"Obey God, or you're going to hell — the end!” The young woman picketing with the Westboro Baptist Church shouts into the camera.
The person yelling at that protest was Megan Phelps-Roper, but you'd hardly recognize her today. Last week, Phelps-Roper stood at a podium in front of an audience at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society. Now 31 years old, Phelps-Roper described how she let go of the twisted ideology of the Westboro Baptist Church.
“Like the rest of my 10 siblings, I believed what I was taught with all my heart, and I pursued Westboro's agenda with a special sort of zeal,” Phelps-Roper told the crowd assembled there by the Arizona chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.
For most of her life, Phelps-Roper was a committed member of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for its vile anti-LGBTQ, anti-Semitic ideology. Her grandfather Fred Phelps was the church founder. He died in 2014. According to Phelps-Roper, nearly all of Westboro’s 70 to 80 members are people in her immediate and extended family.
Westboro often pickets public events and the funerals of soldiers. They carry multicolored signs designed to shock, like the poster Phelps-Roper held in the short documentary clip the Anti-Defamation League played before her address.
But that same zeal that led Phelps-Roper to picket would ultimately cause her to question the beliefs indoctrinated in her. The unlearning process began, believe it or not, when Phelps-Roper joined Twitter.
“I read an article about Twitter and decided it was the perfect place to go and warn others about their heinous sins,” Phelps-Roper said. “I had no way of knowing that Twitter, of all things, would be the beginning of the end of my unshakable faith in the God and worldview of Westboro Baptist Church.”
Twitter did two things for Phelps-Roper, who was 23 at the time: The social network exposed her to non-Westboro views, while giving other Twitter users an opportunity to push back on her hate-filled messages. Over time, Phelps-Roper began to question Westboro’s ideology and strict biblical interpretations.
“I had always felt misunderstood at Westboro,” Phelps-Roper said. “No matter how hard I tried to explain, people never seemed to understand that we were protesting to try to help them in the only way that we knew how, to help them understand the truth, to show them the only way to avoid curses from God in this life and hell in the next."
While arguing with a Jewish Twitter user, David Abitbol, Phelps-Roper started to question the Westboro elders’ teachings. Abitbol asked probing questions about Bible verses on the forgiveness of sin and repentance: If you put someone to death, as Westboro advocates, weren't you depriving them of the opportunity to ask for mercy and to be redeemed?
Phelps-Roper approached older members of the church, but they stonewalled her. Even worse, a new group of elders had recently taken over the hate group, instituting changes Phelps-Roper couldn't justify.
"They were supporting the idea that we should lie about protesting certain events, pretending to protest events that we weren't, and photoshopping ourselves into images to support our lies," she said.
The new elders also made it even more punitive and harsh within the church than ever before.
“We were praying for people to die and for terrible things to happen to our enemies in spite of Jesus' call to love your enemies," Phelps-Roper said. "I watched members of the church being treated terribly — shamed, humiliated, and isolated for small or even non-offenses.”
She knew she needed to leave. After discussing it with a younger sister for months, Phelps-Roper broke the news to her parents in 2012, who immediately sent out a call to other church members, urging them to help convince the two of them to stay. But they left anyway. Phelps-Roper has now spent more than five years outside of the confines of the church, which is based in Kansas.
After cutting herself off from the people she had grown up with, Phelps-Roper and her sister traveled. They worked to earn money and tried to make ends meet in a life that was newly rootless, both physically and ideologically. They even stayed for a time with an Orthodox rabbi and his wife. But since then, Phelps-Roper has found solid ground and has taken it upon herself to interrogate her upbringing in the Westboro Baptist Church, sharing the message with others in the process.
She's been profiled by the New Yorker, appeared on Sarah Silverman's show, and has given a TED talk. She's a member of a Twitter council on trust and safety. She also has a book in the works. On January 18, Phoenix became the latest ADL chapter where Phelps-Roper has shared her story, after recent visits to chapters in San Diego, Las Vegas, and New York.
And the Twitter user with whom Phelps-Roper established a rapport, starting her down the road to Damascus? They still keep in touch. It's a friendship that has taken an astonishing path from when Phelps-Roper first tweeted at Abitbol in 2009, scornfully urging him to repent and saying that his "dead rote rituals" are sinful.
Of Phelps-Roper’s siblings, three have left Westboro and seven have stayed. When audience members asked Phelps-Roper what made her unique so that she was able to leave, she demurred.
“When I think about it, my mom is exactly the same as me, except that she never had this experience that I was able to have on Twitter,” Phelps-Roper explained. “She was never able to form a relationship with outsiders where she could see them as a human being.”
When describing what it's like to grow up in an environment of hate, she emphasized that her family members weren’t born as hateful people — many of them are “incredibly intelligent and very analytical.” But entrenched doctrine, groupthink, and confirmation bias have a stranglehold on Westboro members, Phelps-Roper said. People who might have otherwise been respectful members of society are warped by it.
“When people are involved with poisonous ideology, it's really not all about deliberate ill will or inherent hatred or lack of intelligence,” Phelps-Roper said. “It's about the unbelievable destructiveness and staying power of bad ideas, and about finding ways of equipping people with the tools they need to fight them in all their forms.”
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Scroll back far enough on Phelps-Roper's Twitter timeline, and you can view the tweets from before her change of heart. She rails against sinners in the language of fire and brimstone, writing shocking and offensive things; she says hell is imminent for the unbelievers in her midst on the social network.
But it's like watching the phantom version of Phelps-Roper in the video clip of the protest. The old tweets are still there, the person behind them is gone. Now Phelps-Roper occasionally engages with Westboro affiliates on Twitter, perhaps fulfilling the same role that Abitbol once did for her. She reaches out to the Westboro supporters in their language, gently quoting passages from the same book that they use to condemn others in hateful terms.
Mercy, judgment, and grace are still common refrains in Phelps-Roper's tweets, but the perspective could not be more different. In 2014, just a couple years after her exodus, someone on Twitter wrote to Phelps-Roper, calling her brave after they learned she had left Westboro.
Phelps-Roper tweeted back to thank the stranger, adding emojis of a smiley face and a sailboat. "I'm incredibly thankful for the thoughtful, kind people I've met on this path," she wrote. "More grace than I deserve."