account, that she began to truly question the church's hateful teachings. Many Twitter users responded angrily to her, but others seemed sincerely interested in creating a dialogue.
"They started asking questions and digging into our theology. ... As they were able to find these contradictions and present them to me," Phelps-Roper says. "I understood that we could be wrong about something. ... That was the beginning of the end for me. I had this unshakable faith and it had been shaken."
In 2012, Phelps-Roper decided to leave the Westboro Baptist Church. She says it "was devastating" to think about what leaving would mean for her and her family. "Ex-members are seen as the worst of the worst — even worse than gay people, or Jewish people, or any other anybody else the church considers sinners."
Her new memoir is Unfollow.
On how the church justified its homophobic teachings
Westboro would quote this passage from the book of Leviticus that, for them, shows that the definition of "love thy neighbor" is to rebuke your neighbor when you see him sinning. And if you don't do that, then you hate your neighbor in your heart. Because you are watching this person go down this bad path that is going to lead them to the curses of God in this life, and hell in the world to come. And you failed to warn them. You didn't give them the opportunity to repent, to share with them the truth of God.
On how the church interpreted and quoted the Bible
We read the whole Bible, cover to cover, over and over again. ... It wasn't that we read selective parts of the Bible. It was that we interpreted it in this very selective way. Gramps [her grandfather, who founded the church] would say, "The love of God is reserved for the penitent." That was us. Everybody else was proud of their sin and hell-bound. And we were the only ones doing the work of God. ...
[Quoting the Bible] was proof that we were not doing this of our own selves. This wasn't because we had this inherent hatred for gay people, or other people, and that we were looking to the Bible to justify it. It was that we derived our positions from the Bible, and because it came from outside of us, from this source that we considered divine, then as long as it was in [the Bible], then it was absolutely justified. ... We were supposed to be able to use the Bible's words to explain what we were doing, and if we couldn't do that, then we shouldn't be doing it.
On protesting at the funerals of U.S. soldiers
I went to my mother right before I was set to go protest my first soldier's funeral and asked my mother: "I need to understand why we're doing this." ... My mom starts the conversation in the book of Deuteronomy, this passage where God says, "I set before you this day a blessing and a curse — a blessing if you obey me, and a curse if you won't." And she said, "Can we all agree that a dead child" — that's how my mom referred to these the fallen soldiers, as children, because many of them were my age and younger, and I was only 19 — "Can we agree that a dead child is a curse from God and not a blessing?" ...
It's these passages where there is an explicit connection between sin and punishment. And specifically, as Westboro would put it, when a nation has institutionalized sin against God, God responds. One of the weapons in his arsenal is to kill their children in battle. So we saw it as a loving thing to go to these families and say, "If you don't repent, you will also likewise perish."
On how she met her now-husband on Twitter, and how he helped change her mind about the church
His first tweet was kind of nasty, mean. But immediately his tone shifted. I think he expected, like many people expect, that Westboro was full of hillbillies and rednecks. And to meet somebody who is, as he would put it, intelligent but misguided — he was really shocked by that, that a smart person could truly believe these things in the 21st century.
And so he started asking questions. Some other people on Twitter were making more theological arguments. His were more emotional, kind of forcing me to look at the human impact of what we were doing. We'd always been dismissive of the idea that what we were doing was truly hurtful to anybody. They were just being dramatic. They were worshipping their feelings. So we'd been very dismissive and callous to those things. ...
I started to feel like I was becoming part of this community on Twitter. And that was the first time that I really felt ashamed of what I was doing.
I started to feel empathy, and over time, I started to feel like I was becoming part of this community on Twitter. And that was the first time that I really felt ashamed of what I was doing. These interactions are taking place over time. We're building rapport in a way that's making me start to feel like I start to respect what they're thinking, and to really consider how they're feeling, and then feeling like I was violating those norms by celebrating death.
On her relationship with her family since leaving the church
The understanding is that if you even see them out in public, there should be no interaction at all. They just pretend not to see you. ... Shortly after my sister and I left ... we realized pretty quickly, we have nothing to lose, and we have nothing to gain by following those rules. We have nothing to lose by reaching out to them. ...
I realized that if I was changed by these discussions with outsiders, if they could find a way to get through to me even though I did not want to be gotten through to — I was so zealous and I was such a hardcore believer — how stupid would it be, how wrong would it be not to have that same hope that my family could change, that my mother could change? And so we start sending letters, and birthday gifts, and postcards, and tweets, and talking in interviews that we know that they'll see. And making these arguments, and hoping that — even if it doesn't cause them to leave Westboro, if it can cause them to moderate in some way, if I can help them see that protesting funerals is not a biblical thing ... So we make these arguments and hope that something will get through. And I think some things have.
Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
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