The Westboro Baptist Church has been labeled as “one of America’s most reviled hate groups” by the Anti-Defamation League. As the granddaughter of the founder, Megan Phelps-Roper was raised in the church, but her conversations with people on Twitter eventually led to her to change her beliefs. She shared her experience of leaving the church and how she believes that respectful conversation can help end polarization at All-School Meeting (ASM) on Friday.
“[I learned] to assume good intent even with those I passionately disagree with, to stay calm and be patient in contentious discussions, to ask questions and to try to understand the perspectives of others, and to consider those perspectives when I make my arguments… Loving someone whose ideas we find detestable can seem impossible and empathizing with them isn’t much easier, but so important to remember that listening is not agreeing, empathy is not a betrayal of one’s cause,” said Phelps-Roper.
When she began to run the Twitter account of Westboro Baptist in 2009, Phelps-Roper was exposed to radically different viewpoints online. Although her purpose on Twitter was to spread the Church’s hateful ideology, other users on the platform treated Phelps-Roper with respect. creating unexpected relationships with the very people she had been raised to hate.
“I continued to argue the Bible with others on the platform, but we also celebrated one another’s birthdays and anniversaries…I was learning a new story about my adversaries. This was astonishing and for me, a terrifying turn of events,” said Phelps-Roper.
According to Phelps-Roper, her opponents on Twitter saw her as a human being rather than a hateful person. That kindness pushed Phelps-Roper to reevaluate her formerly ingrained beliefs. She encouraged the Andover community to similarly reach out to others with differing viewpoints.
“My life was forever changed by the people who took the time to learn my story and to share theirs with me. They forsook judgment and came to me with kindness and empathy and the impact of that simple decision was huge. I’m not trying to argue that every single bigoted person can be converted to the side of acceptance and equality, but what I am saying is that there is a lot of hope for a lot of people that seem hopelessly lost,” said Phelps-Roper.
According to Reverend Anne Gardner, Director of Spiritual and Religious Life and Protestant Chaplain, Phelps-Roper’s speech provided insight on the importance of conversing across difference.
“Megan’s is a cautionary tale, one that shows just how easily empathy and compassion can be jettisoned, particularly in an environment where rhetoric and polarization become the norm. Megan’s story reminds us to build bridges, to have conversation, respectful and reasonable conversation, with those with whom we disagree,” wrote Gardner in an email to The Phillipian.
According to Phelps-Roper, everyone has the power to learn to accept and love others, even in spite of different beliefs, in order to improve society as a whole. Phelps-Roper chronicles her journey to this viewpoint in her new book, “Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church,” which will be released on October 8.
Phelps-Roper said, “One thing that I hope you take away from all of this is that when people are in the realm of poisonous ideology, it’s not really about deliberate ill will or inherent hatred or lack of intelligence. It’s about the unbelievable and staying power of bad ideas and finding ways of equipping people with the tools to fight them. The more of us who are willing and able to reach out and disagree without demonizing, the more likely we are to change hearts and minds and to heal divisions and to create a better society for all of us in the process.”
Mary Muromcew ’22 connected Phelps-Roper’s experience to her own upbringing in Wyoming.
“I feel like she still has to learn, but the main message is that you can choose what you want to do with your life and above all, a lot of people are ignorant and hateful because they are born into that, not that they are choosing to be like that. Being from Wyoming, [I know] people are hateful. They’re hateful just because they don’t know, that’s just how it is. But there are people who still choose to be like that,” said Muromcew.
During ASM, Phelps-Roper said the f-slur multiple times, once when quoting how people referred to Westboro Baptist Church congregants and another when quoting a t-shirt that her brother had worn. Niya Harris ’21 believes that Phelps-Roper, who does not identify as a queer male, cannot use the slur.
“The history of that word is associated with so much violence toward gay men, so it’s definitely a very sensitive word… A lot of people have brought up other points, like regardless of her view, the political correctness of the word itself, she still came into our space and came into this community and offended a lot of audience members by saying that,” said Harris in an interview with The Phillipian.
According to Phelps-Roper, she used the slur to illustrate the unvarnished nature of the Westboro Baptist Church. Additionally, Phelps-Roper has had conversations with gay men and other LGBTQIA+ members who approved of her use of the f-slur. But according to Harris, Phelps-Roper normalized the usage of the slur.
“You can’t use a hate slur in order to prevent other people from using a hate slur in a derogatory way. That’s not how it works. You shouldn’t have to say this hate slur in order to get people to empathize, people should be able to empathize regardless… The fact that she said it was like she was normalizing the word. As a person of authority, as an ASM speaker who we hold up on a pedestal in a way, by saying it out loud it was telling the students you can say this word as long as you’re not using it in a derogatory way,” said Harris.