Just this weekend my girlfriend and I watched the two Louis Theroux documentaries about the Westboro Baptist Church – the infamous and highly controversial Christian ministry (cult) that has picketed at military funerals and other high-profile events with deliberately provocative and homophobic placards.
Their actions have caused widespread condemnation across America, with many appalled at how they brainwash their younger members into spewing discriminatory vitriol they don’t even understand.
I’d seen both documentaries before but I’d forgotten how warped and deluded the Phelps family are and how much control Pastor Fred Phelps – the Paterfamilias of the group – exerts on everyone in it.
I fell down a YouTube wormhole after watching them both too, following the story of several of his grandchildren including Megan Phelps-Roper who decided to leave the family after realising the extent of her radicalisation. Her Ted Talk and appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience kept me up into the early hours of Saturday morning.
But now that bespectacled stick-insect of a man is going back to the hate group from Kansas to explore the changes the family at the centre of the church have gone through in recent years, particularly following the death of the aforementioned Pastor Fred Phelps, known as Gramps, in 2014.
In Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, Louis meets Megan to discuss her life since leaving the church, and will also meet a Bradford-born man who admires Westboro’s rhetoric, given his own struggle to fit in with modern day Britain.
Theroux said: “I am always interested in how people change over time – physically and in their outlook – and even more so when they are involved in lifestyles that are somehow wrong-headed or self-sabotaging.
“With our unique access to the inner workings of the Westboro Baptist Church over the last 13 years, we’ve been able to track the changes in an extreme religious group from the inside, and also from the perspective of its ex-members.
“We’ve been able to tell a story about indoctrination, where it comes from, how it is enforced, but also about deradicalisation, and the way in which a handful of those who were formerly zealots have managed to break free and take a kinder, less hateful view of the world.”
He added: “Gramps’ angry and bigoted outlook had been the bedrock of Westboro’s practices and I was curious to see whether his death might have caused any kind of break up or re-evaluation within the church, especially since there had been rumours that Fred Phelps might have had some kind of change of heart at the end of his life.
“It was exciting going back for thirds. For their own reasons – to do with spreading their twisted take on the gospels – Westboro let me back in. For my part, it was a chance to see the strange machinations of psychology, religion and social conditioning.”
Honestly, I’m so excited to see this – I’ve even just sent my girlfriend this article, and I never do that. I highly advise listening to Megan Phelps Roper’s story to understand the psychology of the church’s members and how it’s able to exert absolute control of its members even in face of their own hypocrisy. It’s fascinating stuff.
Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family will air on BBC Two later in 2019. I can’t wait.
Images via BBC
Charismatic, witty, charming, engaging - four things Joshua Rogers will never be. Thankfully, he’s a semi-competent writer, who, after graduating university with two mostly pointless degrees, joined The Hook two years ago. He subsequently honed his writing skills over the course of several sex-related articles, bringing a very public shame to his family's good name.