Megan Phelps-Roper (@meganphelps) grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, an organization widely monitored as a hate group for its anti-gay, anti-Jewish, anti-American protests. She left WBC in 2012 and has since written about her experiences in Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. This is part one of a two-part episode. Listen to part two here!
What We Discuss with Megan Phelps-Roper:
- What it was like to grow up in what documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux called “The Most Hated Family in America.”
- Why the Westboro Baptist Church feels it’s uniquely qualified to spread what it sees as the “true” word of God in a way that shocks and offends the rest of the world.
- How the Westboro Baptist Church interprets feelgood lessons from the Bible like “Love thy neighbor” and the tale of the good Samaritan.
- Why children who grow up in Westboro Baptist Church aren’t educated at home, but encouraged to go to public schools.
- The complicated history of the church’s founder (and Megan’s grandfather), Fred Phelps, who championed civil rights for African-Americans as a lawyer while campaigning against homosexuals, Jewish people, dead soldiers, tsunami victims, Mr. Rogers, and others deemed “deviant” by his very specific interpretation of the Bible (e.g., everybody not belonging to Westboro Baptist Church).
- And much more…
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As we get older, most of us become aware of our family’s unique peculiarities that people in the outside world just wouldn’t understand, but we grew up thinking of as completely normal. Maybe we traditionally eat pasta with our hands for Thanksgiving. Perhaps we customarily leave butter out of the refrigerator overnight so it’ll be nice and soft for the morning toast. But if you’re Megan Phelps-Roper, you grew up in a family that denounced the sins of the world with colorful signs and catchy — but hideously offensive and hateful — slogans at funerals, parades, memorials, and other public events.
On this episode, Megan — author of Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church — explains what it was like to grow up in Topeka’s infamous Westboro Baptist Church, an organization monitored as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center. She helps us try to understand the twisted interpretation of the Bible’s lesson to “love thy neighbor” that motivates its message, how she went from being a true believer of this message to questioning and rejecting it, and what the consequences of her decision to leave WBC in 2012 have been. Listen, learn, and enjoy! This is part one of a two-part episode. Listen to part two here!
Please Scroll down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
THANKS, MEGAN PHELPS-ROPER!
If you enjoyed this session with Megan Phelps-Roper, let her know by clicking on the link below and sending her a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Resources from This Episode:
- Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper
- Megan Phelps-Roper at Instagram
- Megan Phelps-Roper at Facebook
- Megan Phelps-Roper at Twitter
- I Grew Up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s Why I Left. by Megan Phelps-Roper, TED NYC
- Understanding Calvinism with TULIP: AP Euro Review, Albert.io
Transcript for Megan Phelps-Roper | Unfollowing Westboro Baptist Church Part One (Episode 302)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:03] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. As always, I'm here with producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most brilliant and interesting people and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you. We want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and behave. We want to help you become a better thinker. If you're new to the show, we've got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes and authors, thinkers and performers, as well as toolboxes for skills like negotiation, public speaking, body language, persuasion, and more. So if you're smart and you like to learn and improve, you'll be right at home here with us.
[00:00:43] Today, Megan Phelps-Roper started her life in one of the most infamous churches in the world, the Westboro Baptist Church -- known for protesting soldiers, funerals and children's funerals with signs like "Pray for More Dead Soldiers," "God Hates Fags," "Thank God for September 11th," etc. She and her family were in the news constantly and one of the most visible images of hate in America. Now having left the church, Megan is speaking freely and in a way that will surprise everyone. I found this conversation and Megan herself to be absolutely fascinating and I just got sucked right into this episode just as I'm sure you will be. join us in this two-part conversation where I go in-depth with someone who has freed herself from some very strong beliefs and made radical life-changing decisions for herself at a young age and in a manner most of us could never imagine. I think Megan is just incredible and this conversation equally so, and I know you'll agree.
[00:01:38] If you want to know why my circle includes so many amazing folks like this, it's about systems. It's about tiny habits, making and maintaining relationships over time. It's one of the most important skills I've ever built. And I'm teaching you how to do it for free -- no credit card required, none of that -- jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they actually subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us and you'll be in great company. Without further ado, here's Part One with Megan Phelps-Roper.
[00:02:09] When we started the book, my wife goes, "Wow, the narrator's really good," and I was like, "Yeah, this person has a really good voice. Let's see who the narrator is and it was you."
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:02:16] Thanks. When I did my TED Talk, so many of the comments were, "Oh my gosh, she should read audiobooks," and I was like, "I would love to read audiobooks." My family, we read out loud all the time -- largely the Bible, of course -- but yeah, I miss that so much.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:31] You can definitely get -- well, you're busy -- but if you ever wanted to, and usually people who do this are like 55 years old and over, you can easily get gigs reading audiobooks. It's really one of the easiest gigs to get in voiceover.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:02:45] Oh, fancy. All right, let's do it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:49] Yeah, exactly. If you're ever like, okay, I'm really sick of all this stuff and I want to work from home and just read books in a basement into a microphone, you have a career waiting for you for that.
[00:02:59] I have to admit, I started researching you and reading your book and listening to like 15 hours of your interviews and I still almost can't wrap my mind around how you're super nice. You're obviously very intelligent. I mean, your emails are nice. Talking with you is nice even in the first few minutes here. And yet you spent your youth protesting and saying like -- I'm laughing out of awkwardness, not out of mirth -- like you're saying the most hateful things and holding signs that say things -- well actually, why don't you tell us, because I realize it's weird starting to show like, "Hey, tell us all the hateful stuff you said for your entire childhood." Go.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:03:30] Right, well, so I started protesting when I was five years old. We all started at the same time, and I just happened to be five and it was initially about this local park where it was a meeting place for gay men. And yeah, so I mean, the early signs, there were things like relatively gentle compared to things that came later, or restrained, maybe I should say, "Watch your kids, gays troll this park," things like that. But even at that first picket, there was a sign that said, "Gays are Worthy of Death," referencing Romans 1:32. "God Hates Fags" is what Westboro's message that we became known for and that was the name of our website.
[00:04:08] I understood from the time I was a tiny child, that we were the good guys and everyone outside the church was evil and going to Hell. And we had the only message that would bring the world any hope. The only hope for people to change and to repent was if they heard this message, this word of God. And as you say, I was very curious. It wasn't something that I just accepted just because they told me. I mean, they told me and it was in the Bible and there was a lot of evidence. My family is full of lawyers. My dad didn't really work as an attorney, but both my parents went to law school, very well educated, smart people, analytical people. And they talked about that evidence all the time. So we were constantly going back to the Bible and looking up and memorizing the reasons why we believed these things.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:56] That makes sense. I'm an attorney as well. At least I was and I still technically am, although hiring me would be dangerous for anyone at this point, given how long I've been out of a game. But I understand being able to parse an argument and that's what you learn primarily in law school, and of course, I'm going to teach my own kids that. But it is funny how that can be -- funny is not quite the right word -- it is interesting how that can be weaponized to teach people something that's hateful or negative, and then, "Hey, when somebody says this to you, here's your rebuttal to that, and here's how you think about their arguments and deconstruct them." And I would imagine though, at some part it's just like, just don't think too hard about what we're doing, or the threads will start to unravel, and that eventually happens later. But some of these signs "God Hates Fags" is like your trademark for the church back then, but "Pray for More Dead Kids" when there were school shootings, "Pray for More Dead Soldiers" when people were coming back in boxes from Afghanistan and Iraq, "Thank God for AIDS," "Thank God for September 11th," like this is like the Olympics of finding the most offensive thing to put on a sign in some places and then going and doing that at the worst possible place, like Ground Zero or a soldier's funeral. So I'm giving that context for people that maybe haven't heard of Westboro Baptist Church. I remember studying it in law school and just being like, "What would you do if you were confronted with these arguments?" And we'd stayed away from the biblical stuff, but it was kind of like, "Hey, Fred Phelps is a lawyer. You're going to be on even footing. You're not just debating with some bumpkin that doesn't know how to back up his arguments," your grandfather and your family, your whole family.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:06:25] Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, we would read the Bible, memorize all these arguments. We talked about them all the time. We saw it as the most important thing in the world and in our protesting. My grandfather to each one was an unforgettable experience, like their view of themselves and what they were doing, what we were doing is incredibly grandiose. Like you said, the only thing, you know, memorizing those arguments and everything, the two questions, the foundation of our beliefs were things that I never questioned. Those two foundational premises were the idea that the Bible is the literal, infallible word of God and that Westboro is understanding of it is the only legitimate one. As long as I never got to question those assumptions, everything else seemed to fall in line. It's a very closed system, and if you try to get into it from the outside, it's really difficult except through the way that it happened with me and in conversations, I've had with other former extremists. A lot of the time it's internal inconsistencies within the ideology itself is often the first kind of wedge or thread that unravels the rest of the argument.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:28] That's how it always goes. And we'll talk a little bit about how that works and the science behind that as well. But can we back up a little bit? I think a lot of people are probably like, "Wait, why are these religious people praying for dead kids and dead soldiers and things like that." So the rationale here is essentially what since the United States tolerates/condones homosexuality; therefore, all this bad stuff happens to people that live in it.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:07:53] So when we first started protesting soldiers' funerals, this was a question that I asked my mother, and she immediately went back to the Book of Deuteronomy, this passage where God says, "I sat before you this day, a blessing and a curse. A blessing if you'll obey me and a curse if you won't." And she said, "You know, can we all agree that a dead child is a curse from God and not a blessing?" And so, yeah, you just engineered from there. So if it's a curse, what is it a curse for. Well, you have all these commandments in the scriptures. You know, God's saying, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind -- it is abomination." And you know, no fornication, no adultery, all of the commandments that we spent so much time reading about and memorizing. These restrictions on our behavior, those were the things that we as a nation were being cursed for because my family would say we have institutionalized sin at every level.
[00:08:44] I remember there was a study that came out while I was there that, you know, I think it was like one in four girls in their teenage years had an STD and you know, of course, Westboro doesn't believe in premarital sex and, you know, the passages in the Bible about that. So anyway, for all of those reasons, God was punishing this nation and we had a duty to go and warn people. These terrible things are happening. They are the consequences of your sins and if you want this pain to stop, then you have to change. You have to repent because God isn't going to change. These are his standards and this is his word, and you have a duty to obey it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:18] And we know from science that the stronger a group identity, the more we are able to suppress empathy from outside groups. It seems like the more we have this identity, the more you have this identity of like, "Look, we are the only people that know this, that understand this, that have the true word of God." So everybody else who's suffering, the soldiers, families at funerals, the kids' parents mourning their death -- like they just matter less than people hearing the truth. Is that the rationale at the time?
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:09:48] Yeah, absolutely. We thought about it in terms of, of course, it's painful when we're out there protesting outside of a funeral, but it's a relatively small amount of pain compared to what Hell will be if they don't repent. So it was a little pain now is the only way to save a lot of pain later.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:06] That makes sense and I think is probably the only thing that could carry someone through. Because I have to ask, did your heart not ache for these families? I mean it had to, right? You're a human.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:10:16] Yeah. I mean it did at the very beginning, but very quickly it became a game and that sounds really terrible. But you know, when people would come out to counter-protest us, there was this group called the Patriot Guard Riders who would come out and hold flags and try to block our signs and things like that. And it really did kind of turn into a circus atmosphere. And it wasn't at every funeral, but it was at enough of them. And we were singing at the top of our lungs, these parodies of patriotic songs, military anthems. We changed the words to be celebrating the bombs that were killing American soldiers and mocking people. We were playing flag soccer -- basically using the American flag, tying it up and knots and using it as a ball. All of these things that I now look back at and I just am filled with regret. And I will say it took me a while to get here, right? Even once I intellectually understood this was even before I left the church when it was starting to dawn on me. It took me a while, even after I left.
[00:11:15] I remember this happened, I think maybe a year and a half or so after I left Westboro, I was with my boyfriend at the time, and I left the room. We were watching television. I left the room, came back, and there was a military film on, and it was Lone Survivor. And my first instinct when I saw it on the screen was like to tell him to turn it off. I recognized that feeling because I'd felt it over and over again since I left. This recognition that this is an instinctive resistance that I'm feeling and I need to interrogate that. I didn't say anything. I sat down and we started watching. I don't know if you know the story of that film, but it's these four guys, and one by one they are lost, killed in action, and it's kind of really harrowing. And then you get to the end, there's one guy left, and at the very end of the film -- as I'm watching it actually, they're using all these terms -- RPGs, IED -- these things that appeared in these parodies that we wrote of those military anthems. And I'm flashing back to those protests and you know, watching the pain and suffering of these soldiers, and then ultimately their families. At the very end of the film, this film is based on a true story, and so they're showing images of the soldier's spouse, their pets, their children. And by the end of the film, I was barely holding it together. And then when they started seeing those pictures, I just lost it. My husband held me and he was like, "I know why you're crying, but you have a lot of years left to try to make the world a better place." And that was really generous of him. But in that moment, I just felt so much regret and pain at the suffering that we had caused.
[00:12:52] Like I said, that was at least a year and a half after I left Westboro. It took time for me to unlearn that it was this disdain. We claimed to love people and again caught intellectually like that was something that we espoused this idea that what we were doing out there was showing love for our neighbor. We were the only people who truly cared about others. But there was also this other strain, this misanthropy. We felt disdained for other human beings and they deserve this. You know, God was punishing them. They were not like us. And that's something that, like I said it took time to unlearn and it's extremely painful to think about what we did to so many people because we didn't see them as being like us.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:34] Was there ever anyone in the church at these protests that ever spoke up and was like, "Hey, this seems a bit extreme. These people are suffering. You know, maybe we should tone it down." I mean, I kind of already guessed the answer is no. But it seems logical that somebody would -- even if they didn't bring it up to Fred, the founder of the church and your grandfather or your parents -- maybe whisper to you like, "Hey, this is a little weird, like everyone's so upset and we're making it worse." Were there any even whispers of this kind of thing?
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:14:00] No. It was always justified. There was always a passage in the Bible. There was always something to explain why we had to go and do these things. As you said earlier, it was calculated to get attention. My grandfather would say, "Of course, we're trying to get people's attention. How can we preach to these people if we don't have their attention?" So it wasn't just like attention for ourselves. It was attention for this message, but we would do anything, anything in service of that. I mean, anything as long as we could justify it from the Bible in service of preaching that message.
[00:14:31] Anyway, this is something later, Westboro, basically whenever we talked about that passage, "Love thy neighbor" was the passage we always went back to. The first time that appears in the Bible is Leviticus chapter 19 verses 17 and 18 and it says, "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart, but thou shalt in any wise rebuke him, and not suffer his sin upon him. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." So from that passage, it was very clear to us that to love your neighbor means to rebuke him when you see him sinning. And if you don't do that, then you hate him in your heart. I believe that. I have thought, "Okay, well this is where the Bible defines what it means to love your neighbor, and that's what we're doing, and that's what all these other churches are failing to do." And so this was the justification.
[00:15:17] And yet there's a passage later in the New Testament, the story of the Good Samaritan where the example that Jesus gives when he's asked, "Who is my neighbor?" That's when he tells that story of the Good Samaritan who goes to the man who had fallen among thieves and was beaten half to death. And you know, the priest and the Levi say that they walked by, they'd crossed the street and pass by on the other side when they saw the man and didn't help him. And then this hated Samaritan actually went and picked the guy up and took him to an inn and took care of him -- medical care, actually taking care of his actual needs, his physical needs, and gave money to the innkeeper to take care of him and said, "Anything you spend more than this, I will pay you back when I come again." That was the example of loving your neighbor that Jesus gave in the New Testament.
[00:16:09] When I think like, "What were we thinking?" Like we mocked people who went to help after, like Hurricane Katrina or the tornado that destroyed Joplin, Missouri. We would mock people who went and we would say, "No, these people need the Word of God." Like that's how they will avoid this. This is the only way toward peace. You have to have peace with God. They need our message and the rest of the stuff is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. That's how we saw it. I think now, "What were we thinking when we read the story of the good Samaritan?" And you know what I recall is that we were thinking about how evil those Jews were -- the priests and the Levi -- who walked by and pass by on the other side, focusing on how bad they were. And it was like, of course, of course, the Samaritan was the one who did right, but never like applied that to our own behavior.
[00:16:58] And it's baffling to me now and it just basically shows me how strong confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning are and groupthink in this case, because all of us, we were all involved in this, and just constantly reinforcing the church's positions and anything, any ideal espoused by outsiders was immediately suspect and questionable even when it was something as obvious as, of course, you help the guy on the side of the road who needs assistance.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:17:29] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guests and Megan Phelps-Roper. We'll be right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:55] Man, I'm looking at footage of you, not right now, but of course doing research for the show. I'm looking at footage of you as a child and it's just so bizarre because you're beaming with this typical like first-grader, cutie pie, little kid smile and have like a park on or something like that and you're holding a sign that says "God Hates Fags" and it's such a mind crunch to think that this was a belief system where -- and there are elements in the book that I read where you say that during these protests, often you're talking to your cousin about like the latest pop music or some movie that you watched that we all would have seen. It's almost like you had a costume on of this hateful person. But you're really almost a normal kid underneath. And you went to a public school. I would imagine it was hard to make friends because everyone knew what you were doing, of course.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:21:41] Yeah. I mean, and we would say we had like friendly acquaintances, things like that way. We were taught to be polite. I mean, so in school, we were helping people with their homework. Generally, good kids, we were supposed to get good grades. I was a straight-A student from middle school all the way through college. Of course, everybody knew what we were doing, but I started protesting before I started kindergarten, and so they did know what we were doing, but we all compartmentalized it. People grew up knowing what I did, but compartmentalization is a really incredible thing. It didn't always work, especially when I went to high school and started protesting my own high school during lunch. I was also in high school when the Twin Towers came down and that was another time when my classmates -- it was a lot harder, I think, for people to compartmentalize.
[00:22:29] But we really believe that we had the Truth of God and that it was unquestionable, and that friendship with the world is enmity with God. So we didn't want their friendship. We knew we had to be there together and we all just kind of made the best of it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:44] I'm surprised your parents didn't say, "You know what? We should homeschool everyone." Because you don't trust the other kids at school. It sounds like the us-versus-them mentality started from quite a young age then if you're in school and it's like, "Okay, you'd be friendly and you'd be polite with them, but remember they're all going to Hell," and the people you met and played with as a kid, I mean you have recess, even if you're not hanging out at someone's house. Were you thinking something like, "Well they're nice, but I guess they're going to all burn in Hell for eternity"? That would bother me as a kid and a young adult, at least I think it would. Were you ever like, "Dang, it really sucks all my fun little friends are going to burn in Hell, what a bummer, all right, let's go watch cartoons"?
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:23:19] Mostly not. I mean, because Westboro believes the TULIP doctrines. I don't know if you know anything about Calvinism, but it's the T of that acronym is total depravity. So all humans are by nature, totally depraved and deserving of death and Hell. So that's what everybody deserves. So mostly instead of feeling bad for them, mostly I felt so, so, so grateful to God for letting me be part of, like being born into this place. We were so lucky to be born in the only known place on earth where God meets with his people. So this was like my understanding of the situation was I deserved death and Hell, just like they did, just like outsiders did. And I just had the absolute privilege of being in this place where I got to hear the unvarnished Word of God.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:06] When you were that small though, it probably seemed like you're defending yourselves against crazy people at these protests, right? Because often, of course, the most popular footage is like gay dudes with big rainbow shirts and beards that are basically screaming at what I assume are your aunts and uncles and parents. And they must've just looked completely out of it for you?
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:24:26] Yeah. I mean, there was a lot of physical attacks, especially in the early days. It got better as time went on, partly because people just got used to it, probably because they lost no interest. They realized that we weren't going away and so fighting it wasn't doing anything, but there was a lot in the early days. People threw things and came after us, drove their cars at us. I was going to say, came after us on foot. It took shots at people. And watching this from behind my sign as a five, six, seven-year-old, and especially when I wrote about what happened at the Vintage, this local restaurant in Topeka, really close to our house where these guys came out. They were bouncers from a strip club. They put a bunch of Westboro members in the hospital. Seeing those things happen and the aftermath of that, and especially when my grandfather, anytime anything bad happened to -- of course, to outsiders, that was a celebratory moment -- but anything that happened to us, it was, you know, we were being persecuted and just harped on that continually.
[00:25:25] Obviously you have this kind of a victim complex. It's very strange because there are two sides to it, right? So there's that victim complex where we are so put upon them and the world hates us and all these things. And then also, there's the other side of it is this triumphalism where God himself is with us and the angels, they're all dispatched and they're all watching the coral of the covenant play out. And we are guaranteed to win. So it's a little bit strange, you know, thinking about it now. But of course, I thought, all of the things that my family was telling me, all of that stuff was coming true. So they're quoting me these passages from the Bible where Jesus says, "If you preach my words, if you are one of mine, you will be hated by the world." And we were, and I saw the evidence of that playing out every single day. And Jesus also tells you how you're supposed to respond to that, which is rejoice. My Gramps would say, "Leap for joy when you're hated because that's how the profits were treated."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:21] I suppose that's in part true, however, yeah, wow, it just must have increased the us-versus-them mentality and ratcheted that up to 11 because people are basically terrorizing your family as a kid. Now, I'm not saying and I'm sure you would agree that in some ways you're asking for it, but for speaking, nobody deserves to be beaten mercilessly by a bunch of bouncers. Stuff that's hateful, it's like there's a part of me that's really biased, it's like, "Well, yeah, that's what you get for being so awful." But on the other hand, that's really just not what America is about. And we kind of talked about that before we went on air here about, that's just, it's un-American as much as I hate that word, but it really is, you know, we should be able to tolerate speech that we think is absolutely ludicrous and ridiculous without being like, "Yeah and we need to knock their teeth out and put them in the hospital so they shut up or so that they get it." So you must have really compartmentalized and also just thought, okay, the world is a dangerous place. This is the only safe place for me.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:27:16] Yeah. Westboro absolutely felt like the only safe place. And the thing is, it wasn't just the hatefulness that I needed to be safe from, it was also the friendliness of the world because again, friendship with the world is enmity with God. So we were taught to experience the kindness of outsiders as something dangerously seductive. These people will try to seduce you away from the truth unless you maintain constant vigilance. And so you are basically, no matter what you're experiencing from the outside world, it's all bad all the time. It's all dangerous because they're coming from the wrong perspective. They're not coming at this from a scriptural perspective. And so Westboro was the only safe haven from the wrath of God and the only place that you could find His Truth.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:58] As aggressive and abnormal or out of the ordinary as your views were, you weren't really sheltered. That's what's almost hard to wrap my mind around, like as culty as it is, that this is the only safe place, don't be friends with anyone else that's going to lead you down this seductive path. But then you went to public schools. You could listen to any music you wanted. Watch any movie that you wanted and your parents, surprisingly open-minded -- well, actually that's the wrong word -- but they'd say things like, "How are you going to preach against the evils of the world if you don't even know what they are?" It's shockingly, not open-minded, but at least not close to those ideas.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:28:32] No. Yeah. Just being open to it, like being open to experiencing those, at least those parts of the world. The way I explain it is that it's not that those things, they never changed my mind or changed my perspective or unduly influenced me because before I read books or listen to music, or I was watching films and television, we were constantly reading the Bible. And so. I experienced those things through Westboro's lens, so I never saw like a premarital relationship and it was like, "Oh, that's something that I want or that I long for or something." It was, "Oh, those people are whores." When I'd see girls with their hair cut short or cut at all, these people are whores. They're going to Hell. It's like being inoculated against those ideas because before you ever experienced them and you are taught how to experience them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:19] They weren't really worried about influences creeping into your mind. They prepared you really well for that.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:29:25] Right, exactly. And because it was so proactive, it did not have the effect that I think that it has on other people.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:32] When you were little, your brother left in the middle of the night and your uncles had left as well, but they're labeled as degenerates and horrible people. But you had to know your brother wasn't a degenerate and horrible person. There must've been a little crack at that point, a tiny one.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:29:47] I wasn't that little. I was actually 18 when my brother left.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:51] I didn't realize that.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:29:52] We woke up the morning of my high school graduation and he had left in the middle of the night. And he's only less than a year and a half older than me. And there was a moment, when he first left, like trying to reconcile these two narratives of this brother who just yesterday, he was a baptized member of the church, and as long as you're part of Westboro, the sense of fraternity and community, and the willingness to do anything for one another, it's so incredibly strong. As much antipathy as we feel for people outside, there is so much an incredible amount of love and care for people inside. And so for my brother yesterday to have been that kind of person and today trying to put him into this category of other and evil, it was incredibly difficult. It took me a while to get there, but get there, I did because that is Westboro's view of the world. It is so binary. It's inside or out and there is no middle ground. And so, like I said, it took me a little while, but I believe that he was going to Hell. I accepted the narrative because that was how we saw the world and ourselves.
[00:30:59] You know, there's that passage where Jesus says, "Who is my mother and who are my brethren?" It's these that do the will of God. So the relatively few unrelated members of the church who were not related to me, since the church is mostly my extended family, I would say that those people were my brothers more than my actual brother who had left was.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:20] Your grandfather -- the patriarch and founder of the church -- he's so complicated because I figured, okay, it's just some hateful guy who's always been sort of fire and brimstone and that's not really the case. He was a civil rights activist when he was younger, standing up Brown versus Board of Education in Kansas, left college at Bob Jones University in protest because, in part, they didn't admit black students. That really complicated him for me. It was so simple for me to be like, "Well Fred Phelps, terrible human being." Not really the whole story.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:31:52] Yeah. I mean it's one of the things I think that shows -- because for my grandfather, the Bible was the source of his anti-racism activism. In the same way, it was his anti-gay activism, that was the source. He saw no tension between those two positions because they were both derived from the Bible. And I think it shows you the power of belief and what it can motivate, both extreme good and extreme ill. The work that he did, and he got awards from the NAACP and other civil rights groups for the work that he did in support of the rights of black people. And then of course, as you know, all of the hatred and vitriol that was reflected back at him for what we did with our protests, our anti-gay protests.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:35] His work as a lawyer got him death threats against him, against the family. And he's been quoted as saying things like, "Racism is the great sin of America." So he's like, the guy that African-Americans would call and discrimination cases in the area. I mean, what juxtaposition here, Megan? On the one hand, it's everyone should be treated fairly no matter who they are. And on the other hand, dead children in school shootings and dead soldiers and dead gay people because God hates fags. Like what? It's just so hard to put a bow on that you can't do it. You can't put him in a box. It just doesn't work.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:33:07] Yeah, I mean, for me, it shows also how really sad it is that my family is doing what they're doing. You know, they are incredibly intelligent, analytical, educated, funny, clever. They're in a lot of ways, really wonderful people and what they could be doing with their lives and talents, they could be doing an untold amount of good in the world if they weren't spending it on this ideology that Gramp's inculcated in us for so many years, so many decades. It brings me incredible sadness to think about now. But also, I have hope for my family. This is obviously a big message of the book, that there is hope for people to grow and change. We just have to find a way of doing what people did for me in reframing and showing alternative ways of viewing the world and trying to convince them. And so this is a big part of what I hope to be doing now, not just for them, but for people like them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:06] When he was disbarred and prohibited from practicing law for people that haven't heard that term, how do you think him being disbarred led to this new mission he seems to have had in his life that hateful, homophobic rhetoric? Did he kind of go, "Well, I can't practice law. Let's turn the canon in this direction." Was that kind of how that went? It seems that way in the book, but as always, these things are more complicated.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:34:27] Yeah. Well, I mean, so the way I described it in the book is that civil rights where it came to an end when he lost his license to practice law, but the event that sparked the picketing happened several months after that. So again, right at the point where there's this enormous vacuum, I do not believe that it was a conscious thing that he thought, "Okay, we need a new crusade." It's just this series of events that occurred, and from the day that event happened to. The start of the protesting was about two full years. So again, I don't think it was as direct as a deliberate attempt to fill this void in his life. It was just, I think, a natural progression.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:35:04] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Megan Phelps-Roper. We'll be right back after this.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:59] You've done all these protests, had funerals and things like that. I'm wondering what was the craziest protest you've ever been a part of? Some have to be just stand-out ridiculous.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:39:07] Oh man, there were, there were so many of them. We protest that at George W. Bush's second inauguration in 2005 which was the first inauguration after the September 11 attacks. We had the sign that said, "Thank God for September 11," and after his inaugural speech, the crowd, this massive crowd comes down, you know, the security, obviously, was insane. And we were at this corner of this intersection of these three streets. Because of all the barricades, there was a bottleneck right there. So these people are stuck right there, like seeing all of our signs. My mom was holding a sign about the tsunami that had happened and it killed hundreds of thousands of people. And then this, "Thank God for September 11" sign and people -- by the time they actually reached us -- were just enraged. And again, there was no space between us and them. There were police just on the other side of the barricade, but they weren't doing anything to keep people away from us, to keep people from hurting us. It got really dicey. And we actually had, you know, one of my cousins gave his signs to somebody else and started standing on top of a trashcan pretending like he wasn't with us, like urging them on like they're not worth it, you guys, they're not worth it. Things like that. That was a really intense protest.
[00:40:15] But also, you know, the funeral protests, I don't remember one of those really getting violent, not that I was at, but they were, again, incredibly intense because obviously, the circumstances are so sobering and --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:31] When you were in the church and you heard other fundamentalists and cult saying things like, "If you don't convert to the cult of the flying spaghetti monster, you're going to Hell." Did any part of you notice that they were playing the same game as you?
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:40:44] So it's really funny. I think the closest to that was this thing that was happening, I took a mythology class in high school and it did occur to me that a lot of the threats that these gods and goddesses were issuing sounded a lot like the ones that came from -- and I wasn't so stupid to miss the parallels between the belief of any kind. Anytime you're assigning events that are happening in the world to this supernatural deity who's angry. Right? Absolutely. That occurred to me and I kind of sat there thinking that everybody else was seeing this too and feeling almost smug about it like, "Yes, but ours is the real God." It's very strange to think back on because it's almost like this realization is starting to press at the edges of your awareness, but you cannot acknowledge them and it wasn't a conscious decision to like push it aside and compartmentalize it. I think it was just something that our brains are wired to do to protect these ideas that we've based our lives on, that literally control every aspect of our existence.
[00:41:47] The human mind is incredibly fascinating and the more I've learned about psychology since I left it's really incredible to me to think of all the ways that our brains protected those ideas. It's like they're not wired for truth. They're wired to protect the things that are keeping us together.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:04] How did you start to see the cracks eventually in your belief system? I know that Twitter played a part, which is so ironic somehow, but if that didn't do it, if the earlier ideas didn't do it, if you sort of be introspective on your own, didn't do it. We know how belief changes. We've talked about this on the show site in terms of science. People don't gradually come around. They believe something that they've decided to believe or were raised to believe up and until there's just so much pressure in the form of evidence or whatever else that the levee breaks and then you're flooded and kind of changed your mind very quickly. Most people think, "Oh, you're just gradually chipping away at it." That's not how this works. When did the dam start to break in your mind?
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:42:47] It was kind of the perfect storm. Twitter played an enormous role in this in two ways. So first, there were the logical, rational conversations that I was having with people, and specifically, the first contradiction, internal inconsistency in Westboro's Doctrine was pointed out to me by this Jewish guy named David Abitbol who ran a blog called Jewlicious, and he found this internal inconsistency where we were advocating for the death penalty for gay people based on this Old Testament passage. And yet you have Jesus saying, "Let he without sin cast the first stone." And then also he pointed out that my mother had had my oldest brother out of wedlock, and he said, "That's another sin that deserves the death penalty, isn't it?" And the realization that, oh, my God, like if you kill somebody, you cut off the opportunity to repent and be forgiven. Like my family wouldn't exist if my mother had been killed for her sins. And really a big part of our message is that people should repent and change their ways. So the realization that these messages were at odds with one another and at odds with again, Jesus saying, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone."
[00:43:51] So that was huge for me. And it was something that I recognized. It was the first time that I'd consciously rejected one of Westboro's doctrines. The first realization that we could be wrong, that our understanding could be wrong. That was where the first, I would say like light really came in. Because even though I kind of instinctively compartmentalized it, like I stopped holding the sign, because I couldn't justify it, but I didn't consciously dwell on it. And yet from that time forward, I could not just, except the things that Westboro was telling me. And I started to question and to doubt, and then ultimately to reject more and more of our doctrines. At first, I was searching in the Bible for alternative ways of seeing things.
[00:44:36] Let's put a pin in that part for just one second. So that was like the theological, logical, rational parts of those conversations. But then there were the human parts of the conversations I was having on Twitter with these people. Yes, I had gone to a public school. I saw people on the picket line, but it was never in a way that like I always had my guard up. I always saw them as other and different, and Twitter started to become this alternative source of community for me. I was seeing aspects of people, and I think there's a physical distance, like not being in physical space with other people. It allowed me to not have that guard up so fully. And I started to get to know people. I was seeing how they interacted with their children and their friends and more like when tragedy would strike and the difference between the way that people on Twitter -- these people that again, that I had come to know and like and respect the way that they were responding when there was a school shooting or a hurricane or tornado. It was like it was giving me permission to feel empathy for the victims of those tragedies. That had always naturally been there but had just been buried underneath all of those Bible passages.
[00:45:52] And at first, I thought that there was something wrong with me for feeling that empathy. And eventually, I started to think there was something wrong with Westboro, the way that Westboro was responding. So I don't think that would've happened. Like that transition to thinking there was something wrong with Westboro would have happened in the absence of David finding that contradiction. Does that make sense?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:14] It does. It does make sense. It was kind of, well, it was the straw that broke the camel's back in a lot of ways.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:46:19] So there was one other piece of it, and that is that Westboro itself started to change right around the same time. This group of eight men kind of took over and started instituting these new rules that I think I wouldn't have had a problem with what had happened if it hadn't been so unscriptural like the things that they did. One of the first things they did was to Photoshop images of Westboro members picketing the Royal wedding, Prince William and Kate Middleton, and pretending like we were out there protesting. One of the elders created a fake Twitter account where it was basically pretending to be a news outlet posting these photos and contacting a lot of other news outlets to propagate this lie. And obviously, it's unbiblical. There's a passage that talks about, "Six things doth the Lord hate; yea, seven are an abomination unto him." And two of them have to do with lying, a false witness that speaks lies and a lying tongue. To get on Twitter and tell those lies I knew were immediately going to be uncovered and trying to lie to people -- again, this was part of my community now. That was frustrating. And then a bunch of other things like the way that they were treating church members. This kind of ongoing, endless shaming process was totally unscriptural I felt. All of these things are happening at the same time, so feeling, becoming alienated from Westboro. At the same time, I'm developing this affinity for outsiders and the logical arguments, it was kind of, again, the perfect storm.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:48] Yeah, your family, your parents got in trouble with the church somehow. They essentially were gaslighting your mother and kind of just -- I mean, I hate to use the word torturing her, but they were messing with her hard work and telling her that she had to accept the punishment with joy and all this stuff, and they just kept layering it and layering it and layering it. In the book, you recount how it just didn't make any sense to anyone why they just kept doing this. It was almost like, "Oh, you feel like you're doing something good. We don't want you to feel that way. We don't want you to get any sort of sense of self-confidence or autonomy. Let's just break you down again in a way that seemed completely unnecessary." Threatening to take you away from her, for example.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:48:26] Yeah, I mean, it's one of those things, again, that we espouse these ideas of love and compassion and care, and when it came right down to it, there's so much hatred for humanity in general, and that included the humanity in each other. Any natural human impulse, like the idea of trying -- again, I'm not saying every aspect of humanity as good and wonderful, like I love people now. I think that there are such incredible aspects of what it is to be a human being, but there are also some really painful and really ugly ones. But the way I see it now is an attempt to take those difficult parts and do what we can to mitigate or make them better, find value in -- in other words, like reframing it. Before Westboro, it was just, again, that hatred, that disdain for humanity. It inevitably spilled over onto one another too.
[00:49:22] The way that I read about this in the book, the way that I experienced this moment of like when I first came to think like, "Oh my God, what if we're wrong beyond just these few biblical points? What if we are fundamentally wrong in how we see the world and how we approach outsiders?" That moment, it came to me as I was thinking about the way that Westboro was treating insiders and all of a sudden it hitting me. This is what we've been doing to everybody else all these years, and the sense of shame and humiliation that I felt in that moment. I'm like, "Oh my God, what have we been doing now?" Now, I understand what it feels like, what we've been doing to other people because now we're doing it to ourselves too. It's just completely disorienting and terrifying and just so awful to suddenly realize that this thing that I had experienced as and had believed was this divine institution from God himself is really just a bunch of human beings trying and failing spectacularly to do the right thing.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:25] When you're 27 you make the decision to finally leave. What was the plan? What did you plan to do for money and for support, and was there anything that gave you pause? Where you're in the house going, "Oh, but my siblings are like, look at all these photos of us together. There's so much leaving home." It's not like you're going away to college and you're not going to be home for six months or three months. You're leaving and you're probably can never go back.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:50:49] Yeah, I mean, and obviously that's one of the hardest things. It's one of the things I think that it's an incredibly powerful force, and it's not that I think people in the church are thinking like, "Well, I don't believe this, but I'm going to stay for the family." Although I know maybe there are some who think that way, but I think more that you have so much motivation to -- like motivated reasoning like I said earlier. I think for most people there, it's not a conscious acknowledgment that what they're doing is wrong. It is something that prevents you from seeing that it's wrong because of what it's going to cost you. For me, I'm the third of 11 children. I had the one brother who left when I was 18 and he was 19 but all the rest of them were still there. My other nine siblings and both my parents, my aunts, uncles, cousins, my grandparents. My whole life was there, was wrapped up in that group of people, in that ideology. So you're, you're losing your family and your extended family, your worldview, my lifelong home, my identity, my understanding of the world, my job. I worked at the family law firm, so it was everything wrapped up in this thing.
[00:51:57] And the plan initially, I started, you know, asking questions about the stories of my parents and my grandparents, collecting photos, and home movies and family recipes, all these things that I knew that as soon as we left, there would be no more. My family, they would refuse to have any contact with me at all once I left. And so I started collecting those things and at the same time trying to ask these questions and convince people, persuade people from inside, like to try and persuade them to change, to recognize that there was so much that we were wrong about and that we were doing things and treating people in ways that were unscriptural. So these things are happening at the same time where I'm trying to make it work at Westboro and then also planning for failure if that doesn't work. And it was absolutely devastating because to not be able to be completely open, just the prospect of losing all of them was completely shattering.
[00:52:57] This is a total of, um, four months from the day that I first thought of leaving until I actually walked out the door. And in that time, eventually, after a couple of months, I realized that the likelihood that I was going to persuade Westboro to change was very, very small, and I eventually said -- I'm having these conversations with my sister, Grace, who was the only person that I spoke to openly about the prospect of leaving because she had been the only person who was willing to actually acknowledge that the things that Westboro was doing were unbiblical. Whereas any other member of the church would assume that the problem was with me and not with the ideology and the rest of the church. So I'm having these conversations with her, and originally, I started to say like, "I can't do this forever." First, I would say, "I don't think I can do this forever." And then eventually I said, "I can't do this forever."
[00:53:46] So in November, somebody that we had confided in, sent a letter, an email to my parents and one other person in the church and told them that we were planning to leave. That was the immediate trigger for why we left that day. But it was about a week before we knew we were going to leave because there was this Westboro project where we were going to have to sit in front of the camera and justify one of Westboro signs. We knew we couldn't do that anymore, so we thought we had one more week, and then that email came in and we left.
[00:54:25] Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:25] Thank you to Megan for Part One. Part Two is coming up in just a few days. The book, if you want to pick it up, it's called Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. It's a good read, just an unbelievable story, of course. And lots more in Part Two as well. Links to the book and to Megan's stuff will be in the show notes. Also, in the show notes, there are worksheets for each episode, so you can review what you've learned here from Megan Phelps-Roper, review everything you've heard here today. We also now have transcripts for each episode and those can be found in the show notes as well.
[00:54:57] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems and tiny habits over at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. The problem with kicking the can down the road and saying that you're going to do it later, you can't make up for the lost time. When it comes to relationships and networking, the number one mistake I see people make is postponing this and not digging the well before they get thirsty. Once you need relationships, you could be too late, so dig in. The drills are designed to take just a few minutes per day. I wish I knew this stuff 20 years ago. It's not fluff. It's crucial. You can find it all for free at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they actually subscribe to the course and the newsletter, so come join us and you'll be in smart company. In fact, why not reach out to Megan Phelps-Roper? Tell her you enjoyed this episode of the show. Show guests love hearing from you. You never know what might shake out of that. Speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out and/or follow me on social. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. I'm the one with the blue checkmark, not the other weird ones with numbers after him.
[00:56:00] This show is created in association with PodcastOne and this episode was produced by Jen Harbinger, Jason DeFillippo, and our engineer is Jase Sanderson. Show notes and worksheets are by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola. I'm your host Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions, and those of our guests are their own. And yeah, I'm a lawyer, but I'm not your lawyer. I'm sure as heck not a doctor or a therapist. So do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting that should be in every episode. So please share the show with those you love and even those you don't. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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