Reflections on the Westboro Baptist Church

Cards on the table. I am a fan of Louis Theroux. His ability to draw comic absurdity from the darkest of subject matter as well as the plainly ridiculous, carried out in a manner that leaves plenty of room for the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions.

In 2007, Louis visited the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. There he found a congregation dominated by one family, the Phelps clan, the patriarch of whom ruled the roost with a rod of iron. The resulting documentary found the same darkly humorous vein Louis had found with the Ultra Zionists, Eugene Terreblanche and others. Last year he returned and the resulting film was broadcast on Sunday night. It is available on iPlayer currently and I thoroughly recommend it.

Louis says he doesn’t do follow ups. However, he had received an email from one of the “firebreathing zealots”, one of the many Phelps daughters who had since left the Church and found her place in the world with a boyfriend, job and home in normality.

One of the many striking things about the Westboro Baptist Church is their espousal of hatred. I grew up in a Christian family and attended a cathedral school and although I call myself a humanist now (like Louis), inevitably a bit of knowledge about the faith rubbed off on the way. John 3:16 for example: “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. And I was married in a village church in the Dales, and the reading was the classic wedding text, 1 Corinthians 13:13: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”.

However, the approach of the Westboro Baptist is a radical departure from these texts. Instead, they take their cue from the God of the Old Testament and rejoice in judgments leading to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and later the flood. Parading at sensitive locations such as funerals, schools and the like with brightly painted placards, they see these judgments reflected in the modern world in the form of AIDS, dying soldiers, and perhaps most bizarrely, breast cancer, references to each being commonly preceded in their signs by the words “Thank God for…”.

In fact, much like the murals of Northern Ireland and Soviet era propaganda, it’s hard not to be impressed by their creativity. Their demonstrations commonly feature not simple repeated assertions of the kind normally associated with the right wing, but complex lyrical interpretations of pop anthems, most notably Lady GaGa’s “Pokerface”, which they accompany with a dance routine. Louis visited the home of Steve Drain, a former film maker who had been indoctrinated during a visit to the Church to film a documentary. Drain showed an anti-semetic skit the Church had put together featuring dancing, singing church members dressed as Orthodox jews complete with wigs and beards. (Typically understated, Louis concluded “even for you, that was surprisingly offensive”.) Sickening as it was, I couldn’t help but hum the classic Hebrew tune to which it was set whilst in the shower on the Monday morning.

One of the things that I noticed was that the church was built on the strength of the women, without whom no documentary would have been possible. And yet at every opportunity, these women deferred to their fathers and husbands. In one interview, Louis was talking to the parents of one 20-something who had left the Church and was now finding her own way in the world. The words that the father used were of Westboro orthodoxy, but it wasn’t hard to see just how difficult he was finding it. And when Louis asked the same questions of the mother, sensing some vulnerability over this issue, three times she effectively said “er, what he said”, and no more.

A community, ostensibly Christian, united solely by hatred was a tragic thing to see. Rather than seeking to build links with the outside world, they rejoiced in upsetting the community in which they built their homes. But the real tragedy – and perhaps the biggest sign of hope for the future – was the effect that the lifestyle was having on the children. Watching a ten year old boy parading with a placard stating “God hates fags” was hard to see. (I also noticed that there were very few males in the film between the age of the pre-pubescents on the picket lines and the fathers being interviewed.) When Louis travelled to see Lauren Drain in Connecticut, the girl who had left the church and emailed Louis to tell him so, he found a 24 year old registered nurse who looked for all the world like she was having her teenage rebellion 10 years too late: heavily made up, scantily clad and apparently angry at her parents and life in general. And yet this was a girl who, in conversation, seemed entirely grounded and who was delighting in the discovery of an ability to make decisions for herself.

But it was when Louis went to see another one of the departed daughters, Libby Phelps, that the poignancy was hard to take. Drummed out of the village for daring to wear a bikini whilst on a beach in Puerto Rico and daring not to repent for so doing, Libby recounted the circumstances of her departure with humility. It was evident that she had not left in an explosion of hate as had Lauren, but rather had simply come to an instantaneous realisation that she couldn’t continue to live this way. The final words exchanged with her mother (by text message) were rooted in everyday normality. She didn’t regret her departure but she regretted the loss of her family. And she found herself convinced in quiet moments that the decision she had taken meant that she was indeed hellbound.

Each one of these departures seem to convince the Phelpses and their various satellite families that they were all the more right, and to speak their bile with all the greater intensity. I suppose it’s a bit like the strength of the coffee left simmering in the pot throughout the afternoon – you forget how long ago you made it and you partake of what’s left at your peril. But the other point I took away was the bizarre juxtaposition of the Church within the local community. This was not a congregation locked away from the world in a Waco style compound. They weren’t located in some wilderness, miles from anywhere. As Louis interviewed the church members in their homes, it was possible to see through their windows the homes of their neighbours, drives bearing VW Beetles and gardens bearing rose bushes. This is a congregation that has decided to cut itself off from the world yet has chosen to locate itself in the midst of suburbia.

Watching church members spit their hate on subjects religious (Islam, Judaism) or temporal (Obama – the anti-christ, apparently – and conversely, the ways in Iraq and Afghanistan), in homes bedecked with fridge freezers, fitted kitchens, microwaves and flatscreen TVs, the strongest message was one of the hypocrisy. And perhaps this was the greatest irony. Because the closest cousins to the Westboro Baptist Church are not the non-conformists from whom they have splintered, but the Islamic fundamentalists, whom they regard as Satanic. Personally, I couldn’t help thinking about the London 7/7 bombers, who worked as shop assistants and primary school teachers, travelling to London listening to their iPods, leaving their Volvos in the car parks of commuter stations, or Abu Hamza, preaching the destruction of Western society whilst living off benefits.

So that was the point. This was a group of people that are determined to cajole the community they lived in to rise up and eject them, so that they could then portray themselves as martyrs. And they did, do, this in the most provocative way – parading before the funeral of dead Iraq veterans with the Stars and Stripes flying upside down (although I didn’t see any evidence of the flag being burnt). But much as they tried, they found merely toleration. Because in the USA, freedom of speech and of association are the values most dearly held.

But here is my own provocative statement. The world may actually be a better place because the Westboro Baptist Church is in it. Because it is in our united rejection of their hateful ways that our liberal democratic inheritance is most evident. Even in Topeka, Kansas, where Democrats are rarer than an English World Cup winner. And because of this, you can follow any one of at least a dozen Westboro Baptist congregation members on Twitter and sample for yourself a little bit of what it must be like to live in a self-constructed world of hatred. It is safe to say that they make better use of Twitter than @Louis_Theroux himself, who still struggles to get to grips with the medium.

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