Louis Theroux and the Westboro Baptist Church

Louis Theroux's encounters with the Phelps family highlight disturbing parallels with methods of the Watch Tower Society

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.

Shirley Phelps-Roper

Shirley Phelps-Roper explains the benefits of casting out former members

“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

Westoro Baptist Church picket

Despite their hateful pickets, the Westboro Baptist Church feel that they deserve tolerance

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….

Rating 4.79 out of 5

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32 Comments on A Troubling Comparison – Part 1

  1. JJ says:

    Thank you for pointing out the chilling similarities and bitter irony here. These groups “want it both ways” don’t they?


  2. Cedars says:

    They certainly do. It’s astonishing that they themselves cannot see the inconsistencies.

    I almost feel that the similarities I’ve pointed out are too obvious to need an explanation, but hopefully (if nothing else) this post will serve to raise awareness of these documentaries and their potential value in highlighting the methods employed by cults.


  3. JJ says:

    There is a new book called “Inside Scientology” that highlights many of the same practices- shunning, special jargon, “Us vs Them” mentality, etc.


  4. James Gerald says:

    How dare those same legal and social commentators, who never miss an opportunity to praise the Jehovah’s Witnesses for stretching the boundaries of the First Amendment, now condemn the Westboro Baptists, whose actions in our time are no more outrageous than were the actions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses during World War 2.

    During WW2, Jehovah’s Witnesses specifically targeted the homes of parents and spouses of wounded and killed soldiers � knocked on those doors � and told wives, mothers, and fathers that their husbands and sons had died not only needlessly and pointlessly, but in support of a government which GOD considered His enemy and would soon destroy.

    During WW2, Jehovah’s Witnesses would show up at War Bond Rallies and spew the same garbage.

    1940s Jehovah’s Witnesses would park sound trucks across the street from public schools and during recess and blast the school campus with pre-recorded sermons decrying the Pledge of Allegiance. There were also instances of JWs going inside school buildings and passing out anti-Pledge literature to children in the hallways.

    JWs also parked sound trucks outside of churches during ongoing services and blasted churches with pre-recorded sermons decrying church teachings.

    JWs carried phonographs with pre-recorded sermons door-to-door decrying patriotism, Christianity, etc. During WW2, a WW1 veteran and then Deputy Sheriff ran two JWs out of his gasoline station after they started playing such a recording. One of the JW “pioneers” pulled a pistol and murdered the Deputy.

    Post WW2, the WatchTower Society made a point of renting for conventions those facilities which had been named or renamed in honor of the WW2 veterans (Memorial Coliseum, Veterans Stadium, etc. etc.) so as to poke their fingers in the eyes of returning veterans and the cause for which they had fought, been wounded, or died.

    1940s Jehovah’s Witnesses would specifically target urban Catholic neighborhoods with door-to-door sermons and literature which defamed the Pope and other Catholic hierarchy, Catholic theology, etc.

    The JWs of WW2 were the Westboro Baptists of today.

    Make up your minds, commentators.




    • Cedars says:

      James Gerald, obviously the parallels run even deeper than the recent documentaries suggest! Thank you for your insight into the disturbing practices of early JWs, and how these mirror the Westboro Baptist Church.


  5. JWB says:

    Cedars, thanks for a most interesting article. I have seen the original Westboro Baptist Church documentary but not the sequel. You mentioned the Society’s use of the example of Nadab and Abihu. This seems typical of them. When they can’t find anything suitable within the NT writings and the teachings of Christ, they will look for scriptures in the OT to try to make comparisons, which tend to whip up strong emotions.

    Instead of concentrating on what happened to the Jewish nation under the old covenant and trying to promote a hybrid faith, they should be teaching the law of love, mercy and compassion embedded within the new covenant. It’s all very well to try to “keep the congregation clean”, but it seems to me they have gone far beyond the things that are written (for Christians). They should realize that the old Jewish arrangement does NOT apply to Christians, and by appealing to that old Jewish system as a model for the Christian system is way out of context!

    It seems that the “99 sheep” really are more important than what they see as the 1 “stray sheep”. Instead of beating the sheep into submission or, as many can testify, simply abandoning it, how about some good old-fashioned Christian love and concern. Yes, it was easier to walk on the other side of the road and ignore that awful ‘apostate’ Samaritan, but was it the right thing to do? And here Jesus was talking about a complete stranger who had no family connections with these Israelites.


  6. Alden says:

    These arguments cannot be ignored. Thank you for posting them Cedars!


  7. andrew says:

    Thanks for mentioning the infamous July 15 articles. Being present at the KH for these studies has only strengthened my determination to leave soon. My father who is an elder mentioned to me how much he enjoyed the articles as it was exactly what we needed (the proper food at the right time).


    • Cedars says:

      JWB, Alden and Andrew. Thanks for your comments. I’m glad the article has been well received and hasn’t (so far) offended anyone. I feel the issues involved are important and cannot be ignored, and I feel the Louis Theroux documentaries are an excellent resource for helping our loved ones to identify cult-like behavior in an indirect and non-confrontational manner.


  8. Willie says:

    JWB–CHECK OUT the Good Samaritan Parable in Luke 10:29-37. The nationality of the victim was NOT give. The “Good Samaritan” WAS the Samaritan. The Samaritan was in the “neighbor” catagory that Jesus was demonstrating. The Priest and the Levite were obviously not a neighbor to the victim.


  9. JWB says:

    Willie, you’re absolutely right, it seems on that point “I’ve completely made an ass of myself”! I humbly beg your forgiveness. ;0)


  10. Willie says:

    You’re forgiven, JWB–though you did nothing to me. I just wanted to set the record straight.


  11. mikef says:

    Just wanted to point out that the Westboro “Baptist” Church is not a “denomination”. It is one organization – I won’t even call it a Christian congregation – with a very small membership, mostly the family and friends of Fred Phelps, its founder.

    They have no connections with any Christian denomination. Most organizations Jehovahs Witnesses would define as “Christendom” have as much disgust for this group as is being expressed here.


    • Cedars says:

      mikef: Just wanted to point out that the Westboro “Baptist” Church is not a “denomination”.

      According to my Oxford dictionary, a denomination is a “specified Church or sect”. No ‘minimum’ number of congregation members are prescribed as being a qualifying factor for the use of such a word. Also, while the congregation consists predominantly of the Phelps family, it is noteworthy (especially in the latter documentary) that they still succeed in attracting members from the outside.

      You will forgive me if I therefore stand by my use of the word “denomination” unless you can show me from another dictionary that I am in error.


  12. Wakeupwitness says:

    Something else to think about also is in the “out of darkness” pt.1 DVD they mention how bible students use to picket up and down the street with signs and plackards. Also, they use to try and witness and hand literature outside of Churches. John Barr went so far as to say , “I loved doing the marches!”
    Now, riddle me this: how come the society glamorizes and commends the ones that did that, but yet if someone was to do the same thing to the Watchtower Society it would be highly frowned upon and they would think Satan was behind it?


    • Cedars says:

      An excellent point Wakeupwitness. It’s interesting the methods and tactics that have been cast aside over the years. I have often wondered about the Society’s former use of radio stations such as WBBR. If these were such a brilliant idea, why are they no longer used – especially given the proliferation of digital and online radio stations these days?


  13. JJ says:

    “I have often wondered about the Society’s former use of radio stations such as WBBR. If these were such a brilliant idea, why are they no longer used?”

    I’ve wondered about that for years- If they really wanted to spread the good news then TV, webcasts, radio, are far more powerful than door knocking alone.


    • Amos says:

      “I have often wondered about the Society’s former use of radio stations such as WBBR. If these were such a brilliant idea, why are they no longer used?”

      I’ve wondered about that for years- If they really wanted to spread the good news then TV, webcasts, radio, are far more powerful than door knocking alone.

      IMHO they no longer use radio stations for the following reason, the door knocking by their flock, keeps the flock busy & active.

      I view this in a similar light to the Kingdom Hall Quick-build project that followed the failure of their prophecy of 1975. The quick build, keep the flock so busy, that it took their minds off the failed prophecy. As I understand it, this reduced the exodus by the R&F, thus reducing what may have been a stampede.


      • Cedars says:

        An interesting explanation. It seems plausible that the Society might reach the conclusion that the devil would “make work for idle hands”. I always struggle to believe that they are so calculated, but you never know.


  14. “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.”

    Kind of begs the question…if you’re a disciple of Jesus, just what kind of ‘burdens’ are you carrying around?

    I can’t get past the notion that these Westboro people are a front for something else…


  15. Great comparison,Cedars. However due to freedom of speech laws in America, the Westboro people are able to get away with their speech.


  16. greybeard says:

    Well I finally took the time to watch both of these films on youtube. WOW, unbelievable! Thank you Cedars for pointing this out. Your article makes much more sense to me after watching these videos. I have a different take on the Westboro Baptist Church than most might have and let me tell you why. As foolish as it is to actually believe that a God of love will destroy people and burn them in Eternal Hell Fire, these people truly act as if they believe it. Most don’t in my opinion… If I actually believed this was true, I would be doing the same thing. WARN EVERYONE I CAN!!! Wouldn’t you? These people don’t pussy foot around. They are in the face of the MILITARY! Is the Watchtower that bold? Heck NO! These people invite film makers into their church and homes so they can get the message out. Would the Watchtower do that?

    It is true, this preacher is a giant horses behind to say the least! But he let a film maker interview him. Good luck getting the GB to do that. Please don’t get me wrong. I strongly disagree with this Church and it’s teaching. However, in light of what they teach, they are acting accordingly. How many believe in Hell and don’t warn others? JW’s believe in everlasting destruction, do they take their preaching work seriously? Heck no! Will they picket a military funeral? How about carry a sign that say’s “God Hates The USA”? JW’s believe unless you are a JW, you will be destroyed forever but they don’t tell that to people at the door. These people are not cowards, JW’s really are when it comes right down to it sad to say. TMO and I could be wrong.

    As much as I dislike what these people are doing, I respect their boldness. At least they are not out killing people like some religious nuts do. I really like Louis Theroux. It is to bad he doesn’t know more about what the Bible teaches like ‘Stop judging’ and loving those who do not love you. If we are to love our enemies and those who do not love us, should we not expect God to do the same? To bad he never asked them that. If he did, I missed it…

    Thanks again Cedars! Great article!


    • Cedars says:

      Thanks Greybeard. I’m glad these posts prompted you to watch the documentaries for yourself – and thank you for taking the time to do that. I agree with your argument that at least the Westboro Baptist Church are more open with the media, although the second part of my post will go on to discuss how the head of the Church, Fred Phelps, is extremely evasive if you ask him the wrong kind of question. I think the church itself is obsessed with publicity stunts, so it doesn’t surprise me that they get filmmakers in to document their activities. No matter how their antics are portrayed, there will always be SOME poor soul out there who is inclined to agree with their views.


  17. JWB says:

    Brother Greybeard, you are so right about the openess and conviction of these people and your general comments are spot on! Do you know what I’d like to see? The GB putting their money where their collective mouth is and standing like a true prophet would, outside the buildings of the UN, shouting out:

    “Woe is the UN, an instrument of the Devil, soon to be destroyed by Almighty God Jehovah at Armageddon!”


    • greybeard says:

      LOL Me too!


      • Cedars says:

        I can see a problem if that were to happen, namely the NGO status of the Society coming back to haunt them!


        • Amos says:

          Yes Cedars, the WTS still has affiliations with the UN. I haven’t checked lately, but as late as 2010, they still had at least 4 NGO memberships, while denying any connection with the UN. All a person has to do is google “UN NGO” & find the right sector & thgey will see for themselves.
          There is one for the USA, one for France, & two for other countries in Europe.
          For the reason of their connections, I can’t see they would ever come straight out & make a stand against the UN in this fashion…that is to picket outside, as they’d be picketing against themselves.


  18. Amos says:

    Cedars, it never ceases to amaze me the depth of deceptions that we have believed for many years.
    It often brings much grief to me to think that I once believed in an organization that has two standards, one for the hierarchy & the other for their followers.
    There is so much evidence against the GB that is freely available nowadays & I believe this is one reason that they’ve spoken so hard against any other literature but their own & all but placed a ban on the use of the internet.
    I’ll refrain from quoting a verse from Revelation, as it may offend some who are still attached to the org.


  19. JWB says:

    Yes, I heard about the UN NGO situation some years ago. However, it seems the organization has been politically active on another front.

    The European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses (TEAOJCW) is an NGO that has been working with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). It appears that this involvement has been going on since at least as far back as September 2004.

    If you go to OSCE’s official web site (www.osce.org) and do a search using the name ‘marcel gillet’ you should be taken to a page that has a link which will display a PDF file containing a list of participants for an OSCE conference that took place in Brussels on the 13 and 14 September 2004. The title of the conference was “OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight Against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination”. On page 52 it lists, among organizations, Marcel Gillet, Paul Gillies and Luca Toffoli of the TEAOJCW.

    Try searching using the words ‘jehovah ngo’ and you will see a long list of references to documents available on the site.


  20. Disappointed says:

    Cedars, I’m in the UK too and watched this documentary on TV and remember saying to my husband at the time that their treatment of their errant offspring is like JWs and feeling rather repulsed by it.The similarities were obvious to me too albiet even more hard line.


  21. Jaco v Z says:

    Great article! I walked out of the Mother’s asyllum about 3 years ago after fighting 11 elders over prostitution, child molestation and sexual harassment in a congregation. I was in my mid-20s and served as a Ministerial Servant. I’ve not missed the Witnesses after leaving and haven’t had the stomach to read a Watchtower since. I’m a happy and free Christian monotheist and will hopefully do my Master’s in Theology in 3 years time. It just amazes me everytime I read an exerpt like the one above on how the Watchtower encourages people from other religions to challenge their Churches’ authority and teachings while they strongly condemn the same treatment when they’re the ones being challenged. Is it just me or does Jehovah hate “two sets of weights?”


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