They’re still here: The curious evolution of Westboro Baptist Church

Westboro Baptist Church members demonstrate outside of Olathe North High School on May 20, 2018, near Kansas City. Nearly all WBC signs now contain biblical references. Photo courtesy of WBC

(RNS) — No single congregation in America has had the kind of recognition, or notoriety, that the Westboro Baptist Church achieved in the 1990s under its controversial founder, Fred Phelps Sr. Protesting chiefly what they perceived as America’s acceptance of homosexuality, the members of the small Topeka, Kan., church haunted gay pride parades, federal courthouses, even military funerals, wielding picket signs blazoned with slogans such as “Thank God for 9/11” and, most famously, “God hates fags.”

I first met the Westboro Baptists in 2010, visiting Topeka and interviewing dozens of church members. As a professor of comparative religion, I wanted to understand the ethics in this community so dedicated to a cause that offended so many. Personally, I wanted to know whether I could connect with them. Since so many outsiders hate, mock or ostracize the church, I committed to suspend my moral judgment and approach them as a scholar, with respect and curiosity. In a world so polarized and divisive, I found it meaningful, and still do, to reach out empathetically to even the most intense and oppositional of religious groups.

Since Phelps’ death in March 2014, some speculated that the church would dissolve. Nearly all of the congregants at the time belonged to the extended Phelps family, including nine of his 13 children, their spouses and their children. Ostracized by other Christians, they rarely dated or married outsiders; young adults were more likely to leave than find spouses and settle down in the church.

Pastor Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., looks to the sky as he wields placards protesting homosexuality outside the Albany County Courthouse in Laramie, Wyo., on April 5, 1999, where one of the defendants in the beating death of a gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, will stand trial. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

But the Westboro Baptists are an incredibly tightknit community that has bounced back more than once from adversity, like the $10 million judgment against them for defamation that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011. They’ve weathered the departure of numerous members, including many who grew up in the church, and the death of their founder.

Meanwhile, the church’s visibility in the public eye has declined sharply of late. News coverage of the church in 2018 has been just one-fourth what it was during the same period in 2015.

But the Westboro Baptists have not gone away. Their daily picketing campaign continues, in Kansas and across the country. Westboro Baptists remain active on social media, with dozens of accounts on Twitter and Instagram taking note of trending phenomena like National Ice Cream Day, only to denounce sinful behavior in their accustomed terms.

In the last few years, membership has even broadened beyond the Phelps clan. The newcomers include a family from the Southwestern United States, a man from England who married a Phelps granddaughter, and a college student from Ohio, who was later followed by his mother. Perhaps the most unexpected “new” member is Katherine Phelps, a daughter of Fred Phelps Sr. who had been estranged for decades.

The face of the church has changed as well. For the past four years Westboro has been led by a council of elders, a handful of married men who preach in rotation, and media relations have shifted to Steve Drain, who joined the church in 2001.

This new blood has had an impact. There is a gentler tone, at least internally, members say. The church has even started proselytizing, producing a video titled “The Gentile Church Age Is Coming to an End: Get to the Church!”

There has also been a subtle shift in Westboro Baptist’s messaging. Many new signs inject ideas about Jesus and love, clarify doctrine, diversify the sins to be protested and invoke more positive language. Likely in response to past criticism that their protests were not biblical, the new signs always include a biblical citation. Church members have also reduced the visibility of their famously succinct insults.

Make no mistake, Westboro Baptists’ anti-gay message is as blunt and offensive as ever, and the new signs seem designed not to move toward the mainstream, but to more fully reflect the church’s Calvinist theology, which appears unchanged.

Asked if the WBC has intentionally changed its signs, Drain said, “The overall number of messages has probably widened over the years, but some have been retired, either because we were responding to some phenomenon that was temporally limited, or because we became aware of some better, more clear way to express a Bible concept.”

Given the pithily outrageous slogans of the past (“God hates you”), the new posters are almost ironically detailed. Many counteract Arminianism — the suggestion that everyone, not only an elect, can be saved and that all of us have some responsibility for our salvation. “Christ died for some sinners saved by grace, Tim 1:14,15,” reads one. “Most people go to hell, Mt. 7:13,” and “Few people go to heaven, Mt. 7:14.”

Others look strangely like self-help: “Thanksgiving should be a continual frame of mind, friends!” On examination, however, the gratitude message comes from the Westboro Baptists’ increased attention to different facets of God: “Thank God for everything, Col. 3:15, 1 Thes. 5:18” and “God’s word endureth forever, Ps. 119:160 1 Pe. 1:25” are not uncommon sentiments. Jesus is recognized in their pickets now — “Christ our salvation,” “Christ our righteousness,” they read — where only a punitive God used to reign. A recent social media montage, titled “How firm a foundation,” showcases a series of Christ-oriented posters.

With Christ has come “love,” a word virtually absent from signs in Pastor Phelps’ day. The word appears on roughly 5 percent of all recent posters.

Westboro Baptists have always understood their anti-gay exhortations as a kind of “tough love.” In a 2017 interview, Shirley Phelps-Roper, a daughter of the deceased pastor, said of the protest campaigns, “Hon, it is only a great kindness.”

Scripture, she said, “says get in their face and show them.”

In the past, “showing them” came in the form of abrupt rebuke. But signs such as “Gospel preaching is love” and “Truth = Love, Gal. 4:16, Eph. 4:15” repackage the rebuke as love, often in juxtaposition with harsher signs in a way that may be designed to prod the reader to curiosity.

Nor is homosexuality the sole obsession it once was. Divorce, remarriage and same-sex marriage are all branded as sins, as is adultery: “Adulterer in chief, Mt. 19:19 Mk. 6:18,” reads one pasted with an image of President Trump. “Racism is a sin, Ac. 17:26 Jas. 2:9,” preaches another.

A major factor in these changes is Phelps’ death, of course, though some came earlier, after his granddaughter Megan Phelps-Roper challenged a sign indicating that gays could not repent or be saved. Megan was seen as rebellious and subsequently left the church, but it was agreed that the sign did not adequately reflect church doctrines. These discussions have seemingly snowballed into a re-evaluation of the church’s outreach.

Drain said nothing had changed in the approach to what Westboro Baptists call their “publishing ministry” — except in what has come from above.

“To the extent that we are given, from time to time and by the grace of God, better light on any piece of Scripture and how it speaks to the situations we see on the ground in the world, we are always only interested in preaching the truth of the Scripture,” he said.

Whatever the cause, the evolution of Westboro Baptist’s signs suggests the group has become responsive to outside reactions: if not to lessen public condemnation, then at least to address misconceptions about the church. We can only wonder if the gradual reworking of the messaging might point to a day when outsiders think of the church’s members not as irredeemable sociopaths, but as sectarian Christians already in conversation with the broader society.

(Hillel Gray is a lecturer in comparative religion and coordinator of Jewish studies at Miami University of Ohio. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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  • It’s ironic that outliers and nut cases often enjoy more “freedom of speech” than people who actually have consideration for other people or people in such positions of responsibility that they are obligated to behave themselves.

  • Jesus told us that the poor we would always have with us. He never said anything about crazed loons who create a business hating on people while calling it Christianity. I’m just glad he had this to say:

    Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:12

  • Irony of it all is that as climate change wipes us all out, these folks will be accused of upsetting GOD. Perhaps they were just a little ahead of the times.

  • They’re doing a fine job of discrediting Christianity and demonstrating that religious fanaticism = insanity and hate. So I’m happy to support their right to keep right on doing that.

  • What a shame that Steve Drain has become so prominent within the WBC. He is unintelligent, inarticulate and charmless. Shirley is intelligent, charismatic and interesting – it’s WBC’s loss that she’s been pushed to the side in favour of that bore of a man.

  • You know that Goering fellow is awfully pushy and not really a good representative of our views. Now that Himmler guy, really knows how to make our views known. (upvoting yourself is tasteless)

  • All of them are unintelligent, inarticulate, and charmless, not to mention vile, disgusting, and repugnant. If you find a member of the WBC charming and interesting, then you’re a terrible human being.

  • WBC just provides other “mainstream” Christians with an excuse to not examine their own prejudice. There are a few dozen congregations that are 100%, no questions asked, accepting of gays. All the rest are exactly like the WBC except they are not as obnoxious and “in-your-face”.

  • ” There are a few dozen congregations that are 100%, no questions asked, accepting of gays.” All churches should allow homosexuals to attend. How else are they going to understand how badly they sin against the One who loves them?

  • I actually feel sorry for the second and third generations of the Phelps family. It’s hard not to be screwed up when you’re raised in a compound as a member of a cult, especially when the leader is the family patriarch. Look up two members of the family who broke away, Nathan Phelps and Megan Phelps-Roper. The stories they tell are chilling.

    Of course, none of this excuses the hateful behavior of those who stay. But, in my mind, it does mitigate their culpability somewhat.

  • The curious evolution of the Westborough Baptist Church? I’m pretty sure they don’t believe in evolution.

  • Why even give these creatures publicity. They are something like .00000001 of the world’s population. Who cares. Should ignore them unless you want to paint “Christians” and “Whites” with the same brush.
    Looneys everywhere. Just ignore them.

  • I find their so-called Calvinism interesting. My guess is that for them the “elect” are limited to those who are part of their “congregation.” Westboro Baptist is not a church in the New Testament sense of that word, given that it is dominated by one extended family who still make up most of their membership. (Hence, I never use the word “church” when referencing them.) Obviously, because this is the United States, they have the right to organize and do whatever they wish to do, but simply dumping Bible verses out of context on picket signs does not indicate that they take the Bible seriously.

  • At this point, WBC is way-past-their-prime. (I’m not insulting them, even the RNS article proves it). In their prime, however, they were media geniuses. The neon Day-Glo signs and soundbites were a novelty, and they indeed attracted some national attention. Unfortunately, a clever media mode was wedded to an evil media message.

    A strange theology of hatred, in which God hates you so much that you can’t even choose plain old repentance, salvation, and healing in Jesus Christ even if you WANT to choose it — such a theology can never help anybody, gay or straight. It can only pour salt in wounds, and there’s a lotta wounded people in the house.

    So anybody who believed in John 3:16, of any flavor, HAD to repudiate the WBC message. The very few good things WBC did — (the WBC helped persuade authorities to restore order to one city’s local park that had been so wildly overrun by illicit gay “solicitation” that it was actually listed in Damron’s Address Book!) — were quickly forgotten or ignored. The “God Hates” message was just wrong.
    So it’s good that the colorful signs have changed a little. That IS helpful, for real.

  • “I’m standing behind Christ.”

    No, you’re not.

    Jesus is running away from you as fast as he can, and he’s not looking back.

  • You should realize that the word church has no special meaning in Greek, it just means an assembly, a meeting.

  • That is your personal view of their religious beliefs, but not an assessment of the individuals themselves. Shirley Phelps-Roper and Margie Phelps certainly are intelligent and articulate, and can be very interesting to listen to. Megan Phelps-Roper is also the same, although she left the church.

  • Megan Phelps-Roper has not reported any ‘chilling’ stories. She said she enjoyed her time there, if you care to listen. I don’t think you’ve listened to any of her interviews. Furthermore, it’s not really a ‘cult’ – if this is a cult then so are the Amish, Mennonites, Unitarians or Orthodox Jews.

  • They adhere to Calvinist theology, so their interpretation of John 3:16 takes into account everything else in the Book of John where Jesus says he only came to save those God chose, and the rest will be burned in hell. Reprobation and election are written about in the Bible at length – and most would characterise rebrobation as a form of hatred, so the ‘God hates ***’ is not necessarily wrong.

  • I’ve noticed that you’re quite an apologist for the Phelps family. Are you a family member?

  • This verse is also the kind used by Westboro Baptists to give meaning to how WBC is despised and ostracized.

    So there’s a sense of two opposing sides, both feel persecuted.

    Hillel Gray

  • They don’t take contributions. There have been LGBT advocates who did seriously argue that WBC aided their cause and talked about contributing.

    Hillel Gray

  • Yes, important point you’ve made, key to understanding Westboro (and other such Calvinists)

  • Yes, they have a creationist theology.
    The headline wording wasn’t my first choice but it should work for general audiences.
    HIllel Gray

  • Hi. Why do you think the term “church” wouldn’t rightly apply?

    They are open to the idea that there are others from the elect outside their group, but they wonder where they could be and why they aren’t doing the right thing, ie, picketing etc.

  • I think it’s useful to understand even small subcultures. In this case, given our polarized society, I’d like to know why people (including you?) readily write them off as mentally imbalanced or evil, etc.

  • Don’t you think that, by making Christian homophobia look extreme, they forced many Christians to actually examine their prejudices and *differentiate* themselves from WBC?


  • Have you had conversations with Steve Drain? He strikes me as quite intelligent.

    I do agree that SPR is very effective w media. What’s helped you assess her intelligence?


  • Agreed. The stories by the older ex-members (Nate, Mark) are much worse. Yet one of them has returned.


  • This is inaccurate. Women can’t preach in church, but they have other teaching opportunities. Margie also spoke for the church before the highest (temporal 🙂 court.
    Hillel Gray

  • Oh, yes, but in doing so the christians are able to maintain biblical standards of sexual morality but say – look, we are not as disgusting as WBC. But in reality they still base their sexual morality on the same book (bible), just a different interpretation. Hard to say actually whose interpretation is correct! But even most progressive Christians only really accept and love the gays who want monogamous, heterosexual-like relationships.

  • Many denominations and churches seem to bring in factors besides scripture, such as (arguably) a bourgeois sense of respectability, equality of civil and political rights, and broad discretion for consented behavior.

  • Honey, they hurt themselves far worse than I could ever hurt them. I want them to belong to Christ and that doesn’t hurt.

  • Because there is like 15 of them. Why ‘wouldn’t’ you just simply ignore them. Do you remember this phrase — “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

  • As a scholar, I’m happy to study small groups, especially those with disproportionate impact. WBC has been probably the most well-known single church in the U.S., targeted by many legal efforts to restrict it, and winner of a Supreme Court case.

    It is true that many people react to the WBC because they feel hurt by WBC’s words. The ADL does recommend, as you say, to ignore them. But many Americans seem to lack that kind of impulse control and WBC has been good at pushing their buttons.

  • I’ve never personally spoken to any of them, but have just listened to interviews. Perhaps it’s unfair to say Steve Drain is unintelligent, but I don’t think he’s as effective at articulating their views, and I found he often said things to deliberately shock people. I wouldn’t even be surprised if he didn’t believe in WBC’s theology when he first joined, because he strikes me as someone that just thrives off conflict and being contrarian, and he thought WBC was the best place to be to nurture that part of his personality.

    I watched several interviews of Shirley, which is why I think she’s smart, charismatic and well-spoken. I was also impressed that she works as a lawyer while raising 11 children and managing the church and all its media relations – I think only a very competent person can do so many demanding jobs at once. Margie Phelps also seems highly intelligent. Those two seem like the smartest of Fred Phelps’ children, but I think they’ve been pushed to the side for being women?

    Also I wasn’t impressed by the performance of Steve Drain and Tim Phelps when they appeared on the Russell Brand show. They just lack the charisma, wit and Bible knowledge that Shirley and Margie have, and it’s a shame they were chosen to do that appearance with Russell Brand. At least with a Shirley-Margie duo people would have come away not thinking the WBC was made up of idiots. I think Steve and Tim made an embarrassment of the WBC when they went on the Russell Brand show.

    Have you interviewed Tim Phelps? I am curious, what is he like? Is he an intelligent person from your experience?

  • You want everyone to follow your specific religion. The 1st Amendment doesn’t work that way, FYI.

  • You do know that the founders of this country specifically forbade the government from favoring any one religion over another, right?

  • I’ve interviewed Tim at least 4 different times. He seems like a regular guy, down to earth, comfortable w himself. He teases me a bit. He cares about his family and felt hurt by some departing, though he’s also committed to the program.

  • Gender comes into play in many social groups. Still, there were apparently substantive concerns w Shirley’s efforts. The departures of Megan and Grace might also have been relevant. I’m not sure other women faced thevsame concerns

  • Sorry to interrupt, but while working on Saturday laundry, it occurs to me that the 1st Amendment can’t stop individual citizens from doing evangelism. Government doesn’t get to silence religion, no matter what the Democratic National Committee thinks.

  • I would not say Calvinist theology — certainly the Calvinists are not responsible for the “God Hates Gays” campaign — , but much more like Hyper-Calvinist. (But some say, don’t put all this on the Hyper-Calvinist folks either.) RationalWiki says,

    “The Westboro Baptist Church is said by some to be Hyper-Calvinist (certainly they endorse all the beliefs of Hyper-Calvinism). Others object that this as unfair to Hyper-Calvinists; Westboro Baptist Church’s beliefs are far more extreme than that of historic Hyper-Calvinism.”