Louis Theroux: Westboro Baptist Church revisited
After tales of defections, Louis Theroux investigates what's up with America's most hated family.
There are names I've been called in the course of making documentaries, but to be described as "one of the chief workers of iniquity in the whole history of man" takes some beating.
The man making the claim for me - which was somehow offensive and weirdly flattering at the same time - was Steve Drain, a member of the ultra-strict and very notorious Westboro Baptist Church. He went on to say I was on a par with Pontius Pilate.
I'd earned my special status by filming a documentary about his unique religious community in 2006. Entitled The Most Hated Family in America, it followed a three-week stay I made among the Kansas-based Phelps clan.
Under the guidance of their angry pastor, the Phelpses have arrived at the idea that the only Biblical practice for Christians in our age is to carry placards with unbelievably offensive anti-gay slogans (Fags in Hell, Fags Eat Poop, and so on) and turn up at high-profile funerals, especially those of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In my programme I had taken issue with the Phelpses' gloss on the Bible and with their whole interpretation of the idea of Christian charity. I'd seen their practices as a by-product of the warped thinking of their pastor, Fred Phelps - known as Gramps - imposed on family members from birth through a well-orchestrated campaign of indoctrination.
According to the Phelpses' world view, my failure to recognise the only "true Christians" anywhere in the world today made me equivalent to the man who ordered Jesus Christ himself killed.
Now I was back with the Phelpses, standing with Steve in his front room, weathering his Biblical obloquy (delivered with a smile and followed by a rather contradictory "welcome back") having made a return trip to Kansas for a second film about their church.
Normally I don't do follow-ups. But I'd made an exception in this case because of an e-mail I'd received from one of the fire-breathing young zealots I'd interviewed on my first trip, announcing she'd left the church. She cited our conversations as one of the influences.
She had now changed her life, found a boyfriend and had zero contact with anyone still inside the church, including her family. A little research revealed that several others I'd met on my first visit were also now apostates. This included Steve's own daughter, Lauren.
Further reading revealed the Phelps clan itself was going through something strange. The father of a soldier whose funeral the Phelpses picketed had won a massive, multi-million dollar award against the church. The judgement had been overturned, but the case was now before the supreme court and the ensuing controversy had put the Phelpses centre-stage in America.
Rawness and exasperation
The Phelpses thrive on publicity and the attention seemed to have pushed the clan into a whole new level of over-excitement, with announcements that Obama was the Beast spoken of in the book of Revelation and that Jesus would be back in a matter of months. The departures, the case, the apocalyptic thinking - it all seemed to add up to a return trip.
Some have asked why the Phelpses allowed us back in having seen the first film. They were in their own weird way fans, seeing our original effort as (I think) basically fair - and more importantly regarding it as part of their destiny to have their message widely heard and then rejected.
For the broad mass of humanity to go to hell, they must have first been exposed to the gospel and failed to heed it. Our programme had been seen by millions around the world. In my own way, I had a part in the divine plan. And so I'd made my way back to Zion, as they like to call their block of houses on a suburban street in Topeka, for a week-long stay.
The emphasis on the end-time scenario turned out to be entirely real. Obama "fits all the descriptors" of the Beast, apparently. The scenario of Jesus's return, as described to me, went like this: the Phelpses would win their Supreme Court case; the nation would rise up and force the Phelpses to leave America; they'd go to live in Jerusalem; 144,000 Jews would convert to Christianity (this was my favourite part of the prediction, given the Phelpses' track record of anti-Semitism); then Jesus would come back.
The departure of several of the younger Phelpses was all part of this plan too. The Bible describes a final winnowing of the membership in the last of the last days. But what I hadn't expected was that the Phelpses felt obliged to pretend to be pleased their daughters had left.
The family regard it as their duty to "rejoice in all of God's judgements" - murders, cancer, natural disasters, and the loss of their loved ones to the lures of carnality and fornication (the word covers a multitude of activities in the Phelps lexicon, including probably hand-holding and playing the harpsichord in mixed company).
When I raised the subject of their lost membership, the Phelps parents did their best to stick to the script and express satisfaction. But it was all rather forced and unconvincing and a bit sad.
Another surprise was how much I had personalised the story by this time. My role in returning to the church had changed somehow. I was no longer a disinterested journalist. I'd seen too much. It was more like going to see family members with whom one has fallen out, with the same sense of rawness and exasperation. Quite quickly my encounters with the Phelpses stopped being polite and turned barbed and impatient - on both sides.
The result of all this is the new documentary feels quite different than the original - though still funny, a little darker and stranger. I am fair in the film, but it is no good me pretending I don't understand the human cost of what they are engaged in.
What emerged to me was I was seeing a family that through its own tortured logic was involved in a long process of tearing itself apart, while denying at every stage what it was plainly doing. Many of their activities are deeply repellent and yet it is also possible to see the Westboro Baptist Church as human beings who, in a weird way, are victimising themselves along with all those they picket.