Those of you who live in America will have been familiar for some time with the Westboro Baptist Church, a radical and hateful denomination that feels it is fulfilling its Christian ministry and following in the footsteps of Christ by holding up offensive signs and picketing funerals, most notably those of fallen soldiers. I recently had occasion to re-watch a BBC documentary by fellow-Brit, Louis Theroux, in which he spends time observing the radical group in an effort to find out why they exhibit such hateful behavior whilst describing themselves as ‘Christians’.
Theroux is a quite brilliant documentary filmmaker who excels in drawing out revealing expressions from people through his quiet and unassuming demeanor – occasionally infuriating his interviewees in the process. He’s the only person I know who can say things like “I find that extremely offensive” or “Is it possible you’ve become even more weird?” without even raising his voice or batting an eyelid.
Theroux visited the Westboro Baptist Church (essentially the extended family of the Church pastor, Fred Phelps) across two documentaries. The first, entitled The Most Hated Family In America was shot in 2006, whereas the second, entitled America’s Most Hated Family In Crisis was shot in 2010. The latter film explored the changes that transpired at the church over the four-year period since the initial filming took place.
My reason for revisiting these two documentaries on YouTube was that I feel there are compelling if deeply disturbing similarities between the attitudes and methods of the Westboro Baptist Church and the organization that I left behind (if only mentally) – namely the Watch Tower Society.
I don’t even attempt to imply for one moment that the Watch Tower Society comes close to mimicking the venomous and frankly juvenile jargon of Phelps and his family, nor does it espouse many of its beliefs. The public preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses is nowhere near as offensive or insulting as the picketing of funerals, and neither is their ministry as hateful or vulgar. There are however, alarming parallels between these two faiths – and I will now attempt to explain these.
Attitude towards shunning
In the four-year period between documentaries, the Westboro Baptist Church lost a number of significant members. In the follow-up documentary, Theroux attempts to get to the bottom of why people have left, and what impact their departure has had on their families.
“Every rebel that goes takes away a heavy burden,” so claims Shirley Phelps-Roper, a prominent member of the church. “If you’ve got a rebel who wants to do this and that, then they’re always draggin’ their ass – so you get rid of one of those, and you’re unburdened.” This rather ineloquent approach seems to be typical of the bullish ‘good riddance’ outlook on display at the Church. Whatever the initial reasons were for the excommunication, the subsequent shunning is seen as an essential action for protecting the Church from corrupting influences, far and above any desire to help the sinner to see the error of their ways and return to the flock.
Theroux interviews two former members, both young women, who have been shunned by their families. Both are distraught and express a desire to see their loved ones again. The same cannot be said of the families who have thrown them out, where any parental instincts to protect or reconcile seem to be consciously suppressed.
Steve Drain, a prominent church member and parent whose child had defected, denied that there was anything upsetting or negative about his daughter Lauren no longer being a member of their family. He and his wife went so far as to take down all family portraits of Lauren from the walls of their home. They denied that there was anything painful or difficult in seeing their daughter leave home aside from the “logistical” concerns, and revealed that this was almost second nature to them because they themselves were no longer on speaking terms with their own parents, who aren’t Church members.
Another interviewee, Fred Phelps Jnr, displayed a shocking lack of knowledge as to what his daughter is doing now or why she even left the Church in the first place, leaving his wife to answer most of the difficult questions as she carried on nonchalantly working in the kitchen whilst the interview was underway. Both were determined to avoid betraying any hint that they were emotionally scarred by the departure of their daughter. In the words of Theroux: “they were obviously distraught at the turn events had taken, and yet so incapable, or afraid, of expressing their feelings.”
Both cases drove home to me how insidious false religious faith can be at its worst. Not only can it convince parents to reject their own sons or daughters – it can actually convince them that they don’t even miss them or feel any pain at their departure, and lead them to believe that showing any such heartache would be disloyal. Indeed, faith has the power to drive deep and insurmountable wedges between parents and their children, and this is just as clearly evident among Jehovah’s Witnesses as it is at the Westboro Baptist Church.
A recent Watchtower study, taken from the notorious July 15th study article, likened disfellowshipped teenagers to Nadab and Abihu – Aaron’s sons who were struck dead by God for offering illegitimate fire as priests. The article gave a master class in stating the obvious by saying “of course, [their being struck dead] ended any association those men could have had with their parents”. No mention is made that Nadab and Abihu were acting in an official capacity as representatives of God’s chosen nation when the incident occurred. Therefore, no genuine comparisons can realistically be drawn between their actions as errant priests and a rebellious teenager (who has likely been prematurely baptized) succumbing to wrongdoing without initially expressing remorse.
The article then goes on to admonish parents to avoid even mourning the departure of their wayward child. “Jehovah instructed Aaron and his faithful sons: ‘Do not let your heads go ungroomed, and you must not tear your garments [in mourning], that you may not die and that [Jehovah] may not become indignant against all the assembly’” the article reads, quoting Leviticus 10:1-6, before adding “The message is clear. Our love for Jehovah must be stronger than our love for unfaithful family members.”
I wish the similarity between these two faiths could end there, but sadly, it doesn’t.
A belief that tolerance is unilateral
As an inevitable result of the anger and outrage that is stirred up by Westboro Baptist Church pickets, an increasing number of counter-demonstrations are springing up where ordinary citizens give vent to their frustrations towards the Church’s behavior. This development is not favorably received by Fred Phelps. In the follow-up documentary, Phelps is overheard complaining in one of his sermons about the lack of tolerance shown to his Church at such counter-demonstrations. I feel it’s a shame that more footage wasn’t devoted to the sermon in question, since the hypocrisy of Phelps and the irony of his words is on full display in this brief clip. Here we have arguably the most intolerant religious denomination in the world complaining that they are not shown sufficient levels of tolerance by those against whom they unleash relentless barrages of abuse on the most distasteful occasions conceivable.
Sadly, the Westboro Baptist Church is not the only denomination that feels that tolerance is a ‘one way street’, and should be unilaterally afforded to them without any need for reciprocation on their part.
The first few pages of the July 15th Watchtower brag of the Society’s latest legal victories in Russia after the preaching work was initially outlawed in Moscow. Despite bemoaning the persecution meted out to Witnesses by both Church and State, and hailing their recent victory in securing religious freedom, the Watchtower wastes no time in using the remaining pages of the same magazine to encourage intolerance and hatred towards any who disagree with the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Only six pages on from the report about the Russian legal victory, the July 15th Watchtower singles out apostates as being “false teachers” who “rise and speak twisted things”. No consideration is given to the fact that such people may simply be genuinely dismayed at certain merciless and unscriptural teachings that are being propounded by the organization’s hierarchy. Rather, the article targets any dissenters as being “mentally diseased”, thereby encouraging the rank and file within the organization to treat any who question the Governing Body in the worst possible manner. The writers evidently completely miss the irony that in one part of the magazine they are lauding their own efforts at securing religious freedom, whilst unjustly depriving their followers of the same thing only a few pages later.
That’s it for Part 1. Part 2 of this post will be published in the very near future….