I never thought I’d say this, but visiting the Westboro Baptist Church last summer was one of the most impactful and meaningful things I’ve done in my life. And no, they didn’t try to recruit me.
When I’m asked to describe it, the first words that come to mind are insightful, fascinating and fun. This usually tends to raise some eyebrows; after all, the Westboro Baptist Church is described as a “rabid hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is known for picketing at solemn, sacrosanct events — vigils for victims of school shootings, military funerals and high school LGBTQ club meetings. In the media, the church is lampooned as “America’s most hated family,” harassed in public, recognized (and, members say, judged) by their last names and dehumanized.
This controversy is exactly what our research team, led by comparative religion professor Hillel Gray, looks for when conducting research on oppositional and controversial religious groups. The ultimate goal is to conduct empathic research with their members.
As researchers, we follow critical-empathic research guidelines, which means that we approach our work from a neutral perspective while trying to learn about the Westboro Baptists as people. Whether or not a religious group is morally good or bad isn’t evaluated by the research project, so we don’t judge that. What is relevant is how members experience life, who and what they value and what we have in common with them. This focus on lived experiences, not theological or political beliefs, defined my experience at Westboro and will for the rest of my life.
Despite doing my assigned preparation and research, I was unsure of what I might expect from the church. As a gay woman who presents quite feminine, I didn’t think members would clock my sexuality from stereotypes, and Dr. Gray encouraged us to only share personal details we were comfortable with sharing (and potentially getting questions on). As much as I had seen Westboro members riled up by current events and displaying signs with anti-LGBT slurs on them, I knew that there had to be a reason Dr. Gray had visited them nine times already.
The conversations that ensued covered nearly every subject we could think of. Dr. Gray asked some follow-up questions from his previous trips, inquiring about certain members, adjustments during COVID-19 and adapting to a member’s departure or death. The other research assistants and I asked questions about end-of-life care, members’ jobs, approaches to childrearing, welcoming newcomers and mental health.
Some conversations struck home, even if I couldn’t entirely relate. Others were straight-up humorous; when I asked member Tim Phelps if the church engages in community service, he looked at me like I was joking and exclaimed, “This isn’t about the human notion of ‘charity.’ Awkward panda!” It was a bit humbling to be told that the church does not see charity and service as things one performs, but rather something that one embodies at all times. “It’s our duty,” said Phelps. “I don’t know how to put it other than that.”
Although we did not focus on specific theological questions, I still got a sense of the rhyme behind Westboro’s reason. Members talked about their commitment to following both biblical guidelines and legal authorities, which makes sense for a family of lawyers. Shirley Phelps-Roper, who is often the face of the church in the media, and her sister Abi talked to us about their vehement opposition to breaking the law, whether it be God’s or a government’s.
Westboro’s more controversial picket signs read “God brought COVID” or “Thank God for dead soldiers,” reflecting their belief that God wills everything on Earth. They are thus exceedingly careful to follow the law — since the law is God’s, it is not for anyone to disagree with or disobey.
The fascinating, revealing and often intimate conversations I had with Westboro members contrasted sharply with reminders of where I was. During pickets, signs opposing an assortment of identities, practices and beliefs garnered honks, middle fingers and jeers from passing cars. Let me tell you: realizing that passersby probably hate you is another humbling experience. There was no way for onlookers to realize I was not a member of the church, so observing pickets meant that I experienced a sliver of popular backlash against the church myself. This was frustrating and revealing; the members I talked to describe being accustomed to the judgment, but not unfazed by it.
Leaving the church building and walking through the central recreation area — not unlike a small quad on a college campus, but with a pool, playground and patio — I saw rhetoric that shook me. The f-slur is emblazoned on a banner stretching the length of the building, and a second banner implies that homosexuality results in “suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” I’m incredibly secure in who I am, but that doesn’t mean the words didn’t nearly bring me to tears that day.
Yet, I couldn’t help but feel empathy for one mother as she described raising her son by herself, doubting her ability to do so. I laughed when Shirley’s multiple phones (long story) went off so many times in an interview none of us could take it seriously. I was confronted with conflicting instances; members talking derisively about “rainbows and unicorns” in public schools yet tearing up when remembering a member who had passed away. I was touched when Jon Phelps advised us that “the thing that works is kindness” in a relationship, but only if you “mean it, not just words.”
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It’s hard for me to wrap up such a complicated experience, which hints at the point of research like the ERE project. To bridge divides, foster conversations, discuss the uncomfortable, hear new perspectives or question preconceived notions — however you want to put it, one goal of this research is nuance. The world needs more of it, and it needs more acceptance of nuance. It’s impossible to define a person by their beliefs, just as it is impossible to define a person by their lived experiences. How we view people we disagree with or are hurt by depends on factors we may not even be aware of.
So when a Westboro member asked me if I believe that they are hypocrites, my answer wasn’t yes or no. It was “it depends.”