An Interview with Lauren Drain, Former Member of the Westboro Baptist Church

Lauren Drain‘s father visited Westboro Baptist Church over a decade ago while making a documentary film (which was tentatively titled Hatemongers). It was a perfect title to describe the people who held up “God Hates Fags” signs at the funerals of soldiers. When he returned home a month later, though, he was a different man. He had internalized what they were preaching and eventually moved his entire family, including 14-year-old Lauren, to Kansas to become members of Fred Phelps‘ church.

Lauren spent the next several years as one of “them.” She had sleepovers with the Phelps girls, protested with them, and lived under the strict rules of the church leaders.

She was eventually kicked out of the church at the age of 22 for not adhering to all of those rules. It has been years since she last spoke with her parents and she now works as a registered nurse in Connecticut, a far cry (in so many ways) from her previous life in Topeka.

While Lauren is still religious, her faith isn’t steeped in hatred. In fact, she made news a few weeks ago when she posed for photographer Adam Bouska‘s NOH8 campaign:

Now, Lauren has written a memoir called Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church (Grand Central Publishing, 2013).

Lauren was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. (The interview was conducted via email and has been edited a bit.)

What is your relationship with your parents like now? Is there one?

I haven’t spoken with my parents in years. I will always love my parents; how couldn’t I? That’s a special relationship that can never really be replaced; as young adults we all hope to have a loving, functional family. I had a great relationship with them at one time before the WBC, and I always hold out hope I will again. I fear that they’ve become too hardened and cold and I pray it’s not too late for them to escape. All I can do is keep the lines of communication open, show them my side of the story, and hold out hope that one day I will be able to see [siblings] Taylor, Boaz, Faith, and my mom. I love them [all] dearly. I know some people in church think they have good intentions but I wish I had the opportunity to show them there’s more to God then what what they think and more to life than what they do.

What do you make of the recent revelation that Megan Phelps-Roper is leaving the church with her sister? Is that surprising to you?

I was beyond ecstatic at Meg and Grace’s departure! We have since reconnected when I flew out to visit them for a long weekend. I always hoped more and more members would see some of the injustices done to members both inside and outside the church. I felt so alone in my thinking for so long, I had almost lost hope that anyone inside could be reached or influenced. Meg and I both agree, the longer you stay, the more your heart becomes hardened against questioning of the doctrine and the more the church excludes you from all outside influences, even your extended family or family [members who have] left the church!

I am very comforted by Megan and Grace’s revelations in the church’s cruel mistreatments of members and those [who] picket; the obscene, unscriptural amount of control over the members; and having no hope to reason with your own family. We think a lot alike on many things and continue to support one another. Coming to the realization that even as little kids the church taught us to be extremely judgmental of the world and one another has opened our eyes to the mistakes we’ve made and how to make amends. We’ve missed each other greatly as we were once good friends inside the church and we hope to further re-establish and grow our friendship outside the influence of the WBC.

When did you first begin to notice inconsistencies in the Bible? What happened when you began asking these questions out loud?

… I was about 20 when I first started to see inconsistencies. I first voiced them to my father and mother but began to be labeled as a divisive, contentious person. I asked Shirley [Phelps-Roper] a few things about Revelation during a summer we were doing bible studies on it and she seemed very interested in investigating further, not castigating me at first. I felt like she was sincere in finding the answers… Revelation is very important to understand, especially in the end times and when we’re professing to know things so accurately. The pastor said, “He did not have light on it. He will preach on it when he’s ready.” Christ said, “Ask and ye shall find.” But the pastor does not support that sentiment. They are too busy judging and accusing people.

Why do you still believe in God after all of this?

I prayed for a continued belief in God. WBC doesn’t own God or what He says. They are presumptuous in saying so. They just misrepresent Him. God is not the author of confusion or accusations. That’s actually Satan’s job. I prayed that I wouldn’t lose faith or hope in God despite their efforts. If I had lost my family to the WBC forever, I pray that there is hope for them in another life; there has to be! In the end, I feel extremely blessed and happy with how my life turned out.

Will the church ultimately crumble after Fred Phelps dies?

I do not believe the church only stands because of the pastor. The members are die-hard in their doctrine so I think it will continue until more and more members leave. My hope is that more members will see God is not only a God of hating sins, but also of forgiving. They have become far too arrogant and sanctimonious, unfortunately. It’s sad to see families ripped apart.

You have to believe that if someone like Lauren (and Megan and Grace and Nate) can leave the church, there’s hope for the others in there, too.

Today marks the release of Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church. You can order it online or find it in bookstores everywhere.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=592610300 Greg Gauthier

    I find it frustrating and tragic that people don’t really want to admit what love really is, what it means, or what it entails in terms of their actions toward each other.

    You could not possibly love your children, if you’re willing to risk destroying them exposing them to Fred Phelps. What kind of mind could this man have, what kind of relationship with his daughters could he possibly have, if he could choose Fred Phelps over the well-being of his daughters?

    How could you say you love a man that would do such a thing to vulnerable young girls, especially his own daughters? How could you feel anything but anguish and anger and horror and disgust?

    I also have not spoken to my parents in several years, for many reasons, not the least of which is an unrepentant attitude toward abuse, and the rejection of my fundamental values (reason and empiricism). I can say unequivocally, that while I do not hate them, I most certainly do not love them. I *wanted* very much to love them. But wanting to love them, and actually loving them, are two different things.

    As long as this woman continues to hang on to the notion that there was any kind of real relationship, or that they really loved her at all, she will be forever frustrated. Let them go. Let that empty space in the heart where they were become the room into which you can bring people in your life who really want to, and can love you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=592610300 Greg Gauthier

    I find it frustrating and tragic that people don’t really want to admit what love really is, what it means, or what it entails in terms of their actions toward each other.

    You could not possibly love your children, if you’re willing to risk destroying them exposing them to Fred Phelps. What kind of mind could this man have, what kind of relationship with his daughters could he possibly have, if he could choose Fred Phelps over the well-being of his daughters?

    How could you say you love a man that would do such a thing to vulnerable young girls, especially his own daughters? How could you feel anything but anguish and anger and horror and disgust?

    I also have not spoken to my parents in several years, for many reasons, not the least of which is an unrepentant attitude toward abuse, and the rejection of my fundamental values (reason and empiricism). I can say unequivocally, that while I do not hate them, I most certainly do not love them. I *wanted* very much to love them. But wanting to love them, and actually loving them, are two different things.

    As long as this woman continues to hang on to the notion that there was any kind of real relationship, or that they really loved her at all, she will be forever frustrated. Let them go. Let that empty space in the heart where they were become the room into which you can bring people in your life who really want to, and can love you.

    • http://twitter.com/spookiewon Pjay (Patti) Pender

      If you love your children and believe sincerely that they will suffer for eternity in torture if you don”t expose the to Fred Phelps, how could you NOT? THIS is the danger of religion–even moderate religion. Demanding that we respect a person’s faith because it’s faith leads down this path. I can’t imagine not being an antitheist at this point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/julie.m.hendrickson.1 Julie Hendrickson

    I shared many of the same experiences as Lauren, plus many more growing up in my parents whacked out church. Check out the worldwide church of god and its many splinter groups since breaking up in the mid 1980′s. There are many websites and suport groups available now for those of us who were mired in the insanity for so many years. A short search will bring you more info than you ever wanted to know!

  • Sven2547

    I’m astounded that Lauren’s father could approach the WBC knowing they were bad people, and then get brainwashed into joining them anyway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=123400843 Stu Minnis

    I knew Steve Drain (Lauren’s father) in grad school, and I was incredibly surprised when I learned a few years ago that he’d ended up with Phelps. For a while I thought it must surely be some sort of ironic rumor. Steve was never a particularly likable guy, but he was very intelligent and routinely critical of religion. It makes me wonder what sort of Svengali power Phelps must have that someone like Steve Drain could become so quickly enthralled by a belief system so completely at odds with his previous worldview. It’s a little terrifying, to be honest, how malleable belief must be for this to have happened.

    • Claude

      It’s a little terrifying, to be honest, how malleable belief must be for this to have happened.

      I’ve been haunted since reading this post about Steve Drain’s U-turn to a virulent strain of Christianity. I watched him on a video. This guy is so far gone–what flipped the switch?

    • Mario Strada

      I find it fascinating you knew Mr. Drain before is “conversion”. I knew a bit about him and I knew he went there to document the Phelps as someone that didn’t approve of them or their methods.

      We know that plenty of others have done the exact same thing and did not come away converted, so the old goat’s powers are not as strong as we may think. But I still find it very puzzling that someone that otherwise seem very normal and certainly not isolated from society and pop culture, could fall for this most extreme cult.

      Have you ever been tempted to call him and ask him? I bet it would make a great article.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=123400843 Stu Minnis

        I haven’t seen him since 1998, and he was still among the sane at that time. We were in the film studies Ph.D. program at KU together. He had a master’s degree in philosophy from a respected university, and I remember a conversation with him once where he praised Kazantsakis’ Last Temptation of Christ as a brilliant deconstruction of the absurdity of the central Christian dogma. His best friend in the program, a friend of mine to the present day, was an out gay atheist. I don’t dare contact him now. I can’t imagine what I’d say. The whole thing makes me want to puke.

        • Claude

          Now I am even more freaked out.

          All that opportunity and he decides to devote his life to hatin’ on teh gays? WTF.

          • Pseudonym

            It’s tempting to play armchair psychologist, of course. I can easily imagine some evangelical apologist arguing that he was a kind of atheist fundamentalist and just moved to a different form of fundamentalism, for example. We should of course avoid drawing conclusions.

            But it’s important to remember that atheism (or even antitheism) is not a vaccine against unreality, irrationality, or superstition. Atheists do not have a greater hold on reality or reason than anyone else.

            • Claude

              Thank you for this reply. You are right, of course, but it wasn’t Drain’s atheism that I thought would inoculate him from the course he took. But here’s a well-educated guy who Stu Minnnis describes as “very intelligent,” and who had a family, and then kaboom. It’s the descent into madness, and this particular form of madness, that is so disturbing.

              I’ve read a little more about the Westboro Baptist Church, and apparently they’re neo-Calvinists who believe they are among the elect and who engage in these hate campaigns to fortify their election. All the sign-waving and vitriol isn’t even designed to warn people of Yahweh’s wrath, but to save their own asses. Wow.

        • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

          $$$ and media attention. americans will do anything for it; it’s better than working for a living. this is what all WBC types are all about, in truth.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=123400843 Stu Minnis

            I don’t think that’s it. My impression is that he’s a true believer.

  • Justin

    Damn. This book has already garnered a Pulitzer.

    • http://www.laurganism.com/ Lauren

      I’m in the middle of it right now. It’s very well-written and provides a fascinating insight to how the WBC works.


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