Years ago, Fred Phelps, infamous pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, mailed me a form letter in an effort to recruit my congregation to his cause. He wanted to franchise Westboro’s protesting efforts across the country. Primitive Baptists appeared to him as potential candidates since they, too, are predestinarian, conservative, and relatively small. He was, of course, wasting his stamps.
I mention Phelps because I’ve just read the memoir of his granddaughter, Megan Phelps-Roper, who left Westboro in 2012. In her book, Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan chronicles her childhood and upbringing in the church and on the picket lines. She tells of her rise to fame as Westboro’s most vocal advocate on social media, even sparring with celebrities such as Kevin Smith. Ironically enough, the very platform she used to spread and defend her grandfather’s doctrines led her to see their ugliness and hypocrisy. People on Twitter, including the man she eventually married, convinced her the world isn’t as evil as her parents raised her to believe. Decent, loving people exist outside of the Westboro clan.
Tragically, though, Megan didn’t find refuge within sound Christianity following her departure. She came to doubt more than Westboro’s behavior. She learned to doubt everything—predestination, the inerrancy￼ of Scripture, and God himself. Though her book never clarifies what she now believes, she seems to have tossed the baby out with the bathwater, ￼landing somewhere between atheism and inclusivism. Her story troubles me from beginning to end with only a brief reprieve near its last major plot point as Megan began to wonder whether Westboro was, in fact, fallible.
I can, however, relate to some of Megan’s experiences. I know what it’s like to question long-held beliefs and traditions, to avoid the answers because the inevitable consequences will be painful. I understand the struggle of reconciling apparent contradictions in the Bible. To a much lesser degree than Megan, I’ve even felt the sting of shunning. So as disheartening as the book is, I did find some elements of it compelling.
If nothing else, Megan’s story has encouraged me to evaluate how I confront bad theology and those who promote it. The people who helped change Megan’s rigid perspective were students of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. They were kind, compassionate, and understanding. They were patient with her, waiting months and years to see fruit from their labors. I wonder whether any orthodox Christians spent as much time or used as much honey to lead her out of Westboro as others did. More importantly, have I done so myself with those I’ve attempted to reach with the truth?
Would I recommend Unfollow? I’m not sure. If your faith is a bit shaky, probably not. ￼While the book doesn’t contain a single convincing argument against Christianity, it does pose a handful of difficult questions which may cause a weak believer to stumble. But if you stand confident in Christ, the book is likely harmless if not—insightful?