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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: The Westboro Baptist Church is one of America’s most notorious religious hate groups. It gained worldwide condemnation for its pickets at military funerals and celebrations of death and tragedy, even for the September 11th attacks. Megan Phelps Roper is the granddaughter of its founder and she was one of his staunches supporters. But seven years ago, she broke with the church and she now works to combat extremism. Megan sat down with our Michel Martin to talk about why she left. And a warning, the interview does refer to that hate speech which might offend some viewers.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
MICHEL MARTIN, CONTRIBUTOR: Megan Phelps Roper, thank you so much for talking with us.
MEGAN PHELPS-ROPER, FORMER MEMBER, WESTBORO BAPTIST CHURCH: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: I have to tell you that I have the same reaction to meeting you in person that I think a lot of people had to connecting with you online, which is that you’re a person who, along with your family — I don’t know what else to say except that for a lot of people, you’re a terrorist. I mean, you’re a terrorist, except that you didn’t kill people. Your whole reason for being was to terrorize people, to make them feel terrible about themselves, to cause them great pain at their most vulnerable moments in their lives. How often do you think about that now?
PHELPS-ROPER: Frequently. I mean, it comes up in conversations. I’m constantly meeting people that I hurt, you know? This is not — when I go and talk about these things, this is not a theoretical — it’s not a theoretical apology. It’s something that I live every day.
MARTIN: What exactly was the church protesting?
PHELPS-ROPER: Well, they would say sin, all kinds of sin. It started out being particularly about the LGBTQ community and then expanded from there to other Christians and Jewish people. Anybody who said anything against our message was a target.
MARTIN: How did it get to soldiers’ funerals, though?
PHELPS-ROPER: So, it was after, you know, once the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started. And, you know, my grandfather was watching — he watched the news constantly, and he would see these funerals. And he would say, you know, these aren’t funerals, these are patriotic pep rallies, you know. People out there waving flags and talking about how God is blessing America. And so, he, you know, as our duty, he said, to go and bring this godly message, God’s side of it, which is, as grams encapsulated it — I don’t want to say — I mean — they turned the country over to fags, they’re coming home in body bags. That’s how he encapsulated it. And so — but that was the idea, this country has institutionalized sin, and therefore, God is punishing them and we need to go to where they’re saying God is blessing America and say, no, God is cursing America, and this dead soldier is evidence of that.
MARTIN: I just need a minute to kind of deal with my own feelings from having seen your own family picketing at military hospitals, the famous signs, “Thank God for IEDs,” “Thank God for your dead soldiers.” I mean, I saw you out there with these young people whose bodies were broken, people who had lost limbs serving their country, and you’re out there screaming at them. And I just — it’s just hard. It’s just — it’s hard.
PHELPS-ROPER: Yes. Yes, I know. I completely understand. You know, when people — you mentioned people seeing us as terrorists. And we were. You’re right. We absolutely were out there to bring terror to people. We believed that the purpose of that, that fear, was biblical, right? So, there’s this passage that we would quote from the Book of Jude. It says “Of some have compassion, others save with fear.” So, our goal in those moments, it wasn’t just to cause pain needlessly. We thought that it was the only way, the only hope for people to experience this pain in this life, which is minimal compared to the pain that people would be experiencing in hell for eternity.
MARTIN: One of the things that so surprised me about your book is to understand that even as you were doing this, you were living in the same world that the rest of us are living in. I mean, I think that a lot of people have the image of Westboro Baptist Church as people living in a compound.
MARTIN: Your kids went all to public schools.
MARTIN: You went to the same schools as everybody else.
PHELPS-ROPER: Went to college. Many went to law school.
MARTIN: Most went to law school. I also learned from the book that your grandfather insisted that all of his children and their spouses go to law school.
MARTIN: So, how did they maintain this immersion in this world view?
PHELPS-ROPER: You know, the vast majority of people in the church are people who grew up in it, right? So, they were indoctrinated, just like I was. And the idea is that it’s like being inoculated against outside ideas. We were constantly exposed to those outside ideas. We would talk to people on the picket line or reading books, listening to music, you know, popular music. It wasn’t like we were, you know, like you said — we weren’t corralled in any way, like physically. It’s just that when we were — before we were ever exposed to those ideas, before we were ever exposed to outside arguments, we were taught, here are the arguments people are going to make. Here is why they’re wrong. Here is the Bible verse, the chapter and Verse, memorize it.
MARTIN: Were you happy?
PHELPS-ROPER: Absolutely. I loved everything that we did. I believed —
MARTIN: You loved screaming at people and seeing the distress on their faces and the horror? You liked it?
PHELPS-ROPER: You know, my mom when we first started protesting soldiers’ funerals, I asked — I said, I need to know exactly why we’re doing this. You know, we’re going to be out there, I need to understand why. And she started quoting these Bible verses. That was always the source of everything that we did. It was, you know, God saying I set before you this day a blessing and a curse. A blessing if you obey me and a curse if you won’t. And she said, can we all agree that a dead child is a curse from God and not a blessing?
MARTIN: I’m not sure that people do, but people who live in Kansas may remember that your grandfather, Fred Phelps, the founder of the church, was a very highly respected civil rights lawyer. Many people may remember, Topeka, Kansas, Brown v. Board of Ed is the home jurisdiction of one of the most famous civil rights cases in the history of this country, but it was certainly not the only civil rights battle that had to be fought. And your grandfather was taking these cases, defending African-Americans who in some cases couldn’t get other lawyers, white or black, to take their cases. What happened that he then became obsessed with gay people, with LGBT people, with picketing soldiers? What happened?
PHELPS-ROPER: So, my grandfather saw no tension between those two positions that he took. He saw them both as being scripturally derived. So he would say God never said it was an abomination to be black or female or old, but God did say that it was an abomination to be gay.
MARTIN: But why this particular obsession with — and I think it is fair to call it an obsession — with homosexuality?
PHELPS-ROPER: Yes. So, you know, any time people would ask that question, we would say, we’re obsessed with it because you’re obsessed with it. That’s literally how we would respond. Because remember, this was the early ’90s. This was when the battle for rights for same-sex people, people in the LGBT community, that this battle was kind of coming to the floor, right? You think about how quickly things have changed in the past 30 years. And my grandfather saw that, that changing tide as an abominable thing, something that God was going to punish, not just was going to punish, but was punishing this nation for. And so, because it was, you know, this constant — you know, Ellen came out and there was all these cultural moments, and he thought we as Bible preachers needed to go and be out there representing God’s side of the matter.
MARTIN: And tell me about the tactics, though, the disgusting things that you would yell at people. Why is it that these tactics you saw or your church saw as biblically appropriate and not the other messages that say, speak to people with love, love being your driving virtue, the greatest of these is love and so forth. Tell me about that.
PHELPS-ROPER: So I mean it goes back to Westboro’s understanding of what it means to love, right? So, love thy neighbor, the first time that appears in the Bible is Leviticus 19, Versus 17 and 18. And it says “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart but thy shall in any wise rebuke him and not suffer his sin upon him. Thou shalt not revenge or bear any grudge against the children of thy people but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” So for us, that was a very clear indication, so it says you shouldn’t hate your neighbor, but you should rebuke him when you see him sinning, right? The idea is, and the comparison the church would always make is, if you see somebody, like wandering out into traffic, you have a duty to say, hey, stop that, you’re going to get hurt. And it was a similar idea. Like, somebody is committing sinful acts, then God is going to curse them in this life and then send them to hell in the next.
MARTIN: One of your signs was “God hates your feelings.”
MARTIN: What about within the family? Was that the environment within the house? Don’t have feelings?
PHELPS-ROPER: God hates your feelings applies specifically to any thought or feeling you have that goes against how Westboro understands the Bible. And so, yes, absolutely, any indication that you did not like what was being required of you was going to be met with severe punishment. And —
MARTIN: And you mean physical punishment.
PHELPS-ROPER: I do mean physical punishment.
MARTIN: You mean being —
PHELPS-ROPER: Yes, and you mentioned earlier, like, how is it that this has taken such hold of their minds? How does that become so deeply engrained into you? And part of it is, because as a child, it is physically beaten into you. And that is not something that, you know, it’s something that my family has long denied. It was far worse for my mom’s generation than it was even for me, and even, you know, for my siblings and me. I would use the word abuse, although it’s still hard to use that word to acknowledge it. But that’s, you know, eventually, fear of God replaces fear of pain. Fear of hell replaces fear of that physical pain.
MARTIN: When did it start to change for you?
PHELPS-ROPER: I got on Twitter in 2009. And you know, the first — you know, at that point, we were very heavily focused on the Jewish community. And so, you know, I, with my cousin — you know, she sends me this list of the 100 most influential Jews on Twitter and number two on that list was a man named David Abitbol who ran a blog called “Jewlicious”. And so he was one of the first people that I targeted.
MARTIN: And by targeted, you mean?
PHELPS-ROPER: I mean I was just sending — it wasn’t a threat or anything. It was tweets — well, I shouldn’t say — well, it was threatening hell, but just basically saying Jews need to really repent of their sins, you know. And he mistook the tone of my tweet and said, thanks, Megan, that’s handy with Yom Kippur coming out. And so that I made sure — I was new to Twitter. So my next post, I will make sure I wouldn’t be misunderstood. I said Jewish customs are dead rote rituals that will take them all to hell. And his response was really, swift, cutting and angry is how I would describe it. And, but almost immediately, his tone changed. He realized that I was sincere, that I really believe that what I was doing was the right thing. And so, he started making these arguments. He started asking questions, trying to understand where I was coming from. And this was happening not — it was happening with David. It was also happening with quite a few other people. David’s specific role that early on was that he found after about a year of conversation, he found the first internal inconsistency in our ideology. And there was no answer from the Bible to explain it.
MARTIN: What was it? Do you remember?
PHELPS-ROPER: Absolutely, yes. I’ll never forget it. He was asking about one of our protest signs that was calling for the death penalty for gays. And you know, he said — first, he quoted the New Testament, where Jesus says let he who is without sin cast the first stone. He was like, didn’t Jesus say? And I said, yes. We’re not casting stones. We’re preaching words. That’s how we always answer that. And he said, yes, but you’re advocating that the government cast stones, which was, like kind of set me back for a second. And then he said, and also, didn’t your mother have your oldest brother out of wedlock? And I said, yes, and she repented of that sin. And so she doesn’t deserve that punishment. And he said, yes, but if she had been executed, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to repent and be forgiven, so why are you advocating the death penalty for these people? Why are you trying to take away this opportunity to repent? And so, those two arguments, those two things, like addressed, you know — we had these responses, these canned responses. And we really believe that they seem to be, you know, correct answers. And then he showed the inconsistency there.
MARTIN: What was the tipping point that made you feel and believe that you had to leave?
PHELPS-ROPER: The first contradiction that David found, that was extremely destabilizing for me, right? It was, like I said, it was the first time that I had come to realize that we could be wrong. And then also within the church, this group of men decided that they were the ones who should be ruling the church, that they should be the ones in these leadership positions. And so, they just literally — it was like overnight, they just took over. It was without — there was no vote. The way that Westboro has always operated was that everything had to be done, you know, with unanimity. So if anybody disagreed, if anybody thought that we shouldn’t take this action, we wouldn’t. So, the fact that this group of men just took over, and then they started doing things that I believed were unscriptural. So, for instance, photo-shopping themselves into pickets that they had not actually attended. So it was all to get attention for the message, right? Because remember, for them, that’s the only goal is to publish this message that is the truth of God.
MARTIN: For you to contemplate leaving, I mean, that must have been devastating. I don’t know any other way to describe it. I mean how did you finally decide that you had to leave?
PHELPS-ROPER: So, I come to this understanding that I had this list of things that I believed were wrong and unbiblical, unscriptural. And you know, eventually, when I realized it wasn’t just these few things, I came to believe we were just people. Like, I had always seen us as this divine institution that God himself was leading, Jesus Christ himself was leading for a Baptist Church. And when I came to believe that that wasn’t the case anymore, you know, there was a very brief moment where I thought, could I pretend to go along with this just so I could keep my family? And almost immediately, no, there is no chance that I am going to keep doing these things that I understand are wrong, that are devastating to other people. And this was one of the things that after I left, David was instrumental after I left to helping me realize that there were things I could do to repair, to make amends. He taught me about this concept in Judaism called tikkun olam which means to repair the world. He said you and your family have added to the brokenness in the world and you have a duty as much as you can to find a way to repair some of it. And that was this really hopeful moment, that I don’t have to — in fact, running away and hiding doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t do anything to convince my family to change their ways and it doesn’t help any of the people that I spent all those years hurting.
MARTIN: Do you have any relationship with your family now?
PHELPS-ROPER: My family, they cannot have anything to do with us. They believe that, you know, their duty is to deliver me to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.
MARTIN: So, are they praying for your death the way that they prayed for other people’s deaths?
PHELPS-ROPER: I think maybe. I don’t know about my parents initially. I will say, this is something, this praying for people to die thing, that’s something that I came to believe was unscriptural. And for years, I made these arguments to my family, in writing, privately in letters that didn’t get responses and in interviews. And for a while, they just doubled down. Eventually, they came to stop doing it. So, I mean, there are several instances like that of things that I came to believe were unscriptural and from the outside have been reaching out to them, trying to find ways of helping them moderate, to change their minds on these issues so that they don’t do as much damage to other people.
MARTIN: How can you reach out to them, though, when they won’t talk to you?
PHELPS-ROPER: It’s very one-sided. It’s basically me writing. But the thing about — one of the wonderful things about Twitter is that it gives me a window into what they’re thinking, what they’re preaching, how things are changing. And so, that’s my window. That’s how I know how things are, you know, what’s happening there. And where I can — I’m basically doing what David did for me, except they’re not, you know, they’re not answering.
MARTIN: Do you still love them?
PHELPS-ROPER: I do, absolutely. Absolutely. And I’m sure they are frustrated with how I show that love now and that I am out here basically trying to dismantle this thing that they have come to build. But you know, I do, I love them, I care about them. I understand that they’re well intentioned, that they’re trying to do what they believe is right. And for me, that’s a hopeful thing, right? Because that is something that I can — if we can find a way of reframing it, helping them see outside of this doggedly, persistently closed system that they were raised in, again, that there’s hope for change.
MARTIN: Do you still have faith? And if so, in what?
PHELPS-ROPER: I’m not religious anymore. But I absolutely am a believer in humanity, in the power of human connection, in the idea of grace. You know, people had grace for me when I seemed not to deserve it the most. And the fact that they were able to suspend their judgments long enough to have those conversations with me completely changed my life. And it turned me — so, now instead of me being out there with Westboro creating new victims, I’m now, again, working for healing and change to try to repair some of that damage. That is huge, and it all came from that little bit, that willingness to suspend judgment, to become curious to realize that I had been raised in this, that it was — you know, that grace, I really believe in it. So, I will say I’m not religious anymore, but I absolutely still feel like a believer in so many ways.
MARTIN: Megan Phelps-Roper, thank you so much for talking with us.
PHELPS-ROPER: Thank you.
About This Episode EXPAND
Steven Reed, the first African American mayor-elect of Montgomery, Alabama, joins Christiane Amanpour to explain the to-do list he will tackle in office. Alex Gibney and Mikhail Khodorkovsky discuss the documentary “Citizen K.” Megan Phelps-Roper tells Michel Martin why she broke away from the Westboro Baptist Church.LEARN MORE