‘Banished’ from the Westboro Baptist Church

Being an ex-Fundamentalist Christian, I continue to wonder– why are people like that? What makes it possible for people to be so mean when groupthink takes over? What kind of hurt did I dish out when I was more sure of the difference between right and wrong? And where are my blind spots now?

Lately, I’ve started on an exploration of ex-cult literature. The Scientology expose, ‘Going Clear’ is on the best seller list. I started there and went on to ‘Inside Scientology’.Those books are fascinating, and human nature works the same regardless of the labels we put on ourselves. Lauren Drain’s book, ‘Banished- Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church’ is a firsthand account of a woman drafted into the hate cult of the Phelps family at age 15, and then at 22 expelled and utterly cut off from her family and only community she knew.

Lauren Drain had unacceptable heterosexual tendencies, and could not suppress her interest in single men her own age. She harbored secret fantasies of getting married and having children. Since Fred Phelps had declared that the imminent end of the world required 100% self sacrifice from his followers, Lauren’s insubordination was not tolerated. The cruelty that the cult practiced on its targets was turned on her.

But she is quite honest about the mean-girl thrill of being right and facing a common enemy, as she recounts a trip to Washington, DC in the days after 9/11…

“You are going to hell! You are all fag enablers!” we hollered over one another. “We are the only true patriots,” I added. “If you people were really patriotic and religious, you would be standing with us holding signs.” I told them that God mocked their calamities, and good Christians were supposed to warn nations against sin. “Thank God for September 11!” I yelled, the strongest insult to the sinners and the one most certain to get a rise out of the people within earshot. I looked at Megan, Shirley’s oldest daughter. She had the same fiendishly excited look on her face that I did. All of us were brimming with passion. We quickly became the center of attention, and we reveled in it. Our objective was to stir up as much controversy and animosity as we could in the four hours our permit allowed us. We were succeeding before we even reached our positions. Finally, when we were at our site, we pulled off our sweatshirts and jackets to expose our godhatesfags.com T-shirts. We held our picket signs high in the cold air; mine was a big poster with the words GOD HATES FAG ENABLERS printed in bold, straight lettering.

Despite our audience’s sense that we were nothing but hatemongers, our real objective was to enlighten sinners before Judgment Day. We were telling them that they needed to obey God if they wanted to save their souls, even though we didn’t really believe their souls were salvageable. We were the chosen ones, and we were going to heaven to live in the presence of God. From our heavenly perch, we’d be able to mock the sinners burning in the Lake of Fire below us in their place of eternal punishment and torture. Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church

I have mixed feelings about Lauren Drain. Great sympathy for an ordinary woman who was dragged into a cruel and perverse group. She has a core of sanity that allowed her to survive the total rejection by her family and friends.

But there’s an absence. By the end of the book Lauren Drain still does not seem to recognize how much harm the Westboro Baptist Church does with its violation of funerals and vicious slogans. I’m reminded of the saying that people who become addicted stop growing up and stay stuck in immaturity until they get clean. Lauren Drain’s memoir is the voice of a teenager who craves belonging and acceptance– unaware that the people she looks to are too damaged to give her anything good. It’s helpful that she honestly admits that the Westboro cult is having fun. Going into battle is exciting, whether history judges you right or wrong.

She does not look too deeply at the actions of the Westboro cult. Perhaps because she still identifies as Christian, or in spite of it, she does not call them to account for their hate. She seems to have a blankness where there should be some recognition of the atrocious behavior that Westboro leverages to get attention, and the degree to which they attack innocent people. Words that carry an implied threat of violence are a weapon, and Westboro uses this weapon with malice and intent.

It’s not enough to apologize, as Drain does in her epilogue, and to arrive at tolerance. Not when your life experience has shown you the inside of organized hate. I hope she will not stop her questioning at this point.

For people interested in opposing this cult, or understanding cults generally, ‘Banished’ is an eye-opener. The core of the group is blood relatives, and Lauren Drain and her family were never completely accepted into the inner circle. They use the media astutely. Conversion is not their goal–airtime is. The more shock value they can create, the better. Many of them are lawyers and they know how to stay just within the law. They managed to win a lawsuit by a bereaved family after violating a funeral. The Phelps clan is much more engaged with the secular world than, for example, the Scientologist Sea Org. The cult encouraged Lauren Drain to go to nursing school, and in turn she used her earnings to support the group.

Jael[Phelps] and I finished nursing school and graduated together near the top of our class. In keeping with tradition, we picketed our college graduation, and neither of us went to our pinning ceremony. We accepted full-time jobs in the cardiac wing of St. Francis Hospital, where we had both worked part-time for several years. If I wasn’t working, I was focusing on everything the church expected of me, studying the Bible without being contentious or splitting hairs. I was successfully staying away from boys and evil, spreading the Word of God, and contributing financially to the church coffers and to my family.

That St. Francis Hospital hired nurses who spent their spare time spreading hate speech and violating funerals amazes me. Perhaps this is the far limit of what can be gotten away with under cover of religion.

Comedienne, truth-teller and all-around outrageous woman, Margaret Cho, wrote on her blog about the emotions stirred up when singer Michelle Shocked tossed out the Westboro slogan, ‘God hates fags’–

Fear clouds my memory, because when you are being chased by a crazy man calling you and your girlfriend “you fucking dykes” and you are just a teenager, in the middle of night and nowhere and he is whipping something around, knocking the “ick” off the “Buick” on the back of your car, it’s hard to remember what was in his hands, because you are not looking at him, you are looking to get away. I didn’t turn back, I kept going, maybe to keep this girl safe, as I might be butch after all, but really because I was too scared to turn back.
If you ever are terrorized like this – RUN. Don’t look back. Don’t be a hero. It’s not like the movies. Just get out of there. Hatred and homophobia can never be underestimated. And the effect of someone saying “God hates fags” can never be underestimated either. It’s a license to kill. It’s a death sentence. It’s not funny. It’s not ok. It’s not something I can let go easily because I know what it truly means.
The violence and hopelessness behind the statement keeps me up at night and will haunt me just like the tragic memory of a young gay man who was murdered in front of my family’s bookstore in the 70s. He was beaten to death – because these men who were never caught nor punished believed that God hated him, and in my nightmares I find his teeth all over the ground and I try to save them and they keep falling out of my hands and pockets and then I realize that he is dead and has no use for them anymore and I wake up sweating, my screams waking everyone in the house.

Lauren Drain’s book describes a group that most of the time appears strikingly normal. The Westboro church members are hard-working, smart and often charming people. They can throw out hate speech because they wear the armor of God and the slings and arrows of the world can’t touch them. They have the privilege of not needing to know how much damage they do. And they wield that privilege without mercy, to outsiders and those in their group who fall out of favor.

Why are people like that? What makes us follow leaders when they march us over a cliff?

This Sunday I’ll be part of a group going to battle for righteousness. We’ll shout slogans and sing and it will feel good. We’ll make a show of force in support of the right of same-sex couples to legally marry.

The human desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves can lead us to be much better or much worse than we would be on our own. That’s human nature. We’re lucky if our better angels call to us and we are able to hear.

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