Editor's note: This interview contains a homophobic slur.
Growing up as a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan Phelps-Roper was taught that God hated gay people. The church, which was founded by Phelps-Roper's grandfather, Fred Phelps Sr., became infamous for picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers — whose deaths it believed were a punishment for America's sins and its tolerance of homosexuality.
Phelps-Roper began protesting at funerals when she was 19, though she started picketing at a younger age. "We held signs that said, 'Thank God for dead soldiers.' 'Thank God for IEDs.' 'God hates you,' " she says.
It wasn't until a few years later, when she began running the Westboro Twitter account, that she began to truly question the church's hateful teachings. Many Twitter users responded angrily to her, but others seemed sincerely interested in creating a dialogue.
"They started asking questions and digging into our theology. ... As they were able to find these contradictions and present them to me," Phelps-Roper says. "I understood that we could be wrong about something. ... That was the beginning of the end for me. I had this unshakable faith and it had been shaken."
In 2012, Phelps-Roper decided to leave the Westboro Baptist Church. She says it "was devastating" to think about what leaving would mean for her and her family. "Ex-members are seen as the worst of the worst — even worse than gay people, or Jewish people, or any other anybody else the church considers sinners."
Her new memoir is Unfollow.
On how the church justified its homophobic teachings
Westboro would quote this passage from the book of Leviticus that, for them, shows that the definition of "love thy neighbor" is to rebuke your neighbor when you see him sinning. And if you don't do that, then you hate your neighbor in your heart. Because you are watching this person go down this bad path that is going to lead them to the curses of God in this life, and hell in the world to come. And you failed to warn them. You didn't give them the opportunity to repent, to share with them the truth of God.
On how the church interpreted and quoted the Bible
We read the whole Bible, cover to cover, over and over again. ... It wasn't that we read selective parts of the Bible. It was that we interpreted it in this very selective way. Gramps [her grandfather, who founded the church] would say, "The love of God is reserved for the penitent." That was us. Everybody else was proud of their sin and hell-bound. And we were the only ones doing the work of God. ...
[Quoting the Bible] was proof that we were not doing this of our own selves. This wasn't because we had this inherent hatred for gay people, or other people, and that we were looking to the Bible to justify it. It was that we derived our positions from the Bible, and because it came from outside of us, from this source that we considered divine, then as long as it was in [the Bible], then it was absolutely justified. ... We were supposed to be able to use the Bible's words to explain what we were doing, and if we couldn't do that, then we shouldn't be doing it.
On protesting at the funerals of U.S. soldiers
I went to my mother right before I was set to go protest my first soldier's funeral and asked my mother: "I need to understand why we're doing this." ... My mom starts the conversation in the book of Deuteronomy, this passage where God says, "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" — that's how my mom referred to these the fallen soldiers, as children, because many of them were my age and younger, and I was only 19 — "Can we agree that a dead child is a curse from God and not a blessing?" ...
It's these passages where there is an explicit connection between sin and punishment. And specifically, as Westboro would put it, when a nation has institutionalized sin against God, God responds. One of the weapons in his arsenal is to kill their children in battle. So we saw it as a loving thing to go to these families and say, "If you don't repent, you will also likewise perish."
On how she met her now-husband on Twitter, and how he helped change her mind about the church
His first tweet was kind of nasty, mean. But immediately his tone shifted. I think he expected, like many people expect, that Westboro was full of hillbillies and rednecks. And to meet somebody who is, as he would put it, intelligent but misguided — he was really shocked by that, that a smart person could truly believe these things in the 21st century.
And so he started asking questions. Some other people on Twitter were making more theological arguments. His were more emotional, kind of forcing me to look at the human impact of what we were doing. We'd always been dismissive of the idea that what we were doing was truly hurtful to anybody. They were just being dramatic. They were worshipping their feelings. So we'd been very dismissive and callous to those things. ...
I started to feel empathy, and over time, I started to feel like I was becoming part of this community on Twitter. And that was the first time that I really felt ashamed of what I was doing. These interactions are taking place over time. We're building rapport in a way that's making me start to feel like I start to respect what they're thinking, and to really consider how they're feeling, and then feeling like I was violating those norms by celebrating death.
On her relationship with her family since leaving the church
The understanding is that if you even see them out in public, there should be no interaction at all. They just pretend not to see you. ... Shortly after my sister and I left ... we realized pretty quickly, we have nothing to lose, and we have nothing to gain by following those rules. We have nothing to lose by reaching out to them. ...
I realized that if I was changed by these discussions with outsiders, if they could find a way to get through to me even though I did not want to be gotten through to — I was so zealous and I was such a hardcore believer — how stupid would it be, how wrong would it be not to have that same hope that my family could change, that my mother could change? And so we start sending letters, and birthday gifts, and postcards, and tweets, and talking in interviews that we know that they'll see. And making these arguments, and hoping that — even if it doesn't cause them to leave Westboro, if it can cause them to moderate in some way, if I can help them see that protesting funerals is not a biblical thing ... So we make these arguments and hope that something will get through. And I think some things have.
Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The now notorious Westboro Baptist Church preached hate. My guest is the granddaughter of the church's founder. Megan Phelps-Roper was taught as a child that God commanded her to hate sinners. And the sinners perhaps most worthy of her hatred were gay people, but also worthy of God's wrath were the American soldiers who lost their lives in the line of duty - because their deaths were punishment for America's sins and its tolerance of homosexuality. That's why the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of soldiers, unmoved by their grieving families and friends.
Perhaps you remember that one of those soldier's families sued the church. The case wound up in the Supreme Court. The majority decision ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church on the grounds that even hateful speech, when addressing matters of public import on public property, needs to be protected.
Megan Phelps-Roper left the church seven years ago when she was in her mid-20s. She's written a new book called "Unfollow: A Memoir Of Loving And Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church." Megan Phelps-Roper, welcome to FRESH AIR.
The Westboro Baptist Church was built around hating gay people and seeing gay people as like epitomizes everything that was wrong with the world. What were some of the signs you would hold about gay people? And I want to preface this by saying that these signs used words that are very hurtful and hateful, so just be prepared for some offensive language.
MEGAN PHELPS-ROPER: So the early signs - some of the early signs used the word gay, actually. That's how we referred to gay people. So they said "Gays Are Worthy Of Death" - was one of the - one of the earliest ones that we used. And very quickly, we came to our most, you know, famous message - infamous message, which was "God Hates F***," which was the name of our - became the name for our website as well.
Although - you know, you said that, you know, Westboro Baptist Church was organized around hating gay people. That actually isn't how it was framed for me as a child growing up in the church. It's not how the church sees what it's doing. They try to separate out the hatred of God from what they view as the definition of love thy neighbor.
So Westboro would quote this passage from the book of Leviticus that, for them, shows that the definition of love thy neighbor is to rebuke your neighbor when you see him sinning. And if you don't do that, then you hate your neighbor in your heart because you are watching this person go down this bad path that is going to lead them to the curses of God in this life and hell in the world to come and you failed to warn them. You didn't give them the opportunity to repent, so share with them the truth of God, which is the love of God.
GROSS: Wow. So by holding signs that say God hates gay people, you were really loving gay people by doing them the favor and telling them that God hated them and offering them the opportunity to repent. That's a...
GROSS: ...Lot of difficult logic to wrap your brain around.
PHELPS-ROPER: Yeah. I mean, for Westboro, though, it just - it's so plain and clear - right? - that this is the standard of God. And so you know, in the New Testament, there's this passage that says this is the love of God - that you keep his commandments and that his commandments are not grievous. And so you know, the idea that, you know, to show your love for God you have to be obedient to those standards - and again, for Westboro, it's a very - there is - there are no doubts. It is very plain and clear. This is what God requires. And so if you don't follow these standards, then bad things will happen to you.
GROSS: So another thing the church was very famous for was picketing the funerals of soldiers - of American soldiers. What were some of the signs you and your family would carry when you were demonstrating at the funerals of soldiers?
PHELPS-ROPER: We held signs that said "Thank God For Dead Soldiers," "Thank God For IEDs."
GROSS: "God Hates You."
PHELPS-ROPER: "God Hates You," "You're Going To Hell." There was another - oh, "Pray For More Dead Soldiers."
PHELPS-ROPER: That became a sign that we held as well. And that was...
GROSS: What was the rationale for that? How can you justify - like, how were you - like, what were you told to - that would...
GROSS: ...Justify this kind of hatred for soldiers who'd died?
PHELPS-ROPER: I was 19 years old when we started protesting soldiers' funerals, and this was a question that I had. You know, we had spent my life, growing up, celebrating death and tragedy. You know, anytime some - you know, some celebrity that the church viewed as sinful - which was basically everyone - whenever some famous person would die, you know, there would - we would be celebrating.
So there was a point, you know, when I was 11 years old and, you know, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died within a week of each other. And I - you know, modeling what my grandfather had said, you know, I said, two whores in a week. Like, that's literally how we thought about, you know, sinful people who passed away. And protesting their funerals was also a habit.
But in - when I was 19 years old, that's when we started protesting soldiers' funerals. And so I went to my mother a couple weeks after this started - right before I was set to go protest my first soldier's funeral - and asked my mother - you know, why - I need to understand why we're doing this. I need to be able to articulate this when people ask me why we're doing this. And so we sat down as a family. This is, you know, how we always - we were having bible studies every single day and talking about current events in light of Westboro's understanding of the Bible. And so we sit down and start having this conversation.
My mom starts the conversation in the book of Deuteronomy, this passage where God says, 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, you know, can we all agree that a dead child - that's how - my mom, you know, referring to these - the fallen soldiers as children because many of them were my age and younger, and I was only, you know, 19. She said, can we agree that a dead child is a curse from God and not a blessing?
And then she directed us to these other passages. Like in the book of Judges, there's one that says, they chose new gods, then was war in their gates. And then from the book of Hosea, it says, they have deeply corrupted themselves. Therefore, God says, I will remember their iniquity, and I will visit their sins. Though they bring up their children, yet will I bereave them, that there shall not be a man left.
And so it's these passages that - where there is an explicit connection between sin and punishment. And specifically, you know, as Westboro would put it, if when a nation has institutionalized sin against God, God responds, one of the weapons in his arsenal is to kill their children in battle. So again, we saw it as a loving thing to go to these families and say, if you don't repent, you will also likewise perish. That's also from the - you know, Jesus says that in the New Testament.
GROSS: What was it like for you to be carrying signs like that while watching people grieve their son, their husband, their wife, their parent? You were telling them God hated them and that that's why they'd just lost their loved one. God hated them; God hated the dead soldier; God hated what America had become because America had become gay people and fornicators. And - so tell me how it felt.
PHELPS-ROPER: The very first soldier's funeral protest that I went to was in Omaha, Neb. And again, I was 19. I felt like we were trespassing in that moment, which was not a normal feeling for me on the picket line because, you know, we basically saw, you know, public sidewalks as - that was our territory. That was our turf. You know, I had grown up standing on public sidewalks, saying things that people, you know, were very provoked by and were upset by. And - but standing outside that first soldier's funeral, it was eerily quiet. You know, there was so many people. But you know, almost no - you know, there were people coming and going. There were a lot of police officers standing, you know, kind of standing guard between us and the people going into the funeral. You know, everybody's, you know, over there and in uniform and looking very serious and somber - and some of them, obviously, looking at us, completely disgusted. And I felt like we were trespassing. And it was very uncomfortable.
Very shortly after that first funeral, though, the dynamic at those protests started to change. So there was this group called the Patriot Guard Riders who would come out with American flags and kind of stand in a line to try to have those flags block our picket signs. So standing between - standing guard between us and the family. And sometimes they would bring - you know, there would be a lot of motorcycles. And they would rev their engines so that, you know, our chants and songs - singing praises to the homemade bombs that were killing these soldiers - that that those would be drowned out by these motorcycle engines.
It had started to become like a game, almost like a circus, like, how we could get our message through these barriers that they were trying to put up. And obviously, looking back, that's something that absolutely fills me with regret. At the time...
GROSS: Yeah, because you're turning those funerals into a drama about you.
PHELPS-ROPER: Yes, exactly. You know, and we - we would say it wasn't about us. We would say that it was about God. And that was how we viewed it. My grandfather, who founded the church and was the only pastor there all my life, he would say, this message is so important, it is more important for these people to hear. They need it more than they need air to breathe, food to eat or water to drink. So it was this very serious thing, a very somber and sober thing for us as well.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Megan Phelps-Roper. Her new memoir is called "Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving And Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Megan Phelps-Roper. Her grandfather founded the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. This is a church that was famous for hating gay people and for saying God hates gay people. It was also famous for picketing the funerals of American soldiers. She's written a memoir about growing up in this church and then leaving it. It's called "Unfollow."
The family of one of the dead soldiers whose funeral you picketed - the family sued the Westboro Baptist Church. And that went as high as the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the church on First Amendment grounds and basically said this is really hateful stuff, but the First Amendment allows you to do it.
And when you found out that this suit was going to happen, your family prayed for the family that was suing you to die so that you wouldn't lose the court case and end up being bankrupted by the damages. Did you really pray for - I mean, were you able to do that, to pray for this family to die?
PHELPS-ROPER: Yes. I mean, everything - the thing about Westboro, again, is that there were always Bible passages to justify what we were doing. So this - that idea that you're talking about, it's imprecatory prayer, you know, to pray for the curses of God on your enemies. And - you know, so this comes largely from the Old Testament, where David is praying to God, asking for his enemies' children to be fatherless and for their wives to be widows. So he's explicitly calling for, you know, the wrath of God to come down on these people. And so that was kind of our motto.
And this was another thing that I came to believe was wrong, you know, before I left Westboro, this - because there are these passages. Yes, there are - that is a scripturally-derived position. So, you know, God called David a man after my own heart. So the fact that he was doing this, clearly, this must be an example for us.
But then, in the New Testament, you have Jesus saying love your enemies and then Paul saying bless them that curse you, bless and curse not. So this is an explicit contradiction, you know, to what we were doing. But for a while, you know, for a long time, until I came to finally see that contradiction, I absolutely thought that this was the right thing to do.
GROSS: I'm seeing a pattern here. Every question I ask you, you have a quote from scripture.
GROSS: I mean, it seems to me like every step of the way when you were growing up, everything that you did would have to be justified by a quote or explained by a quote from scripture.
PHELPS-ROPER: Yes. And they would absolutely see that as a good thing. It was - again, it was proof that we were not doing this of our own selves. This wasn't because we had this inherent hatred for gay people or other people and that we were looking to the Bible to justify it. It was that we derived our positions from the Bible. And because it came from outside of us, from this source that we considered divine, then as long as it was in there, then it was absolutely justified.
And so this is also - you know, there's a - I was about to quote the Bible again (laughter). Maybe I shouldn't. But - I mean, that was - you know, we were supposed to be able to use the Bible's words to explain what we were doing. And if we couldn't do that, then we shouldn't be doing it.
GROSS: So you grew up believing that your family, who were the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, that they were basically right and everybody else was wrong because...
GROSS: ...No one else believed - even people who are incredibly homophobic didn't believe that you should be picketing the funerals of dead soldiers. I mean, you crossed so many lines.
GROSS: But you must have felt like you were so privileged to be growing up in the only family in America that really understood what the Bible means and what justice really means and what righteousness really means.
PHELPS-ROPER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, we thought other people, people outside the church, were either evil or delusional, essentially. And...
GROSS: Or ignorant.
PHELPS-ROPER: And - or ignorant, yeah. We absolutely believed that we had the truth of God. And the thing is my grandfather generally didn't say things like, we are the only people going to heaven. He would instead point to other people - other - you know, other groups, Methodists and Lutherans and Catholics and, you know, anybody who didn't believe what we believed. And he would point to them and say, here's what they believe. Here's why they're wrong. Here's the chapter and verse that shows it. Memorize it.
So there is this - in other words, by constantly attacking other people for what they believed, it became very clear to us that there was no refuge outside of Westboro, that, you know, the only conclusion you can come to is that - and they would say, we - this is the only church on the landscape that is preaching the word of God, the unvarnished word of God, and not trying to change it, to temper it to be palatable to the human mind, which is inherently at odds with God.
So absolutely, it felt like such a privilege. Like, how lucky are - and that's - they would say that, you know, how lucky we were to have been born in this place where God meets with his people. You know, and that's absolutely how I saw it, you know, from a very young age.
GROSS: We should talk a little bit about the origin story of the Westboro Baptist Church. It was founded by your grandfather, who was the preacher for the whole time you were an active member of the church. He moved to Topeka, Kan., in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. And this was the Supreme Court decision that overturned separate but equal and said that school segregation - legally mandated school segregation was no longer legal.
So that's when your grandfather moved to Topeka. He became a civil rights lawyer. He was honored by the NAACP. How did he end up founding this church?
PHELPS-ROPER: For my grandfather, there was no distinction. There was no tension between his support for civil rights for black people and his animus toward gay people because both of those positions were scripturally derived. You know, about, you know, discrimination against black people, he would quote these passages, you know - God has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the earth. And so it was necessary for all of us to be equal under the law. The verse was, one law shall be to him that is home-born and to the stranger that sojourns among you. So he absolutely believed in equality under the law.
But he also believed, you know, because it also comes from the Bible, that passage in Leviticus about - you know, says, thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind. It is abomination. So for him, it was as clear as day, as plain as day, that we should not - that racism is a sin and that gay people - that God hated them.
GROSS: Should also mention he was disbarred.
PHELPS-ROPER: He was. He was first disbarred by the state of - by the, you know, courts in the state of Kansas. There was a lot of - I mean, and there are, you know, legal experts who say that he was disbarred from the courts in Kansas because of the nature of his clientele, because he was taking on unpopular cases and unpopular clients and, you know, doing the civil rights work, and they hated him for it. And so that was actually the cause for that. My mom said that it was, you know, unique in the history of jurisprudence that - for the state courts to disbar him and for the federal court, you know, not to just rubber-stamp that, for them not to kick them - kick my grandfather out of their courts as well.
But then he was eventually disbarred from the federal court as well, and that was for lying and ethics violations or something. And that's - to me, that - that's still a little bit murky. I mean, I don't - you know, I wasn't there for it. I heard the way that my mom's generation spoke about it, that they basically chalked it up to the same thing as the state court violations, that it wasn't really a legitimate thing.
GROSS: My guest is Megan Phelps-Roper, author of the new book "Unfollow: A Memoir Of Loving And Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church." After a break, we'll talk about how her advocacy for the church on social media led to meeting her husband and questioning her faith and leaving the church. And Justin Chang will review the new film that won the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up in the notorious Westboro Baptist Church which was founded by her grandfather. It preached that God hates homosexuals. Church members protested at the funerals of American soldiers, carrying picket signs with slogans, like, Thank God for IEDs, Thank God for Dead Soldiers. The church preached that the deaths were part of God's punishment for America's sinful behavior and its tolerance of homosexuality. Megan Phelps-Roper left the church seven years ago, when she was in her mid-twenties. She's written a new book, called, "Unfollow: A Memoir Of Loving And Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church."
You became the social media person for the Westboro Baptist Church. And you were as provocative as you could be 'cause it would get a good response. And that was your goal - to, you know, basically inflame people. But through that, I think it's fair to say, that helped you start to doubt your own beliefs. Tell us a little bit about some of the tweets that came back to you from the outside that made you think twice about what you were believing and what you were writing.
PHELPS-ROPER: I got on Twitter in 2009. So I was 23 at the time. For me, I just saw it as a place to go and spread Westboro's message. And initially, the response that I got there was the same kind of, you know, hostility and contention that I got on the picket line. But pretty quickly, that changed. You know, of course, there was still a lot of hatefulness kind of being reflected back at me. But then there was this group of, you know, individuals who started - who recognized that I was sincere, who recognized that I thought that I was doing the right thing.
So then they started asking questions and kind of digging into our theology in a way for them to actually understand it in - you know, with nuance that's really difficult to find when you are, you know, looking at a picket sign, three-to-five words on a neon sign. It's not easy to get into the - to find contradictions in there because people don't really understand what we were trying to say a lot of the time. And so as they're able to find these contradictions and present them to me in a way that I understood that we could be wrong about something - and for me that was mind-blowing because, you know, it meant not just - it wasn't just my grandfather who was an attorney.
My mom - both of my parents, actually, and my mom and her siblings and many of their spouses are attorneys. They're very intelligent, and their arguments are well-crafted and tightly woven. And so they always had an answer. There was always a Bible verse to justify. And so now to be presented with, you know, this contradiction and to realize that, no, this really is a logical contradiction, it is a Scriptural contradiction, the realization that we could be wrong was - that was the beginning of the end for me.
GROSS: You met the man who became your husband through social media during this period when you were tweeting the church's beliefs. How did he engage you, or how did you engage him?
PHELPS-ROPER: His first tweet was kind of nasty, mean. But immediately, his tone shifted. He was really surprised that, you know - I think he expected, like many people expect, that Westboro's full of hillbillies and rednecks. And to meet somebody who is, you know - as he would put it - intelligent but, you know, misguided, he was really shocked by that, that a smart person could truly believe these things in the 21st century. And so he started asking questions. And unlike other - some other people on Twitter were making more theological arguments. His were more emotional, kind of forcing me to look at the human impact of what we were doing.
So we had always kind of - we'd always been dismissive of the idea that what we were doing was truly hurtful to anybody. You know, they were just being dramatic. They were worshipping their feelings. So we'd been very dismissive and callous to those things. And to have this person - so my husband was anonymous. My now-husband, he was anonymous for the first seven months that we were engaging on Twitter and then also on Words with Friends.
And over time, you know, we're developing this rapport, just like I was doing with other people on Twitter. And I'm coming to understand where he's coming from. He's asking me questions, and I'm asking him questions back. And so it's kind of this back and forth. And I started to feel empathy. And over time, I started to feel like I was becoming part of this community on Twitter. And that was when I - the first time that I really felt ashamed of what I was doing.
GROSS: It must have been hard for you at this point to think, to compare what you were being told by outsiders with what your family had told you all along about what the Bible demands. I mean, you never really had to think 'cause you were given all the answers in phrases from the Bible that you could just quote as the answer to anyone else's questions. You know - but what about this? And you'd have a, you know, quote from Scripture to give back. So I mean, was it hard to engage, to turn on that part of your brain that required you as an individual to think something through and to come to, like, your own conclusion about something?
PHELPS-ROPER: It was terrifying, the cognitive dissonance, you know, when I look back. Because I absolutely believed that my family was righteous, that what we were doing was the truth of God. We dedicated our lives to it. And then to have these doubts creeping in and to start feeling ashamed and feeling like it feels like what we're doing is wrong. And then to start to realize that there are things in the Bible that actually show that what we're doing is wrong. Which, I mean, I mentioned some of those before.
Trying to make sense of this was impossible, right? Because both of them felt absolutely true, and they were in contradiction with one another. And so that's why it took time for me to be able to finally come to the conclusion, the realization, that, like, oh, my God, what if we're just people? That was my actual thought. Like, what if we're just people? What if this isn't God Himself commanding us to do these things?
What if we just have - we read these things in the Bible and, you know, Grams is telling us to do this, and there always seemed to be an explanation, but - but we're not doing right. So this, it can't be divine. You know, it was a terrifying feeling because then the thought that comes immediately on the heels of that is if we are just people, I can't keep doing this.
GROSS: So it took you a while of going back and forth, of deciding to leave and then deciding to stay, and then deciding to leave again with your sister. What was it like for you when you told your family that you were leaving the church and leaving them, knowing that they would consider you an apostate?
PHELPS-ROPER: It was devastating. You know? And it was devastating to know the impact it was going to have on me, that I was going to be losing them. But it was also, I think, even worse knowing what I was doing, how it would impact them, how it would affect them. I had a brother who left when I was 18 and he was 19. And so I had seen the impact. You know, I had seen and felt myself what it does to people, you know, when you leave. And then, you know, the way that they have to talk about you, the way that they have to come to think about you, to see you as this betrayer, as this, you know, this - ex members are seen as the worst of the worst. Even worse than gay people, or Jewish people or anybody else the church considers centers. Ex-members are the worst of all.
And so that, knowing that they were going to be talking about me that way was painful, but it was even worse knowing that I had been so close with my mother. You know, she had basically been my best friend. And to know that there was going to be this huge hole in her life - you know, she had called me her right hand for many years at that point. And to know what it was going to do to her, and to my dad and to my family was even worse than knowing what - how it was going to affect me.
GROSS: But you did leave, and once you were out in the world, you tried to expose yourself to things, and, I mean, you started reading Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist. What impact did his writings and Sam Harris' writings have on you?
PHELPS-ROPER: It was just a completely different way of seeing the world to look at the Bible critically and, you know, to actually question, is this actually a divine document? Is this the word of God? And you know, the more I looked at it, the more I thought, you know, I don't think this is the word of God. I think this is the word of human beings trying to understand God and how to live and our place in the universe.
And I write about this moment in the book where, you know, I went to - my sister and I, about a month after we left, went to the public library in Lawrence, Kan. And you know, we were gathering books to take on this - we were going to go away and read for a month. So I go, and I'm looking up at the philosophy, you know - the stacks of philosophy books. And, you know, I'm suddenly feeling very small realizing this is, you know, centuries worth of attempts of, you know, humans to understand what it means to live a good life.
And how could we have possibly believed that we alone had had the one true answer and to believe that everyone else was wrong? There was just this special kind of shame and humiliation and, you know, it was this reminder to me of the need to - for humility, you know, and how we see the world and other peoples. Like, there - we all - our experiences are necessarily limited and finite, and to - I just felt this sudden realization that - the need to be aware always that there are things outside of our experiences that should change how we think about things. And so it was just this kind of really overwhelming moment.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Megan Phelps-Roper, author of the new memoir "Unfollow: A Memoir Of Loving And Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Megan Phelps-Roper. She is the granddaughter of the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. She was raised in the church and left the church when she was in her mid-20s. The church's teachings were based around hating homosexuals, and the church was famous for picketing the funerals of American soldiers. After you left the church and said goodbye to your family, was that supposed to be the final goodbye? Once you became an apostate, were they even allowed to talk with you anymore?
PHELPS-ROPER: They're not supposed to. They're - it's - that is the understanding - is that if you even see them out in public, generally, you know, there should be no interaction at all. They just pretend not to see you.
GROSS: So did you communicate with them afterwards?
PHELPS-ROPER: Shortly after I left - my sister and I left, we were talking, and, you know, we had at first been following the rules about not contacting them. And then we realized pretty quickly we have nothing to lose and we have nothing to gain by following those rules. We have nothing to lose by reaching out to them. And so, you know, I kind of started to have this feeling, you know, I had been despairing about of ever having my family again, and then, you know, of course, I realized that if I was changed by these discussions with outsiders, if they could find a way to get through to me even though I did not want to be gotten through to - I was so zealous and I was such a hardcore believer - how stupid would it be? How wrong would it be not to have that same hope that my family could change, that my mother could change?
And so, you know, we start sending letters and birthday gifts and postcards and tweets and talking in interviews that we know that they'll see and making these arguments and hoping that even if it doesn't cause them to leave Westboro, if it can cause them to moderate in some way, if it can help them see that protesting funerals is not a biblical thing, that is not the fulfillment of Paul saying to the weak, I became as weak - so we make these arguments and hope that something will get through. And I think some things have.
GROSS: So - but your family still is in the church?
PHELPS-ROPER: They are still in the church, but the church has definitely moderated quite a bit in the seven years almost now since I left.
GROSS: Your grandfather died. The founder of the church died a few years ago. He didn't expect to die because he expected the second coming and the apocalypse to happen before he died. So when he was in hospice, did he know he was dying? And was he disillusioned by the fact that the second coming hadn't happened, Jesus hadn't returned?
PHELPS-ROPER: I saw - I got to see him in hospice a few weeks before he passed away. And there was definitely some degree of dementia, but there were also moments of lucidity. And I think more than, you know, being disillusioned about the fact that the second coming hadn't happened yet, I think he was disillusioned by the church. I think he was disillusioned by how he had been treated by them, the sort of cruelty and lack of mercy and lack of care that they had because, you know, they excommunicated him a...
PHELPS-ROPER: As it's been told to me by people who were present at the time but then who, you know, left the church later, he was excommunicated because he had gone out on the front lawn of the church, which is directly across the street from the Equality House, this house painted in the colors of the rainbow, you know, this kind of standing symbol against the church that was - it was done by Planting Peace, this charitable organization. And, you know, he'd gone out on the front lawn and called out to them and - sorry...
GROSS: The colors are more like the rainbow flag as opposed to the...
PHELPS-ROPER: The rainbow flag, exactly. Sorry.
GROSS: It's not like, we hate this church. It's like, we stand for...
PHELPS-ROPER: For - exactly, for the LGBT community. Yes.
GROSS: ...For equality and the LGBT community. Yeah.
PHELPS-ROPER: Exactly. So he went out onto the front lawn of the church and called out to those people and said, you're good people. So my brother, who was there at the time but left shortly before Gramps passed away, said that that was the proximate cause of his being excommunicated, that - they said that he had cast in his lot with the sodomites.
GROSS: Wow. Did it break your heart that when your grandfather finally stopped hating gay people and renounced some of the beliefs that he created the church on, that he was excommunicated for that? Or maybe he wanted to be excommunicated. Maybe he was happy to part ways with the church.
PHELPS-ROPER: I don't think he was happy to part ways with them. But I do - it did absolutely break my heart. I remember thinking, you know, people would look at that and think, one, you know, too little, too late. This is, you know, after spending all these decades doing things that were harmful to gay people. For you to now say this is - you know, and then to be exact mitigated by your church in the way that many, you know, families of gay people, when they come out, cut them off, you're just getting a taste of your own medicine.
It was painful to me to think of our family treating him that way in his last days and hours on this earth. And, you know, this is why I was very grateful to have had that opportunity to go and visit him to show him some kindness, some - and to - I was afraid that he did want to rejoin the church, that he would see my sister and me walk in that door and want nothing to do with us. But that wasn't what happened at all. He was extremely kind. He said that we were wonderful grandchildren. And it was this really, you know, wonderful moment that we got to have.
And - but absolutely, I still have a hard time understanding my family's willingness to do that, that they could be that cruel. I mean, I shouldn't be surprised, knowing what - the way that we treated other people. But it's - that's a really ugly thing.
GROSS: So what kind of work are you doing now, in addition to having written your memoir?
PHELPS-ROPER: So, I mean, I was working at a title insurance company. The book kind of took over for a while. And also, like, I now also do a lot of work with law enforcement organizations, you know, who are addressing issues like deradicalization and hate crimes and counterterrorism, so so many aspects of my life are still kind of wrapped up in trying to make amends for what I did at Westboro. And then I had a baby a year ago. She just turned 1. And she is the joy of my life. She takes up a lot of time, and I am very happy for her to.
GROSS: How are you trying to raise your daughter differently from how you were raised? Because most of us, the kind of parenting we know is the kind of parenting we were brought up with. And your parenting was so strict and so ideological. I'm sure you don't want to do that with your daughter, but do you feel like you know an alternative?
PHELPS-ROPER: This is something that I have been thinking about actively even since before I got pregnant. And I started reading books about child-rearing and how, like - how do you - and I do still have questions about, you know, how do you teach - there was so much good in the way that I was brought up. I - it wasn't just - it wasn't all evil. And so the idea of, you know, how do I - how do you disentangle that? How do you teach the good without the bad? And I think we'll have to figure that out in some ways just as we go.
But I have also, again, actively tried to replace some of the - you know, the need for control, the need to be this kind of very authoritarian parent, you know, to sort of force them to go along with it. I don't generally have those feelings anyway. But you know, replacing it with other things is important because, like, in the - if you don't, in the absence of having a - some new paradigm, it's easy to go back to just what you know.
I think the thing that I think about a lot these days is that I have to be very conscious of the fact that I'm not raising my daughter to be my daughter. I'm not raising her to be a church member. I'm not raising her to grow up and live in the house next door and help me, you know, do the things that I think are right. I'm raising her to be her own human being, that she's going to grow up and go to college and make her own decisions and live her own life.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
PHELPS-ROPER: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Megan Phelps-Roper is the author of the new book "Unfollow: A Memoir Of Loving And Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church." After a break, Justin Chang will review a new film by the director he describes as one of the world's most exciting filmmakers. This is FRESH AIR.
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