“I ached a little for who we all might have been in the absence of those strange, destructive beliefs,” Megan Phelps-Roper, former member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, told me. “Without them, how much pain would the world have been spared? Without them, I could walk right into the kitchen door you knocked on a decade ago and have dinner with my family, and we’d be joking like we always did, and hell wouldn’t come up once.”
I am well aware of Megan’s previous life picketing soldiers’ funerals and feverishly trumpeting to the world that gays were destroying America and doomed to eternal damnation. We first met back in 2008. I spent several days with the Westboro Baptist Church, at their home compound in Topeka, Kansas, when I was working on a book project aptly called, The American Dream.
Megan is no longer preaching hate and fear—but instead, a message of love, tolerance and anti-bullying. She has become an advocate for people and ideas she was once taught to despise; Megan is now an activist and speaker who lobbies to overcome divisions and hatred between religious and political divides.
“The change in my mind didn’t happen overnight; it was a series of conversations over time,” she said. “Generally, people don’t change their minds about fundamentally deeply held beliefs; it doesn’t happen in an instant—it’s a process.”
In this current wave of hate that’s sweeping America, it’s refreshing and soul-assuring to find people who have stepped out of the hate-o-sphere. Megan, daughter of Westboro Baptist Church’s former spokesperson, Shirley Phelps, left the church back in 2012, ascending away from the anti-gay pickets conducted by Westboro’s very subtlety-named protest group, God Hates Fags.
“When you have children, and indoctrinate these children since the time that they are born, and you threaten them with eternal torment and physical punishment for any sort of pushback… Once they have had that paradigm in their heads for that long, it is very difficult to overcome it,” Megan explained.
And she certainly knows. Megan was five years old when she started picketing alongside her family, holding up Day-Glo signs in her tiny hands that read such hateful anomalies as: God Hates America, Fags Doom Nations and Your Pastor Is a Whore. While growing up, Phelps’ family pickets would take place 365 days a year. Angry spectators would often react to the foibles of the Westboro Baptist Church by not only screaming but also by sometimes pelting the group with rocks, eggs and bags of urine.
That’s a lot for a little kid to take in.
But having grown up on this religious zealot picket line, it all just felt normal. “The pickets were just a fact of life,” Megan recalled. “And the fact that people hated us from the time I was tiny, the fact that we were hated, I was taught, was a cause for great rejoicing.”
Surely a Rashomon perspective, but I witnessed this glee that Megan speaks of, first hand—when I turned up in 2008 and knocked on the Phelps family door. It was nothing out of the ordinary for a scruffy journalist, such as myself, to be invited into the Phelps family home. Growing up, Megan recalled how common it was to open the front door and have journalists from, say, Stockholm, turn up wanting to write a story. The response from the Phelps family was usually to invite them in for dinner. That’s what happened to me when I turned up. (Shirley Phelps served me salmon.) In fact, besides the picket lines, the family’s primary interaction with outsiders was through visiting journalists.
“We always had to assume they would write negative things about us,” said Megan. (Though she does remember reading and laughing at absurd moments in my original story, thinking: “Even we were aware of [the fact that] what we were saying was utterly insane.”)
My impression of Megan when I first encountered her, alongside her family, was that she seemed like the most normal one of the bunch. While her family went off to picket, say, the stand-up show of comedian Ron White from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (yes, they did that—I guess God Hates Stand Up Comedy?), she stayed at home to study. She also had a good grasp of indie bands and pop culture. I almost expected her to nod and wink to let me know that she was in on the joke about her family’s insane religious fanaticism with, perhaps, a solidified plan, at that moment, of leaving the church.
However, that wasn’t exactly the case. “I absolutely wasn’t aware at the time; I felt very committed,” she said. “But the process that eventually led to my leaving had started….”
But what really perplexed me when I first met the Westboro Baptist Church was—despite doing some of the most heinous acts in the world, such as picketing soldiers’ funerals—their home life felt almost wholesome, like something plucked right out of The Brady Bunch.
“As happy as we were in our backyard jumping on trampolines,” Megan said, “it was the same general feeling, often euphoria, on the picket line, because we felt like the way our lives were falling on to us contorted with the people of God and the scriptures. It all felt very normal.”
Megan pointed out in her case, and with similar, religious cult-ish communities, when you’re in the thick of it, you believe that you are divinely inspired; so it couldn’t possibly be wrong in any way for parents to have their children picket a soldier’s funeral or mock 9/11.
“When you’re in it, when you are a total believer, everything seems to make sense,” she said. “There is an apparently reasonable justification for every belief and everything that you are doing.”
When I spoke to her earlier this month, Megan was back in Topeka. Usually she returns to town to celebrate Thanksgiving with her older brother Josh, who also left the church. Now, in 2019, she’s no longer on the picket line but speaking at a local university on the topics of extremism, bullying and empathy in dialogue.
“Anytime I’m invited to speak somewhere I try to do that, because I think these issues are really important,” she said. “To me, the lessons that I learned are so much bigger than Westboro. They are very common, very human flaws that have led Westboro to be where they are—especially in this era with the political and social turmoil that we’re witnessing.”
Whenever Megan visits Topeka, she takes time out to walk around the block of her old neighborhood where the Westboro Baptist Church compound is situated, comprised of several comfortable family houses on Churchill Street connected by a large shared backyard.
“It’s always very strange—obviously because it feels like home,” Megan stated. “But it feels like I’m trespassing.”
Previously, when family members have seen Megan strolling past her old homestead, they have usually reacted by just ignoring her or simply driving by and glaring.
“A couple of times they have said something.”
Once, her uncle walked by and almost looked guilty for saying, “Good to see you.” But that’s rare, and Megan knows it’s been long ingrained that that those in the church will have nothing to do with ex-members. Reason being: They left to live a life of sin—instead of serving God like they were raised to do.
What made her most recent neighborhood walk past the WBC headquarters a particular revelation? It was the first time Megan was accompanied by her baby daughter, born just a few months back.
“And to have this little girl who is no part of that… how different her life and experiences and upbringing is going to be than the one that I lived,” she mused. “It’s very odd. Just the fact that I am not in Topeka, Kansas on a picket line, the fact that I live in South Dakota, that I am married, that I have a daughter—all of that—ask me 10 years ago; all of it just seems utterly impossible and I’m just incredibly grateful.”
Over the past decade, roughly 20 members have left the Westboro Baptist Church; each one has been completely cut off. Megan’s attempts to reach out are all one-sided. She’s well aware of the mental barricades and roadblocks that the church has put up.
“Their M.O. is basically to pretend like we don’t exist,” she explained. “They try not to acknowledge us publicly or respond to the things we say, publicly—except when something gets a lot of attention.”
The Westboro Baptist Church did, in fact, respond—not to what Megan was saying regarding extreme polarization inside a religious cult but to latch on to the publicity.
“I still think it’s important because I know that they pay attention. They mull over all of our words, anything that we say publicly,” Megan said. “Any way I can introduce possible questions and doubts about inconsistencies of the dictum… I think it’s worth doing. I think the only way things will change is through conversation. Any time they are willing to have a discussion, I’m very glad to.”
Still, Megan is well aware of the narratives her family has about her.
“The only thing I can think to do is to live my life with integrity and honesty and to be fair to them.” Yet, “I miss them a lot,” she confessed. “Obviously, I wish things were different. But it is what it is. But I’m pretty at peace with how I’m handling things; my attempts to reach out to them and convince them that there are other ways.”
While Megan is now honest about the church’s shortcomings, “I’m also honest about the fact that I learned so many good things from them,” she said. “I believe that they are well intentioned; they are fundamentally good people who have been persuaded by bad ideas.”
And the core of those bad ideas was Fred Phelps AKA ‘Gramps’—a man so conservative, he once decried Jerry Falwell for not being anti-gay enough. Megan’s grandfather (who died in 2014) founded the Westboro Baptist Church and believed it was the only church in America that truly followed the Bible. And following the Bible, in the eyes of Gramps, meant hating homosexuals.
Megan explained: “The vast majority of them grew up with the church under the direction of my grandfather, who was a very bull-headed, strong-willed person, who used abuse, emotional and physical abuse, to essentially beat them into submission.”
Back in 2008, I attended Gramp’s weekly Sunday church service. My impression was that he was not a kindly old man, like, say, Wilford Brimley, but more like an old man who might drown a bag of kittens while loudly chanting Bible verses. I, like the majority of the Westboro Baptist Church members, listened to his venomous anti-gay service with a mixture of complete fear and a physical sensation similar to a tooth being pulled by rusty pliers.
Yet, there are inconsistencies. Gramps, began his career in the ’60s as an impassioned civil rights lawyer who fought against Jim Crow laws. In fact, in 1948, he left Bob Jones University because of their refusal to accept black students. For Gramps, he saw no scriptural basis for racism and that’s why he railed against it.
“Both the fight for civil rights for blacks and the anti-gay picketing were both from the same God,” Megan said about his justification. “Gramps saw no contradiction between the work that he did fighting for the civil rights of black people and old people and women—and the virile anti-gay picketing campaign he did later.”
Megan once found footage of Gramps at a black church in Topeka and recalled: “He was there preaching against racism, and it was that same fire and passion he had on Sunday mornings when I was growing up, in church railing against gay people.”
Megan recently had a realization while researching for her upcoming memoir (which comes out in October). In 1989, Gramps was disbarred for harassing a court reporter. And just a few months later, he began his public anti-gay crusade outside of Gage Park in Topeka.
“I suddenly realized right at the point where this decades-long fight for civil rights and against racism and discrimination, right at the point where that ends, is where he has this vacuum in his life. This is where that comes into play,” said Megan, explaining Gramps’ hateful origin story. “I couldn’t help thinking, if that hadn’t happened [being disbarred], I doubt that any of the rest of this stuff would have… how different so many lives would have been…”
140 Characters to Redemption
Fortunately, there are many different catalysts for people to leave religious cults. For Megan, it involved 140 characters.
“Getting on Twitter was the fundamental thing that changed how I saw outsiders, how I interacted with them,” she explained.
Back when Twitter started, the 140 characters left no space for insults, like the shouting matches she had while on the picket lines. Megan found on Twitter that if she did incite insults, the conversation would immediately derail from talking about a theological point of internal importance into schoolyard heckles. Megan, instead, approached the conversation with gentleness and humor, while still keeping it challenging.
“When I got on Twitter, that was the first time I was able to have lasting relationships with outsiders,” said Megan. “And even though they were limited to those 140 characters, it was the duration of the friendships and the rapport we were able to develop.”
On Twitter, people could express to Megan the inconsistencies of Westboro’s ideology—and explain why the church was wrong and contradicting itself.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who have left groups similar to Westboro,” said Megan. “And it seems for a lot of us who had [these] experiences… the beginnings of our doubts came from internal inconsistencies, like the revelation that things and/or the group failing to live up to its own standards—and that I think [that] is incredibly powerful.”
When Twitter friends revealed these inconsistencies, it became apparent that those within the church, who were constructing these ideologies, were merely flawed human beings. And that’s where the religious house of cards began to topple.
One inconsistency Megan found had to do with a power struggle within the Westboro Baptist Church. Formerly, the group was led almost entirely by women—Shirley Phelps and her sisters. Then, the male elders pushed the women out of the leadership roles.
“For me, the issue wasn’t the sidelining of women; the issue was the fact that it was all done in a fashion that was completely unscriptural and contradictory to the way that we had always understood those principals of leadership,” she explained. “When those men took over—it was very unilateral—it happened, from my perspective, almost overnight with no consultation of the church.”
Megan thought if this incident happened pre-Twitter, she would have justified the elders’ decision by thinking they must be right and that she wasn’t ‘spiritual enough’ to understand the truth of what was going on. The gut feeling she had—that this was wrong—would have just been thought of as the whisperings of Satan.
But with Twitter, people could express to Megan that these inconsistencies executed by the church were wrong by the religious doctrine they tried to live by. “The church’s failure to address those inconsistencies… that’s what gave me the little bit of confidence in my own thinking, the idea that the church could be wrong about something,” she said. “Having that still small voice—and having that at the back of your mind—I think is much more powerful than anything we put on a picket sign.”
Another final straw for Megan was orchestrated falsehoods by the church that betrayed her new friends on Twitter. One of the elders, Steve Drain—a man unrelated to the Phelps but who still moved his entire family from Florida to Topeka, across the street from the Westboro compound—began photoshopping images of the Westboro Baptist Church to make it appear like they were picketing events such as the Royal Wedding and Whitney Houston’s funeral, when they hadn’t. (I met Drain, and trust me—the guy is insanely intense.)
“It became an international news story that we were lying about going to these pickets,” said Megan—mentioning that the Bible states that lying is one of the six things doth the Lord hate (Proverbs 6:16-19).
“The fact that’s what they were doing was so against what we were raised to believe was right.”
“Steve actually created a literal ‘fake news’ account to pretend that we were actually protesting these locations,” Megan continued. “Like he made up a logo and everything… and sent out a message to retweet them.”
Megan found this unconscionable. “This is going to sound ridiculous, the fact that I was forced to retweet it—I was very full of consternation about that,” she said. “Again, on Twitter, I had started to feel part of a community, and feeling accountable to those people made me feel more urgent about not lying. Specifically in the context of people I liked and knew would see this.”
Another Twitter irony—in 2010, I ran into Megan again, in San Francisco, when I photographed the Westboro Baptist Church’s picket outside of Twitter’s headquarters. (Their signs read: God Hates Twitter.) Megan didn’t know at the time that she was actually picketing the very social media platform that would eventually lead her out of the church.
In 2019, regarding her journey with Twitter: “And now I’m on their trust and safety council!”
So, since 2008, the time I first met the Westboro Baptist Church, ‘the gays’ didn’t end up destroying America. Though, back then, I asked Shirley Phelps, where she thought her group would be 10 years forward.
Her response with a glint in her eye: “Ten years from now, we’ll have the Red Sea in front of us and the Romans at our back…”
But, instead of the rapture, what really is breaking up the Westboro Baptist Church is more and more family members rapidly leaving the church. Not to say it has become a kinder, gentler Westboro Baptist Church, but their extremely hateful views seem to be softening slightly with age. In the era of Trump, it’s hard to come across as shocking with signs and slogans, while children are being put in cages on direct orders from the president. Though the church consistently still pickets, their signs no longer feature venomous homophobic messages—instead the group has been steering towards more ideas about Jesus. (Though their website domain is still godhatesfags.com.)
Will there be a Westboro Baptist Church in 2029?
“I bet that they will still be around,” stated Megan, adding, “They have lost a lot of their voice over the past several years—partly as a result of their moderating.”
But Megan hopes her old church continues to moderate their views. “And in the meantime I’m going to keep trying to convince them and persuade them that there are other ways—with zero expectations.”
I asked Megan if she would reread the story I wrote about her and family back in 2008—to gauge the story arc of her journey and to see if her reaction would be different.
Though she still found moments in the story funny, “On this reading, of course, I recognized more of the dark undercurrent you described, which my family and I would have dismissed as hyperbole and mischaracterization when we read it back then,” she said. “My heart ached reading it this time, too. There are few written descriptions of our life in those days that are as long and detailed as your story, and I’m so glad to remember that I have this snapshot of that time. I ache for my parents and siblings, some of whose nature you capture so nicely.”
As we concluded our conversation, I told Megan, “I’m glad to talk to you under these circumstances,” noting that every story has a second act and asking, “What do you think 2008 you would say to present-day you?”
“That she’s just a rebel against God and that she’s going to hell. The end. She just didn’t want to obey God.”
“And what would present-day you say to 2008 you?”
(Pause.) “You don’t know as much as you think you do!”