Interacting with other people’s stories through Twitter led Megan Phelps-Roper out of Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). Now her story is being turned into a movie depicting that journey.
The movie—which will be written by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) and produced by Reese Witherspoon—was inspired by a 2015 New Yorker article that tracked Phelps-Roper’s slow journey toward leaving the only home she’d ever known and her attempts to find a new life separate from WBC. The granddaughter of Westboro’s founder, Fred Phelps Sr., this was no small step for Phelps-Roper.
Phelps-Roper championed Westboro Baptist Church’s notorious methods of picketing the funerals of soldiers or protesting events with signs reading “God Hates Fags,” particularly through her role promoting WBC on her Twitter account. In 2009, Phelps-Roper celebrated politician Ted Kennedy’s death by tweeting, “He defied God at every turn, teaching rebellion against His laws. Ted’s in hell!” On World AIDS Day she tweeted, “Thank God for AIDS! You won’t repent of your rebellion that brought His wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse!”
A Change of Mind
Phelps-Roper’s blind belief in the mission of WBC began to crumble as she conversed with people with different points of view online. She also witnessed more and more hypocrisy from the leaders within the community. Phelps-Roper told The New Yorker that within the church women were increasingly treated as second-class citizens: “It was like we were finally doing to ourselves what we had done to everyone else,” she said. “Seeing those parallels was really disorienting.”
The more Phelps-Roper interacted with the people she was told were evil, the more she found them to be surprisingly compassionate and funny.
“The view of humanity as I was taught is that most people are worthless. Just entirely worthless and deserving of complete destruction, which is why [WBC] celebrates these disasters [such as 9/11].”
“Since leaving, I’ve talked a lot to the people we saw as ‘wicked.’ Before it was ‘us versus them’ and we didn’t want to have anything to do with the ‘them.’ We were really surprised to find they were amazing people. They weren’t evil or stupid or delusional. They were just people trying to live their lives and do what’s right.”
Sadly Phelps-Roper’s story—at least as of the 2015 New Yorker article—leads to a loss of faith in Christianity in general. It’s possible that the upcoming movie of Phelps-Roper’s story will follow that arc and perhaps even point cynically at any faith system that takes the Bible seriously.
As Phelps-Roper’s story gains attention from both the movie and her upcoming memoir, leaders in the church will need to be vocal in both holding to the truth of Scripture, while at the same time recognizing that there are lessons to be learned from the Phelps-Roper’s story about the danger of treating the world outside the church walls as an enemy, rather than with compassion.