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Post-Westboro, Megan Phelps-Roper's New Book Offers An Explanation, An Apology, And Hope For Haters

Megan Phelps-Roper is shown here sitting on a bench near Westboro that she and her sister painted messages on for their family on the inside.
Megan Phelps-Roper
Megan Phelps-Roper is shown here sitting on a bench near Westboro that she and her sister painted messages on for their family on the inside.

The cover of Megan Phelps-Roper's book "Unfollow" gives away the ending. We know the hero leaps far beyond her old confines and goes on to live a healthy, happy life reaching out to others in need.

But in this case, the ending isn't as captivating as the middle of the story.

"A lot of people had these very personal experiences with Westboro and there's a lot of confusion, I think, people don't understand why we were doing what we were doing," Phelps-Roper says of Topeka's infamous  Westboro Baptist Church.

Except in fairly recent interviews, "Unfollow" is the part of the story that's largely been missing. 

Phelps-Roper is the granddaughter of Westboro's founder, Fred Phelps, who, along with his extended family, spent decades picketing parks and schools around Topeka, then later, concerts and the funerals of fallen soldiers.

Of those first protests in 1991, she writes, "I couldn’t read the messages Gramps had carefully written since I was still a few months shy of kindergarten, but when I saw photos as a teenager, I was surprised by how small and restrained some were compared to what came later: WATCH YOUR KIDS! GAYS IN RESTRMS."

Megan Phelps-Roper sits on her grandfather's lap next to her mother and sister in the late 1980s.
Credit Megan Phelps-Roper
Megan Phelps-Roper sits on her grandfather's lap next to her mother and sister in the late 1980s.

Later came the "God Hates Fags" signs, and what she describes as "chilling melodies" during soldiers' funeral processions, with lyrics such as: "God sinks your battleships, you little wimps … Your time has come to die, die, die." 

Phelps-Roper provides a thoughtful account of the radical group’s logic and offers careful explanations while striking an apologetic tone.

In one passage that responds to the commandment "Love thy neighbor," she sums up the reasoning:

The context made it abundantly clear to us that to love our neighbor was to rebuke him, to warn him away from the sins that would result in punishment from God. If we failed to do so, the blood of the wicked would be on our hands. … It didn’t matter that the world hated the message. It didn’t matter that it required vast amounts of our time, money, energy, and resources. This was what God required of His elect. 

She paints her family as caring and intelligent; many of the Phelpses are attorneys, including both of her parents and her grandfather, who died in 2014. She also offers numerous everyday-life anecdotes that illustrate the normalcy of their days as well as their deep love for each other. 

And though she’s had no contact with her family members who remain on the inside, including seven of her 11 siblings, she says she still has hope for them and thinks of her book as "breadcrumbs" for them to follow out. 

However, she adds, "I'm not delusional. I don’t think that they're going to read the book and all decide to leave. But I do hope that they will find, in my description of my faith in Westboro unravelling, that they will be able to find things at least to moderate some of their positions, even if they don’t ultimately reject Westboro's ideology entirely."

She's also been approached by a much wider audience of people who have definitely picked up the breadcrumb trail, people who were following the Jehovah's Witnesses, fundamentalist and evangelical churches around the world.

"It's shocking, but it shouldn't be, how many groups function like Westboro," she says. "Confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning and group think," she says, are "very human forces" that everyone is subject to, but Westboro presents in a relatively unique, extreme way.

Even toward the end of Fred Phelps' life, his thinking changed.

Across from Westboro is a rainbow-colored house owned by a non-profit called Planting Peace that serves to constantly oppose the church’s anti-LGBTQ messaging.

Phelps-Roper writes that her grandfather called out toward the house: "You're good people," resulting in his almost immediate excommunication.

And, she writes, if she had a change of heart and mind, and her grandfather seemed to have experienced that change as well, "the idea of completely writing anyone off seemed senseless." 

Her own path out came from conversations with people on Twitter, who at one point launched a #SaveMegan campaign.

"For 20 years," Phelps-Roper says, "people tried to shame me and to show me that I was doing wrong. And the only people who were able to get through to me were the people who were willing to listen, to speak softly."

In her current work with law enforcement officers responding to other radical groups and hate crimes, as well as in her work as a public speaker, Phelps-Roper encourages people to talk across divides the way others reached out to her.

"I think there's a lot to be gained," she says, "by reaching out to people that we disagree with."

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @AnneKniggendorf

Copyright 2019 KCUR 89.3

Anne Kniggendorf is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, whose work has appeared in local media outlets as well as in the Smithsonian Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, Electric Literature, Ploughshares, and several literary reviews, including two as far away as India and Scotland.