Last week I went to see a picketing put on by the Westboro Baptist Church of a high school here in Portland. We are “fags” and “fag-enablers” here in the Rose City and thus need a good picketing. A few hundred people gathered to ridicule Phelps’ followers with signs like “God Hates Figs” and “Pacman Hates Ghosts.” (I found that one problematic; Pacman should hate ghosts because they want to kill him.) A man wandered near them holding up a sign with an arrow pointing to a WBC member and the text “This guy just hit on me.”
Everyone seemed generally happy mocking them and there wasn’t any real yelling matches that I saw. That’s probably because WBC is no threat at all. They are universally despised and have zero political influence. They are less than 100 in number and are only known due to their outrageous protests of, well, everything. I think in the media’s focus on their crazy message of hate, we have missed what this group really is: a cult.
I don’t say that as a pejorative – they are a cult in the true sense of the word. This isn’t simply a fringe Baptist church that really, really hates gays. They fit almost all the guidelines developed by various researchers into the modern cult phenomenon: a leader with absolute truth that cannot be questioned, isolation from outside influences, cult-specific jargon, constant unpaid labor, a rigid ideology, physical and mental abuse, an “us vs. them” siege mentality, and completely cutting off and denouncing those who leave.
Even though I detest their message, I find them a unique and fascinating group of people. Phelps has circumvented one of the toughest hurdles cult leaders face in enforcing their dogma: the influence of the victim’s family members. In accepting that he will have a small number of followers, he has essentially turned that problem on its head. His followers enhance his message since they are literally family. Where are these people supposed to escape to? Who in their life will talk sense to them?
Fred Phelps chose hating gays as the focus for his cult just as other cult leaders chose Christianity and Marxism (Jim Jones), UFOs (Claude Vorilhon), or fascism coupled with conspiracy theories (Lyndon LaRouche) for theirs. I imagine it has something to do with a bad experience he had with a guy in a park bathroom. Or maybe it was a good experience that he couldn’t accept. Whatever the case, his family pays the price – estranged relatives say he is a physically and mentally abusive tyrant. He has twisted the Bible to create an insane interpretation wherein he is the only person who has correctly read God’s word and his followers are the only ones who will survive God’s judgment. (They believe they are much like Noah’s family who were saved from the flood.) In fact, being faced with hordes of protesters everywhere they go outside of their family compound in Westboro, creates just the sort of siege mentality most cult leaders strive to constantly impose on their followers/victims.
Luckily Phelps is unable to convince many people to join WBC outside of the family members he has complete control over. And, unlike Charles Manson, he doesn’t command them to kill anyone. Instead they stand on street corners looking pathetic and hateful, providing us with a source of frustration and humor.
Phelps is getting up there in age. I’m interested to see how his family carries on after his death and whether there will be defections, especially from the third generation, the oldest of which are currently in their mid-twenties. Given their radical ideology and isolation, it will be next to impossible for them to find suitable spouses to reproduce with – something some of the girls have already said they are fine with, since they want to devote their life to the apparently fulfilling activity of constantly picketing gay people on the side of America’s roads.
And if you haven’t seen it, check out this Lady Gaga parody video by Phelps granddaughter, Megan Phelps.
I’m going to stop writing now. Can you tell I’m interested in cults?