It was one of those high-minded Ted Talks presentations (see video below), this one delivered in New York City by a beautiful young woman with a positive, hopeful-sounding topic and calming voice, “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left.”
But it all seemed a bit of a dodge.
Keep in mind that the infamous Westboro Baptist Church is as far from being a boni fide church as the KKK, People’s Temple or Branch Davidians, is not affiliated with any Baptist denomination and has been widely denounced by mainstream Christian sects, including Baptist coalitions, for its aggressive extremism.
What more is there to say when the URL for this “church” is godhatesfags.com, and which believes that most human catastrophes are sent by God to punish sinners on earth. The group, among other atrocious behavior, has picketed funerals of dead soldiers and even of the memorial services for 27 schoolchildren and teachers murdered in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. They all had it coming, deserved it, according to the Westboro faith.
It’s an obscenity that these inhumane people assume they are actually justified in calling themselves Christians.
Unfortunately, the Ted Talk in September 2017 by former Westboro member Megan Phelps-Roper, which was viewed on YouTube 7,384,675 times, unconscionably and nimbly sidestepped an enormous opportunity to robustly explain to more than 7 million people what true evil is.
‘A failure to communicate’
Instead, Phelps-Roper implied not that the problem was the unmitigated malevolence of her former church or explained how such depravity might be stamped out, but that it was merely a communication glitch, a la the prison boss in the 1967 classic film Cool Hand Luke. — “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” See the clip here.
Not once during her smoothly presented talk did Phelps-Roper mention anything very specific about the moral horrors routinely inflicted by her former congregation on innocents — on murdered children, gays, fallen soldiers disrespected for supporting government, etc. No, she seemed to be saying, it was simply a matter of opinion; the hateful dogma instilled by Fred Phelps just wasn’t for her, it turns out, and people just needed to not instinctively judge her for her former association. She sounds like a woman not quite convinced that the Westboro dogma was all that bad, or that evoking invisible beings to justify cruelty isn’t heinous, and besides, she was just a kid.
“I was a blue-eyed, chubby-cheeked five-year-old when I joined my family on the picket line the first time,” Phelps-Roper said in opening her Ted Talk. “My mom made me leave my dolls in the mini-van.”
What exactly are we supposed to not judge her for? By her own admission, she was an enthusiastic apostle of the cult into her 20s, picketing gays, child funerals and the like. A very willing accomplice. How could she possibly know it was bad, until she did, right? I mean, how fair would it be to hold her accountable now that she’s seen the real light?
It would be fair enough.
Her bio says she is now “a writer and educator on topics related to extremism, empathy and bullying in dialogue.” Her emphasis is apparently heaviest on writing and educating people about how to dialogue about these things, not so much how to identify and erradicate them.
The blurb teasing the video on YouTube says:
“What’s it like to grow up within a group of people who exult in demonizing … everyone else? Megan Phelps-Roper shares details of life inside America’s most controversial church and describes how conversations on Twitter were key to her decision to leave it. In this extraordinary talk, she shares her personal experience of extreme polarization, along with some sharp ways we can learn to successfully engage across ideological lines.”
‘Gays are worthy of death’
Yet, despite anecdotes such as having to leave her dolls in a van, Phelps-Roper offers few visceral details about the hateful, invented ideology and depraved behavior of her former cult, except to say that once, as a very young girl, she held a sign at a Westboro protest that said, “Gays are worthy of death.”
“That was the beginning,” she said, adding that thereafter she became “a fixture at picket lines across the country.”
She continued in this for another two decades “with a special sort of zeal,” she explained in her talk, until she engaged with some “strangers on Twitter who showed me the power of engaging with others.”
As to the rabidly intolerant milieu of her childhood, she explained:
“In my home, life was framed as an epic spiritual battle between good and evil. The good was my church and its members, and the evil was everyone else.”
She said her time in the church was spent traveling around the country telling people they were “unclean” and that if they didn’t get clean they were “headed for damnation.” Except that the Westboro cult’s ideology of what constituted “unclean” was patently hateful and inhumane. Nonetheless, Phelps-Roper argued that it was all she knew in her cloistered environment.
“This was the focus of our whole lives,” she explained. “This was the only way for me to do good in a world that sits in Satan’s lap.”
But that’s about as much criticism as she could muster against the moral and ethical monsters in her former church.
‘My church’s antics’
“My church’s antics were such that we were constantly at odds with the world, and enforced our ‘otherness’ on a daily basis.”
Antics? That’s like calling President Trump’s racist, xenophobic, misanthropic, cruel behavior unorthodox.
It misses the moral point. The terms “antics” and “otherness” are purposefully chosen to avoid moral implication. The alternate terms “hateful behavior” and “inhumane,” respectfully, are far more honest and descriptive in their contexts.
Phelps-Roper said when she first encountered people on the Twitter platform, they were uniformly hostile but as she tried to respectfully respond with bible verses, “pop culture references and smiley faces,” she said a conversation inevitably ensued “full of genuine curiosity on both sides. How could the other have come to such outrageous conclusions about the world.”
This is where my red flags went up. I immediately thought of President Trump’s “There are very fine people on both sides” statement after a young woman was killed at a neo-Nazi skinhead rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017.
In other words, white-supremacist, anti-Semite, racist thugs can be fine people, too, alongside people who honorably protest that kind of despicable ideology. A false equivalence if there ever was one.
Mercy for the unmerciful?
It seems Ms. Phelps-Roper, after supposedly seeing the error of her ways, was seeking mercy and amnesty for her unmerciful behavior during her years with the Westboro gang.
But as I watched this soothing video, I kept thinking what a devilishly subversive tactic it would be if she were simply using her beauty and sonorous voice to get people into a continuing dialogue that included indoctrination into all of the crazy things Westboro folks believe.
It would be like the evangelical Good News Clubs that indoctrinate children in Christianity at after-school get-togethers directed by kindly adults who also offer sweets.
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