Leaving Westboro Baptist: How Megan Phelps-Roper Moved Beyond “Us Against Them”

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I was a blue eyed, chubby cheeked five-year-old when I joined my family on the picket line for the first time … I’d stand on a street corner, in the heavy Kansas humidity, surrounded by a few relatives, with my tiny fists clutching a sign that I couldn’t read yet – “Gays Are Worthy of Death.” This was the beginning.

-Megan Phelps-Roper

We live in a polarized culture. Many of us are looking for ways to heal the divisions that threaten our politics.

A recent statistic claims that 83 percent of Republicans like President Trump. They approve of his policies, although they may not like his messaging.

For example, exactly 83 percent of Republicans favor Trump’s “travel restrictions” from seven countries that have majority Muslim populations, while only 14 percent of Democrats approve of what they call the “travel ban.”

The polarity continues in nearly every policy Trump wants to legislate. This is bigger than Trump, of course. Families are divided, or they avoid political discussions by agreeing to disagree. That’s the strategy I’ve taken with members of my family, but I’m growing more uncomfortable as the Trump presidency continues. No matter which side of the political divide we find ourselves, we need better strategies for talking about these issues.

Last week a friend sent me this TED talk delivered by Megan Phelps-Roper. If the name “Phelps” sounds familiar to you, that’s because she grew up in Westboro Baptist Church. She was trained at an early age to divide the world into us and them, to picket funerals and gay pride parades. She told certain groups that God hates them, and that anyone who disagreed with them was going to hell unless they converted to Westboro’s doctrines.

Megan took her church’s message to Twitter. She reports that many people mirrored her hatred, but there were a few that genuinely cared about her. She states,

The truth is that the care shown to me by these strangers on the Internet was itself a contradiction. It was growing evidence that these people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe. These realizations were life altering.

I thank God for these people. Not just because they reached Megan, but because they restore my trust that love is still the most transformative power in the world.

When I think of Westboro Batptist Church, negative and hateful thoughts run through my head. I hate them for spreading their message of hate. I don’t believe in hell as eternal conscious torment, but if I did, I’m sure it’d be littered with people like them. They would get what they deserve.

And there’s my problem. If I allow these thoughts to fester in my mind, my hatred begins to mirror Westboro’s hatred. We become enemy twins, claiming to speak different truths, but in fact guided by the same spirit of hatred.

This mutual hatred is bigger than any church or any individual. Indeed, hostility is infecting our nation. As Megan states,

I can’t help but see in our political discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided.

Fortunately, those who interacted with Megan on Twitter escaped the cycle of hate. They held firm to their beliefs, but also treated Megan with kindness. Their compassionate methods created space for her to question Westboro’s teachings and leave the church.

How did her Twitter friends do it? Megan explains four ways of engaging people so that real conversations can take place –

  1. Don’t assume bad intent. Instead, assume good or neutral intent.
  2. Ask questions. As opposed to accusing, questions help people know they’ve been heard. Quite often, this is all people want.
  3. Stay calm. Refuse to escalate. Tell a joke. Recommend a book. Pause for a time and come back later when you’re ready.
  4. Make the argument. We sometimes assume that the value of our position is, or should be, obvious and self-evident. That we shouldn’t have to defend our positions. That if someone doesn’t get it, that’s their problem. But without making the argument, it’s hard for anyone to see the world in a different way.

Of course, there are no guarantees that people will change. But Megan and her friends offer hope that people can change. Megan changed because she felt people genuinely cared about her. Maybe that’s the most important lesson from Megan’s talk – that our greatest hope is that we that we stop demonizing one another and begin to treat one another as human beings.


Image: Screenshot from YouTube.

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About Adam Ericksen

Adam Ericksen is the Education Director for The Raven Foundation. He writes blogs and films vlogs at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement and the Raven Foundation website that explore the intersections of mimetic theory, the news, religion, and popular culture.