Why did the granddaughter of infamous preacher and cult-leader Fred Phelps walk away from Westboro Baptist Church?

That is the question that drives a 10,000-word profile on Megan Phelps-Roper in The New Yorker last month. And the answer, according to the essay, is Twitter. Megan’s interactions on social media helped her see her opponents as truly human and prompted her to walk away from the only home she had ever known.

Much of our talk about social media and its influence concerns the negative – the anonymous commenter, the Facebook debate threads, the dehumanization and debasement of others. Just last week, we saw the inability of our society to stop, pause, grieve, or pray in the midst of a tragedy. Social media sites were immediately summoned as weapons for a political cause.

But what if we are so accustomed to the bad of online interaction that we miss the flip side – a glimpse of the humanity we share with others? The story of one woman’s defection from Westboro Baptist lends credence to the rarely-discussed positive side of social media.

The Marketing of a Cult

I hesitate to grant the name “Westboro Baptist Church” to an organization that is not a church, not Baptist, and not in Westboro. A classic example of false advertising, the name of Fred Phelps’ cult draws energy from the very associations it spurns. If there is any lesson to be learned from Westboro, it is that virtually any organization can market itself and “win” by being recognized as whatever it pretends to be.

My only run-in with Westboro-type folks was in the late 1990’s at a Billy Graham crusade. They were protesting Graham’s message of God’s loving invitation to sinners. A family friend who had once belonged to our church was part of the group now condemning us as compromisers. It was the first time I saw, up close, how cults target people in vibrant Christian fellowships and slowly isolate them until any independence of thought is condemned as rebellion.

Westboro’s Bible in 3 Words

Controlling one’s thoughts is an aspect that comes to the surface in The New Yorker’s profile of Phelps-Roper, which shows just how steeped she was in the beliefs of her family. There was no good news in her “church,” only a distorted version of God’s Law and a gleeful presentation of God’s judgment. Her mother summed up the Bible in three words: “Obey. Obey. Obey.”

“I wanted to do everything right,” she said. “I wanted to be good, and I wanted to be obedient, and I wanted to be the object of my parents’ pride. I wanted to go to Heaven.”

This is works-based salvation amped up to the highest degree, a perverse moralism that confuses obedience with goodness, and submission with love. The flip side of the focus on “obedience” is how any hint of questioning was condemned as sin.

The smallest hint of dissent was seen as an intolerable act of rebellion against God. Megan was taught that there would always be a tension between what she felt and thought as a human and what the Bible required of her. But giving place to rebellious thoughts was the first step down the path toward Hell. 

Independent thoughts and feelings were temptations or tests. One of Westboro’s protest signs proclaimed, “GOD HATES YOUR FEELINGS.” It’s no wonder that Phelps and his kin were fine hurting other people’s feelings; they saw suppression of their own emotion as a necessary part of the quest for holiness.

The Marketing of God’s Hate

Westboro’s theological contagion originated in a version of hyper-Calvinism and then mutated into an apocalyptic urgency that narrowed the “faithful” to the small number of people associated with Phelps’ family. Christians were wrong to emphasize God’s love, Fred Phelps preached. God didn’t love the world; He hated unrepentant sinners and the political leaders who glorified sin and who permitted immorality, especially homosexuality, to spread throughout American society.

But unlike other cults, Westboro was not shut off from the outside world. In 1994, the church began to use the Internet to spread their message of hate and judgment. The children of Westboro went to public schools, participated in sports, listened to popular music and read Stephen King novels. “If you knew the truth in your heart, Westboro believed, even the filthiest products of pop culture couldn’t defile you.”

So, by 2009, Megan was tweeting for the church. In an email to the church, Megan’s sister described Twitter as an avenue for spreading “first hand gospel commentary.”

When I came across that comment, I thought to myself, What gospel? There is simply no good news in Westboro’s celebration of God’s judgment. Where is the gospel in tweeting casual comments of judgment, along with celebrations of horrible events?

The Opponent as Human

The break-through for Megan was when she began to see her online opponents as human – that is, in some way, lovable.

When the god you worship is a fiery deity who hates all the same sinners you hate, it is natural to see those sinners as somehow subhuman, worthless and disgusting. But Phelps-Roper felt a pang of remorse in hearing that a famous actress she admired had died at a young age. Her mother brushed off the death as another joyful moment of God’s righteous judgment. But this was a turning point for Phelps-Roper. For the first time, she couldn’t thank God for someone else’s death. Instead, she resonated with the grief and mourning expressed on Twitter.

Here is where The New Yorker claims Twitter opened up the world to Phelps-Roper and paved the way for her eventual defection.

By following her opponents’ feeds, she absorbed their thoughts on the world, learned what food they ate, and saw photographs of their babies. “I was beginning to see them as human,” she said. 

Back to the Bible

Phelps-Roper’s interactions online led her back to the Bible, where she began to see discrepancies between Westboro’s biblical interpretation and Bible passages in which major characters expressed heartfelt sorrow over sin and judgment in the world. She saw the difference between the Bible’s portrayal of judgment and her church’s. Later, she watched as her cousin was expelled from the church, against members’ objections, and against the process laid out in the Gospel of Matthew. Her faith in her church’s untainted version of Christianity fell apart. She walked away.

Unfortunately, Phelps-Roper did not walk toward genuine Christianity. Her only encounter with the Bible today is to look for Scriptural arguments to encourage Westboro people to treat others humanely. She once used the Bible as a weapon to strike at outsiders. Now, the outsider, she uses the Bible as a weapon to strike back at her former “church.”

The Crack in Westboro’s Foundation

The New Yorker does not attribute Phelps-Roper’s defection only to Twitter, although the title of the profile and the rest of the article lean in that direction. Most likely, her departure is a result of Twitter opening up her world to people with various beliefs, which led her back to the Scriptures, where she began to notice discrepancies in what she heard preached and what she read.

The combination of these two elements – online interaction and biblical interpretation – left a crack in the foundation of her worldview, which gradually grew until she had to walk away. The moment she refused to carry a particular sign for her church (one calling for the “death penalty for gays”) she was well on her way to leaving Westboro. The seed of internal dissent sprouted into public resistance.

Social Media’s Good Opportunity

Evangelicals often decry the depersonalizing, dehumanizing effect of social media for reducing people to avatars and leading to hate-filled anonymous comment streams. As someone who has blogged regularly for nine years, I can testify to the vitriol I have seen.

But in the case of Phelps-Roper, social media was a tool that led her to see her opponents as more human, not less. Is her story an aberration, since (thankfully) most Americans don’t belong to cults that dehumanize their opponents to this extent? Or is it true that there is an often-unspoken, underlying good side to social media?

For all the times I have talked about hateful and hurtful comments spewed toward me online, I should also recognize how many times I have been encouraged and blessed by people’s words on social media. In my interaction with other people on Twitter and in blogs, I have sometimes been disarmed by the gracious manner in which my opponents have disagreed with me.

This interaction has made a more careful reader and a more persuasive writer. For example, when I review books today, I usually know something more about the author than the brief bio on the back cover. I can often see the author online – their family, their interests, their hobbies, and their friends. As a result, I take greater care to read charitably people with whom I disagree.

We are never merely dealing with ideas in the abstract; we debate people who put forth these ideas. Our reasoning and debating should always be rigorous, but our posture toward those who disagree with us should be one of persuasion – where we are arguing towards the truth, following arguments and not succumbing to quarrels.

Social media deserves much of the criticism it receives. I’ve written about the uselessness of Twitter battles and I dread the black hole of some Facebook comment streams. But in the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, Twitter opened the world up to a cult member. And when she saw the humanity of her opponents, her hate melted away.