‘The arrogance of certainty’ is a quote from Megan Phelps-Roper’s book Unfollow. She is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, from which she ‘escaped’ in 2012 and she has a great deal to say about religious groups like Westboro and their views and in particular how to counter them.
She writes with a searing honesty that I could never come close to matching. But it is that deep honesty that allows us to see the thought processes and the journey she makes to leave the group. That has lessons for us all.
Growing up at Westboro she was taught that the major sin was doubt. Doubt of the church leaders or elders was equal to doubt of the word of God, so all doubt had to be suppressed and eliminated in favour of ‘obedience, obedience, obedience’. It was this suppression of the ability to question what they were being taught and told to do that allowed for the suppression of empathy and even the celebration of suffering of those outside the church. It shows how intelligent and well-educated people can be sincere but misguided.
Westboro used the 1611 version of the King James Bible for all the quotes that members were expected to memorise. This emphasis on learning quotes allowed for a distorted understanding of doctrine and its application. They could justify their actions and beliefs by quoting scripture, what would be seen as proof texting to those outside the church. The existence of alternative interpretations of scripture or scriptures that gave another narrative were just not tolerated.
Into this environment, we see the points where her views start to break down. When some JAG officers launched a court case (Snyder v Phelps, a case on freedom of speech which one of her aunts argued before the US supreme Court and won) against them after a protest at a military funeral, the response was to find out the names of the JAG officers and pray for ‘the Lord to kill the father of the Marine and his accomplices’. Only later was she able to put this in context of Jesus’s command to ‘love your enemy’ and to pray for blessings on your enemy. For further information on this case, see here.
Another turning point came over ‘virtual picketing’. She ran a successful twitter account so when she was told by one of the church elders to retweet a tweet from him showing a photoshopped picture of members of Westboro in London protesting a royal wedding she saw it as stepping over a line. It went from posts that were ‘technically true’ but may be understood in a way that was not true, to something outrightly untrue.
Even when she had left Westboro and been cut off from her family, she still tried to engage with members of Westboro where she could. She tried the techniques that had worked with her. These mean: do not attack their doctrines, that is what they expect you to do and they will block out what you are saying. Instead show the internal inconsistencies and hypocrisy of what they are doing. It means pointing out where they are not living up to what they say they believe as a way to open up the dogma.
I wish I had read this before I had my latest encounter with christian demonstrators. It is that lesson about holding people to their own rules and stated beliefs that is central to deradicalisation here. We cannot allow the narrative that others are faithful to scripture and church teaching but we are not, as it allows others to take the moral high ground that I believe is ours. If they are not abiding by their own rules, then they have no right to expect us to abide by them.
It takes those who have been on a journey out of radicalism to show the path for others to follow. Her journey is an important lesson for us all, of what can happen when we suppress our own intellect and allow others to do our thinking for us. So, read Unfollow for yourself and see what lessons you learn from her experiences. Don’t just take my word for it.