This is part one of a documentary by BBC journalist, Louis Theroux, about the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Everyone is familiar with Westboro’s neon signs and shameless choices of picketing venues. No one needs a reason to despise them more, they’ve pretty much reached the pinnacle of notoriety. So I’m not going to bash them further here. Doing so would only be preaching to the choir, assuming the “choir” is every American with any shred of human decency.
Instead, I want to encourage us to have mercy on many of the people in Westboro, especially the children and young adults. If you start watching at about the 5 minute mark you’ll see Louis speaking to three boys, who look to be around 11-13 years old. They’re children, unequivocally. But listen to how they speak, it’s heartbreaking. Listen to how they immediately admit being afraid of leaving, how they fear finding out they aren’t in God’s elect, how they struggle with grown up sins of “pride of the heart” and “taking every thought captive.” Fear is a main component of their lives. Fear is an ever present bogeyman. These children are so captivated by fear, it is easy to see how they lash out defensively against the people their parents have told them are responsible for the fall of their country.
Right now these kids aren’t morally responsible for the reprehensible views they picket for. It’s easy to look merciful on them now because it’s easy to see how they have been manipulated. But they won’t be kids forever. How will we view them after they’ve come of age?
Other parts of the documentary focus on the adult children who have left. It’s clear that they were highly manipulated with threats of hell and family shunning if they dare to contradict the family patriarch (who, by the way, seems like an addled, hate-filled, living Mad-Libs – he just hollers offensive phrases, one after another, without connection or clear point. At one point he accuses his congregation on the verge of, “eating their babies,” if they succumb to the “world.”). The children who’ve mustered the amazing courage to leave report that they continue to love and miss their families, especially younger siblings, but have been cut off from all communication with them. Their families don’t show regret or heartbreak, but instead, “thank God,” for their leaving.
The adult children who remain in the church have seen what happens to the ones who leave. They see their photographs being taken off the wall. They see the sins of the leavers admitted frankly to the cameras and discussed in church meetings. They face constant repetitions of the family beliefs and judgement of the church. They are told that hell awaits anyone who spurns their version of the faith. That’s a powerful threat regardless if you believe it or not. I think many Christians and former Christians can attest to how terrifying this threat seemed to them. That threat, along with the threat of cutting off financial and familial connections, can exert a controlling force over them. As adults we can hold them morally responsible, but we must acknowledge the mitigating circumstances they face.
The third generation of Phelps’ aren’t acting in a moral vacuum. In order to find reasons to leave they must search out forbidden knowledge and connect with forbidden people. They must radically change the views they’ve been indoctrinated with since early childhood. They must understand their own part in hurting people and take responsibility for it. They have to recognize that their parents have lied to them and are rightly reviled by nearly everyone who lays eyes on them. They must be terrified, and rightly so. Staying isn’t right, but leaving is damn hard.
I’m happy to see a number of the older Phelps’ girls have left. I applaud their enormous bravery. I’m also glad to see that rather than enduring continued harassment by the public for their involvement in the Westboro church they’ve been widely embraced and recognized for their courage. I think that we should, as a society and and as part of the great nation of the interwebs, support anyone who is able to throw off the yoke of this terrible way of life.