Many people have attempted to interview the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Attempted is the key word here. It is comprised almost entirely of the family of an old patriarch named Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas. Today much of their infamy has died down largely because people have stopped caring and stopped giving them attention. Several years ago this controversial church was in the news quite a bit. They got famous for staging angry protests at funerals (among other things) all across America. Muslim funerals, Jewish funerals, gay funerals, soldier funerals, everything. They got a deal to do an interview just so they wouldn’t protest and torment the family of those poor murdered Amish girls awhile back. They are famous for the catchy slogans such as “God hates fags,” “God hates America,” and many other inflammatory sayings they post on signs, banners, etc. They even have a countdown on their website that states how many days Matthew Shepard (a homosexual victim of a deadly hate crime) has been in hell. Why do they do all this? Simply put, they want everyone to know that they are all going straight to hell and that God hates them.
[The Westboro Baptist Church is not an accurate representation of Baptists, churches, or Kansas].
One reason why public interest has died down is because people might be finally connecting the dots. The Westboro congregation is few in number, narrow in thought, angry in spirit, and purposely instigating the public. Despite several prominent members of the “church” being lawyers they have proven time and again in every interview I have seen (from Fox News to Tyra Banks) that they are beyond consistent logical responses. Many interviewers have just become angry and resorted to attempts of out-shouting them. It’s like arguing with a three year old. You can’t win the argument because a three year old is too simple and stubborn to engage in the debate at your level. Perhaps people have finally learned that these folks are more of a mindless nuisance than an actual threat. They do cause emotional pain and try to incite angry responses (to prove that they are the only ones who are truly saved), but giving them attention is giving them power. Anytime you acknowledge a bully (or a bullying pseudo-religious fringe movement) you are appeasing them. When you give a microphone to a crazy person you can’t think that you will trip them up and reveal them for the whack-jobs they really are. The Westboro Baptist folks have no shame and love the attention and love the opportunity to spread their particular brand of crazy.
So why bring up this backwards cult now? Two things: The Most Hated Family in America (2007) and its more recent followup America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis (2011). Both are BBC documentaries featuring British journalist Louis Theroux and both are quite fascinating. Mr. Theroux is by far the finest journalist to ever interact with this nutty family. His demeanor is cool and collected, yet he’s up front and forward about his contrary positions. As he interviews screwball after screwball and gets wildly offensive (yet casual) response after wildly offensive response he maintains a gentleman’s decorum. This is the only approach to have. Fox News butchered almost every interview they had with them (not a huge surprise). Another thing that makes the Theroux interviews so much better are his goals. Rather than try to prove them wrong or out-logic them he simply means to figure out who they are and to humanize these people. Theroux uses his time with the Phelps family to find the humanity within them that they are trying so hard to remove. It seems they do not wish to be human because to be human is to be of the world and to be of the world is to be the servant of Satan. During each interview I was actually moved and saddened by the walls they had put up around themselves. They only hear what they want to hear. It appears they are afraid to show any emotions outside of anger or an unnervingly disingenuous happy facade loaded with smarminess.
They treated Theroux very well, I thought. The Phelpses were cordial and open with him while maintaining all the while he was only a stone’s throw away from being the left hand of the antichrist (who is Barak Obama, by the way).
For the first documentary Louis Theroux is simply trying to get to know them and understand why they feel so set apart and how they can be so sure that they are the only people who are right. He even gets a fleeting interview with Fred Phelps himself and sits in on a few sermons with them. The sermons are bizarre harangues of hate, fury, and insanity. I suppose it’s fitting because according to Westboro’s interpretation of scripture, God is a hating and hateful person who only wants to bring about destruction on his creation…which begs the question of why anyone would choose to worship such an intolerably odious and scornful deity. The answer seems to be fear for most of the members of the church. They are scared to death that God will kill them and send them straight to hell. They have to spread their message of hate to avoid being punished just like he’s punishing American troops for defending a country that gay people live in.
I do wonder why they don’t home-school their kids or why they would buy clothing and food from mainstream American retailers. If you only ever saw evil and damnation everywhere you looked (but yourself), would you send your children out into the world and would you support it by purchasing its goods?
The followup 2011 interview finds the Westboro Baptist Church dwindling in numbers and becoming even more bonkers, deluded, and cold. Several people have left the church and their families have disowned them. The Phelps family is coming apart and the remaining members have become increasingly strange and mean. When Theroux presses them about their fallen members the Westboro folk tighten up and avoid responding in a way that would betray emotion or feelings. They are all living in fear of their god and in fear of their own emotions. They fear the weakness of their own humanity and they fear a malevolent supernatural force that they cannot see but is always surrounding them and is always poised to strike and punish. You begin to see that everything they do is a deeply psychological defense mechanism. They are not well. They have been brainwashed and cannot deviate from what they have been told lest they be killed by god or they come to terms with their own evils. It is a terrifying corner to be in for anyone. They lash out in anger and hate and rejoice in the misfortunes and deaths of others but deep down within themselves they are walking tragedies…and some of them finally realized it and left.
Louis Theroux was the perfect man for the job of interviewing the Westboro Baptist Church. I have enjoyed many of his specials with many weird, wild folks. His calm and droll manner was the perfect counterpoint to their circular belligerence. I found both documentaries to be fascinating, entertaining, and informative and I would say he succeeded in getting closer to their humanity than any other reporter has dared dream.
The common impulse to the Westboro Baptist Church is to reciprocate in hate, but an eye for an eye still makes the whole world blind. I look at them and I can only pity them. They are so lost and so confused and with each turn their world becomes darker and harder to escape. I can never condone their actions, but I can advocate that we have compassion for even the most vile of people. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). We know hate cannot destroy hate, but maybe love and understanding can. Stand together and protect and love the victims of their hate, but wonder about and pray for the monsters who are blindly throwing the stones.
One more thing I must say regards to faith in general. To tie everything in with my title, if you do not feel welcome to question your faith then it is a weak faith. Westboro Baptist Church folk dare not question their faith. Fear of finding a truth that is at odds with your beliefs is a poor moral excuse and dangerous road indeed. If what you are believing is true then that faith can only be bolstered by the answers you find. Question everything, but don’t stop there. Actively search for the answers. It can only lead to the revelation of the truth.