A layered portrait of hate

In a post last year, I shared my disdain for a Topeka, Kan.-based hate group:

If I never had to read another story about the Westboro Baptist Church and its “staged-for-media hatefests” … I just might make my own sign. “Thank God for small blessings,” it would read. Or something like that.

I stand by that statement.

Yet the best journalists can turn even your least favorite subject into a riveting masterpiece that grips you from beginning to end.

As Exhibit A, I draw your attention to Kansas City Star writer Dugan Arnett’s recent 4,000-word (4,000-WORD!!!) profile of Westboro “heir to hate” Megan Phelps-Roper.

From near the top of the fascinating piece:

She loves her iPhone and the band Mumford & Sons and the Showtime series “Dexter,” which is about a blood-splatter specialist for the Miami Metro Police Department who also happens to be a serial killer — a complex character both good and evil. She went to high school at Topeka West and got straight A’s. She went to college at Washburn University and got straight A’s. She thought about going to law school, sat down to write her admissions essay and decided she wasn’t all that keen on becoming a lawyer. So she joined the family business.

She is peppy, goofy and, by all accounts, happy.

Oh, and one other thing about Megan: She wants to make it perfectly clear that you and the rest of this filthy, perverted nation will be spending a long, fiery eternity burning in hell.

If you’ve ever wondered how the Phelpses spend their time when they’re not waving “God Hates Fags” signs, the Star takes you behind the scenes:

One of the most reviled families in America is gathered in the backyard, enjoying an afternoon picnic. There are kids scurrying past in every direction and adults sitting on patio chairs, holding cold drinks and talking about work and the weather and upcoming vacations. A half dozen or so little girls cluster around Megan, clamoring for braids.

Megan loves braiding hair. On occasions when she is not picketing the funerals of dead U.S. soldiers or mocking the victims of natural disasters, she can often be found stationed behind one of her sisters or cousins, hair in hand, twisting away.

The remarkable thing about this story is the nuanced, layered picture of the main character (Megan) that it provides. At points, the full story of this young woman’s life almost makes you feel sorry for her.

There’s this:

Megan has little problem handling the vitriol that pours in on a daily basis. Not long ago, she brushed off a Facebook message in which someone told her he planned to travel to Topeka and rape her. But when asked whether she has considered the possibility that the countless people who consider her deranged, insane, nuts and “bat-s— crazy” might be on to something, she smiles and says, “You can’t listen to the whole world tell you you’re crazy, without wondering, ‘Am I crazy?’?”

And this:

She has no real friends. Few acquaintances. The majority of her outside interactions comes with the people — journalists, mostly — who stop by to profile the family. Two years ago, after a group of student filmmakers from Holland spent a week in Topeka documenting the church, Megan cried when they finally had to go. She still keeps a voice recording of one of them, a handsome, 20-something guy named Pepijn, saved in her phone.

Into the account of Megan’s life, the reporter weaves expert analysis from sources such as a Southern Poverty Law Center official who calls Westboro “the country’s most obnoxious hate group” and a Massachusetts-based counselor who has written extensively about cults and religious fundamentalist groups.

The piece also provides exceptional insight on the family’s inner workings from a cousin and former best friend of Megan’s who escaped Westboro.

Now, generally, when your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas write about Westboro, we implore the mainstream press to make it clear that this group is totally independent and has no ties to other Baptist churches, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. This piece comes close, describing the group as the “family-run Westboro Baptist Church.” Still, a clearer statement that this church is totally on its own would have been helpful.

At another point in the story, readers learn of Megan’s baptism at age 13 in a backyard pool. I would love to have seen Megan explain her beliefs and reasons for the baptism at that point.

But all in all, there’s a tremendous amount to like about this story. Even for those, like me, who hate seeing reports about this hate group.

By all means, read the whole thing.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    Bobby,

    Thanks for bringing this story to my attention. I think many people have the belief that someone who believes things we find loathsome and evil must be twisted and demented personally with few redeeming personal characteristics.

    This story challenges that easy and comfortable assumption by presenting us with a three-dimension picture of Megan. And thus the story should cause people to reflect on what they believe and why they believe it. And that’s a good thing.

  • Susan D.

    This is the Southern Baptist Convention Position Statement on Sexuality:
    “We affirm God’s plan for marriage and sexual intimacy – one man, and one woman, for life. Homosexuality is not a ‘valid alternative lifestyle.’ The Bible condemns it as sin. It is not, however, unforgivable sin. The same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals. They, too, may become new creations in Christ”
    That’s it. That’s all.
    http://www.sbc.net/aboutus/pssexuality.asp

    From what I understand, the Westboro group considers homosexual activity to be unforgivable.

  • Jerry

    I just realized that “they” in my post was ambiguous. I meant the reader should consider what the reader himself or herself believes and why not what Westboro believes.

  • Rufus

    But hang on, it’s an article about Christianity (admittedly at almost its most antisocial), and they haven’t talked to (or mentioned) a single atheist opinion?

    And it’s good?

    What a difference a day makes…

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    Sigh. There are many of us who think this is not a story about Christianity at all. And yes, there were no comments by atheists. There were also lots of other deficiencies, including no comments by Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Shintoists, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, Baha’s or Cao Dai followers, either.

    Clearly, it should have been an 8,000-word story.

    I found the comments by the woman who left as revealing as those by Megan. Apparently it was one (on the surface, minor) thing — wearing a bikini — that triggered a reappraisal of the whole life-long inculcated worldview. How small are the things that divert our lives to entirely different paths. And I don’t almost feel sorry for Megan, I feel terribly, terribly sorry for her. God help her see how far she has departed from His path.

  • http://rsgreen30.wordpress.com Rebecca

    Wonderful journalism. The above commenter said it “evoked sympathy” as if that’s a bad thing. That is interesting to me. The purpose of journalism, and I say this as a veteran in this business, is to open the door and shine the light. By getting inside the family, with one person, seeing it through her eyes — showing what she’s missing, what it’s cost her spiritually, emotionally and relationally, and that she has no clue, really, what this has done to her and those in her family — makes her what she, and the rest of that clan is: HUMAN.

    If all reporters tackled their subjects with such dignity and respect, we’d have more readers, at least more offended ones. It allows you, a reader, are able to come to a conclusion about the subject, not based on caricature or stereotype, but on her own words, her environment and her actions inside and outside the protest.

    Fantastic work.

  • http://rsgreen30.wordpress.com Rebecca

    D’oh…I mean “LESS” not more offended ones. Where’s a copy editor when you need one…

  • Daniel

    There’s a difference between believing that everyone’s headed for hell, and that’s a good thing, as Westboro does, and believing that everyone was or could have been headed for hell, and that it’s too bad.
    This may seem like a shaded distinction, but theologically it’s a dramatic distinction. By the way, if anyone from Westboro’s reading this, I derive what I have written from your message which has so clearly gotten out. You need to either back away from your message or change it. I thoroughly agree that after the account of the baptism, the insertion of a critique or examination of theology would have been entirely appropriate and helpful. Scanning the Internet I haven’t found that the cult watcher or apologetics groups have been covering this topic, either.

  • bharper

    Has anyone did a theological analysis of this group? They do not seem like Christians at all. They seem like “Yahwists” who follow the Old Testament. All the emphasis is on punishment and retribution.

  • http://GetReligion.org Bobby

    Excellent analysis, Rebecca. And I am always glad I have access to the comment editing tool to fix my inevitable typos. :-)

  • Stan

    Rebecca said, “If all reporters tackled their subjects with such dignity and respect, we’d have more readers.” Sorry, but not all subjects are worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. People who promote hatred are among them. I don’t think this journalist is shining much light into the twisted psyche of these people by attempting to present them as though they are worthy of dignity and respect. Arnett might better spend some time talking with those that the Phelps have tormented, including the families of Matthew Shepard and the dead soldiers. Wouldn’t a little balance help this story?

  • rob in williamson county

    By getting inside the family, with one person, seeing it through her eyes — showing what she’s missing, what it’s cost her spiritually, emotionally and relationally, and that she has no clue, really, what this has done to her and those in her family — makes her what she, and the rest of that clan is: HUMAN.

    It is this aspect of the story that really hooked me. A lesser writer might have been distracted by WBC rhetoric and would have missed Megan’s (and presumably the rest of the WBC clan’s) utter humanity. The hatred of the WBC message has estranged her from God, man, and society–I was really struck by her loneliness and complete lack of comprehension of the degree to which she has strayed from the Word. I was chilled and filled with pity after reading the story–a journalist who can bring that off in the reader is practicing his craft well.


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