Westboro Baptist is a church in the sense that Jim Jone’s People Temple was a church, before Jone’s followers committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978.
There are several differences, however. Jim Jones left 800 dead followers strewn across his compound while Fred Phelp’s Westboro has only 80 living in his. It seems incredible that 80 wingnut cult members can become so well-known, but then most people have heard of Pastor (Yosemite Sam) Terry Jones in Gainesville, Florida because he told the news media he intended to burn a Qu’ran. Apparently, the trick is to do something outrageous on camera. Jim Jones presented himself as a community do-gooder and got less publicity until after-the-fact.
Westboro pickets funerals and other events with signs reading, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God hates fags,” and “Your son is burning in hell.” When they get feedback from the public in the form of cans thrown at them and angry denunciations, it reinforces their belief that they are on the right track, because doesn’t the Bible say, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution?” Such people cannot distinguish the difference between persecution for godly living and repudiation for being repulsive.
Fred Phelps is a disbarred lawyer who is now 84 years-old and bears a distinct to resemblance to Emperor Palpatine. Maybe soaking in hatred does that to a person. According to family members who have escaped the cult, Phelps has abused both his children and his wife, in addition to the sensibilities of the entire world. He teaches a hyper-Calvinist perversion of Christianity in which God mostly hates all of mankind, though a very few (those who obey him-Phelps, that is) will squeak into heaven.
BBC presenter Louis Theroux has made two documentaries about the group, the second four years after the first. In the second he interviewed escaped family members. Former member Lauren (who is now dead to her family) says, “I’d love to see them. Some people lose their parents to cancer, car accidents…I’ve lost my parents to a cult.” Another outcast, Libby said, “I had a really strong feeling “I’ve got to get out of here.” (Libby breaks down and cries)…and then I moved out…we had a really tight family bond.” Theroux asks: “Do you still worry that you might be going to hell?” “Sometimes, yes. The people who have left are going to the hottest part of hell,” Libby answers.
It would be so easy to simply hate everyone connected with Westboro, but there are real human beings trapped in there, damaged and terrified human beings who have been brainwashed since birth. These people, like those at the People’s Temple, are neither insane nor are they stupid.
The best way to dismantle Westboro is to totally ignore them. They should get zero publicity and passers-by should act like they are invisible. Fred Phelps will die and perhaps the rest of the family can find something else for their entire life to be about.
When they finally wander away dazed from the compound, may they find compassion.