One of my former students recommended UNFOLLOW to me, a memoir written by Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Fred Phelps (1929 – 2014), the (in)famous pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, Topeka, Kansas.
Some people may not be aware that Fred Phelps began his career as a civil rights attorney—someone who, in the 1960s, took on racial discrimination cases no other lawyer would touch. Today, he is best remembered as a preacher who vociferously opposed homosexuality, spreading his message “God Hates Fags” both in the pulpit and while picketing in public spaces. He and his followers also picketed the funerals of fallen soldiers with signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Phelps believed soldiers’ deaths (as well as natural disasters) to be God’s punishment for the country’s “bankrupt values,” especially the “sin” of homosexuality. Hence, God unleashes calamity and catastrophe on the United States, a nation in dire need of repentance.
Megan’s experience in her insular world at Westboro Baptist mirrors my own upbringing inasmuch as anything outside the ideology and activities within the church’s orbit was viewed suspiciously—something best to renounce at all costs. Megan explains: “The church had taught us to distrust our own judgment from the time we were children,” often quoting a favorite Scripture passage. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Megan believed herself to be “insufficiently spiritual” to question the elders’ decisions on matters.
My missionary parents and their cohorts made decisions about what I’d be allowed to do (focus on domestic chores), where I’d be allowed to go (stay home if possible—no need to risk being tainted by the world), what I’d be allowed to read (best stick to the Bible), and what I’d be allowed to wear (no jeans, no shorts, no sleeveless garments, and above all, no earrings and no make-up). The prohibitions grew more stringent the older I got. A stock reply to my questions challenging their edicts: “If you were spiritual, you would understand.”
Megan left the Westboro Baptist congregation in her mid-to-late 20s. She gradually realized that the judgments levelled and enforced by the elders under the guise of “church discipline” (mainly shunning) towards people she knew and loved (including her mother and sister) were wrong. “I could no longer blindly trust the judgment of these men.”
Megan also realized that “love within the church had been warped beyond recognition by the elders’…will to punish.” They did this by demanding “unquestioning obedience,” while possessing a “pernicious need for superiority and control,” [and having] “a toxic sense of certainty in their own righteousness.” She struggled. Could she really trust her deceitful and desperately wicked heart to guide her?
I had a similar epiphany when I realized that living my life the way my parents and church leaders insisted I should did not bring about what they promised—peace and joy. How could it? The flimsy deck of cards on which they built their mini-empire promised peace and joy only if I bypassed my “wicked and deceitful heart,” and submitted to the authority of those who set themselves up as knowing better than I ever possibly could.
As Megan moved closer and closer to physically distancing herself from her community, she remembered a letter written by one of her aunts. The letter bore 16-year-old Megan’s signature and was published in the local newspaper. At the time, Megan had agreed with every word her aunt had written, however, as she mulled it over in her mind as an adult, one sentence felt “off” to her. “I’ve watched carefully and listened to my grandfather and those who oppose him. My grandfather’s Bible-preaching is more agreeable to my heart.”
What?! Appealing to her heart as evidence of truth? She writes: “The Bible was true because it was true, regardless of how I—or anyone else—felt about it or any of its teachings.” The infallibility of divinely-revealed Scripture is a sacred doctrine at Westboro Baptist church. The Bible verse about her deceitful and desperately wicked heart circled around her brain. Megan saw a huge contradiction. “We used our hearts to authenticate the moral truth of the Bible—the same Bible that told us our hearts were deceitful.”
Megan’s aunt had shown in that one sentence she wrote for the newspaper that “at the foundation of it all was a belief that our…unreliable, desperately wicked, deceitful hearts had led us true when they told us the Bible was the answer.” *
The scales fell from Megan’s eyes. Not surprisingly, since she comes from a long line of lawyers, she saw that her world was based on an illogical premise. How could the elders’ wicked hearts interpret the Bible truthfully while her heart could not— unless, of course, her heart agreed with the elders’ interpretation?
Megan began planning her exit from the community even though she was torn between love for her family (wanting to remain with them) and the need to be true to her understanding of how haywire things were at Westboro Baptist church.
It takes a while to see through the manipulation of spiritual leaders whose goal (either conscious or unconscious) is to gain power and control over people’s lives. It takes even more time to shake the shackles off from a community whose “elders seiz[e] for themselves the role of the ultimate arbiter of divine truth.”
Even after assenting intellectually to the absurdity that men in my community thought themselves to be ultimate arbiters of Truth, emotional disentanglement from my community (a place that to some degree provided a sense of belonging and safety) lagged way behind. If all we have is our heart, why do we esteem the discerning power of the hearts of others above our own? As Megan notes, we were taught as children to distrust our own judgment, and that crippled us. We move forward in our lives by experiencing the world on our own terms, something the men in leadership positions in our communities would not tolerate.
More and more, I trust my own heart. It’s all I have, but am finding it surprisingly sufficient.
*In some evangelical churches, members are taught that the Holy Spirit makes the hearts of God’s elect soft and pliable which allows them to receive divine “Truth” which, in reality, is a particular, elder-approved interpretation of Scripture.
Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently stepped away from teaching and now splits her time between New Mexico and Virginia.