WESTOBORO Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas — founded by “Gramps” Fred Phelps — is internationally notorious for its practice of picketing, displaying slogans such as “God hates fags”, “Thank God for 9/11”, and — after the Sandy Hook shooting — “Pray for more dead kids”. Megan Phelps-Roper is Fred Phelps’s granddaughter and was also — until she was 26 — a willing and active participant of this maverick independent church.
But then she left. Unfollow is her absorbing, candid, self-penned story about what it was like growing up in this aggressively self-righteous community, and why she had to go.
Westboro is largely composed of the extended Phelps family: somewhere between a tribe and a cult. The church’s ultra-Calvinistic doctrine and its unswerving conviction that its understanding of the Bible was absolutely true gave it the confidence to condemn and belittle anyone who thought otherwise.
The United States’ acceptance of homosexuality, fornication, and adultery (among other sins) meant that it was under God’s judgement, and needed to be told in the starkest of terms. Westoboro believed (and still believes) itself to be no less than God’s mouthpiece.
Phelps-Roper absorbed all this with her mother’s milk, growing to become a recognised spokesperson for Westboro on social media. I know personally from growing up in the Christian Brethren how difficult it is to recognise that you’ve been indoctrinated rather than blessed. The author expounds, with moving and lucid accuracy, the experience of warmth and security which comes when, as soldiers of God’s truth, you’ve circled your wagons against a Satanic world.
PAWestboro Baptist Church demonstrators hold up placards on the route of President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade for his second term in office in January 2013
It took this intelligent woman (a trained lawyer) 26 years to allow her questions to come to a head. Slowly, she began to recognise that Westboro’s ideology “favoured fear and control over mercy and grace”. She grew increasingly uncomfortable with the pain and distress that her activities were causing to others, and their disjunction with the example of Jesus.
It is especially fascinating to read how Phelps-Roper’s combative Twitter exchanges with outsiders — especially with those who were prepared to treat her with kindness and patience rather than to trade blows — “put me in conversation with people and ideas that effectively challenged beliefs that had been hammered into me since I was a child”. Ironically, she maintains, had she not been allowed a platform for her own hate speech, her ideas might have remained unquestioned.
Her eventual departure from Westboro was a painful and heroic act, as she found herself ostracised by her family and on a “path of doubt and scepticism and confusion and awe”. This is a thoughtful, brave, and timely book.
Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster and Anglican priest.
Unfollow: A journey from hatred to hope
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