Megan Phelps-Roper was just 5 years old when she first joined her family on the picket line. Comprised mostly of family members and led by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church began protesting homosexuality at a park in Topeka, Kansas, in the early ’90s. Westboro greatly expanded its targets in the years that followed, becoming notorious for picketing soldiers’ funerals with signs that read “God Hates the USA” and asserting that national tragedies were God’s punishment for a sinful society. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Westboro “the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”
Phelps-Roper was raised to believe that disapproval from the outside world was proof of Westboro’s righteousness. Alongside her mother and her siblings, she organized her life around evangelizing the views of her church, and after becoming Westboro’s Twitter spokesperson, she was brought into constant dialogue with critics and strangers. Messaging that began with debate turned into real friendships, including with a lawyer who would later become her husband. These relationships shifted her worldview, forcing Phelps-Roper to question Westboro’s mission and her part in it. Phelps-Roper left Westboro in 2012 knowing this would sever relationships with most of her family. Her new book, Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, shares her journey leaving a toxic community and creating a new life for herself.
Phelps-Roper spoke with the Cut about using dialogue to combat extremism, Westboro’s fascination with pop culture, and why we should strive to be our brother’s keeper.
Unfollow depicts a sense of joy, intimacy, and righteousness when you were growing up that seems very alluring. What was it like being at the heart of a group that felt so much certainty, despite what the rest of the world thought?
I felt safe and loved and cherished, and when I left and lost that sense of certainty, it was crushing for a while. It’s a lot of pressure to try to figure out what you’re supposed to do with your life. How do you arrange your days? To suddenly be tasked with making all of those decisions myself, when I had not made any decisions like that my entire life, it was absolutely crushing and terrifying. But there came a point relatively quickly after I left the church that I started to feel really grateful to not be special. I think for some people who leave Westboro, losing that sense of specialness feels like you’ve lost something really valuable and important. I had the opposite experience. I was so grateful to know that I wasn’t uniquely evil. I was just a human being who had had this set of experiences that were outside of my control.
There are aspects of Westboro’s culture in your account — an us-versus-them mentality, shunning of former members, a belief in an imminent end-time, very strict outlines for acceptable behavior, domestic abuse — that make it sound a little like a cult. Does that label fit for you?
There are definitely cultlike aspects of Westboro. I tend not to use the word, although it is a really convenient shorthand and conveys a lot of the ideas that you just mentioned, but there are things that aren’t cultlike. My parents helped me and my sister pack [our things on] the day that we left. You hear stories about Scientology, where people are prevented from leaving, and Westboro’s not like that. If you decide that you don’t want to be there, then they will help you leave. The shunning, cutting people off — they’re doing that because they believe it is for our highest good. They would not be doing that if they weren’t sure that this was what God required of them.
The things that you mentioned are cultlike. Part of it is what holds the group together. It’s almost like this nucleus; if it’s them against the entire world, it really strengthens the bonds within the church and makes you willing to conform. In some ways it’s really beautiful: the willingness to sacrifice for one another, to be part of a group like that. Maybe a year and a half after I left, it kind of hit me all of a sudden. It wasn’t that that was just gone for a time; it’s that you don’t find that kind of community outside of the military or cults. You don’t find that intense sense of fraternity, and I really broke down realizing that I’m never going to have that again.
While I was reading, I was struck by how much Westboro members really enjoy pop culture — members write elaborate parodies of pop songs to spread their message, and you read widely growing up. How do you see pop culture’s role in your story and the story of Westboro?
There’s a rich history at Westboro of parodying pop culture. The thing about pop culture is that it gives us a shared language. We were constantly trying to co-opt things that were popular to deliver our own message. It was really effective because people like members of Westboro are generally seen as being completely out of touch, like they have these old-timey ideas, [but] Westboro members were so tuned in to everything that was happening in the culture. When I did the parody of the Lady Gaga song [“Telephone,”] it got a ton of attention because nobody expected it.
And then the reading! I remember the text message that I sent to Chad, who became my husband: “Is the Bible just another book?” Coming to see the Bible as this human attempt to understand God and the world, you might see that as the fall of the Bible in my mind, but at the same time it was the elevation of all of these other books, the realization that there could be real value and wisdom in books. The line from The Great Gatsby that became the epigraph of Unfollow, “reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope,” is extremely profound in my mind. To me, it encapsulates the idea of grace. I learned about grace in the context of religion, and for Westboro, grace was reserved for them; God had given them grace and nobody else. It’s amazing to me now to realize how many places we can find real wisdom and to be open to that everywhere.
Unfollow is dedicated to your parents, who are still members of Westboro. What does it mean for you to see your family as an audience of this book?
It’s obviously really painful to think of the betrayal that they would feel reading it. That’s always really hard to think about, because I know they experience that feeling any time I talk about these things publicly. But I also know that not saying anything doesn’t change anything. When I was part of Westboro, we thought we had to be out there preaching this message because it was the only good that we could do for the world. Even though it was really painful, it was so important to talk about. That’s kind of where I am now with my family: I have to talk about it or else nothing changes.
I do send messages to my family; I send letters in the mail, and when I’m in town, I almost always leave something in the door of my house in Topeka. I do that because I know the narrative that they spin about ex-members and I feel the need to counter that narrative, persuade and change their minds. I have seen some real, important change that has come out of those efforts, so it inspires me to continue. There’s still a lot of room for Westboro to change and to moderate, even if they never get to the place where I get, or where I think mainstream Christianity [is] generally. Even if they continue to view the Bible as this completely infallible, unquestionable document, there are so many passages that should change the way they think about and approach outsiders. There’s still a lot of room for change and improvement, so this is what I’m dedicated to now.
You advocate for continued engagement with people who have hateful views, but that dialogue can be very painful and even harmful for people who are targets of that hate. How do you reconcile that?
I’m always clear, whenever I talk about this now, to say that not everybody can do it, and I don’t believe it is incumbent upon every individual to reach out every single time they experience or encounter groups like Westboro or beliefs like that. I know that not everyone is able to do it, either; they don’t have the time, the energy, [or] the emotional or physical safety. Not even I can do it every single time. I completely understand that it’s not fair.
We lose if we stop having the language to articulate and defend better positions. It sucks that anybody has to do this work, but it’s still a necessary part of living in a society, our willingness to think we are our brother’s keeper.
This interview has been edited and condensed.