Didn’t love book on the hateful Westboro Baptist Church
There’s probably no more hated organization in America than the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, headed by the cadaverous 83-year-old Fred Phelps. The church pickets funerals of soldiers, AIDS victims, shooting victims, concerts, churches and just about everything else while holding signs with such awful slogans as “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates Fag Enablers” “Thank God for 9/11,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” among others. You know a group is hated when even the Ku Klux Klan has condemned them.
The chance to find out more about this horrible group impelled me to check out Lauren Drain’s book, “Banished: Surviving my years in the Westboro Baptist Church” from the library. She spent seven years in the church, attending hundreds of pickets. Drain starts the book describing how she and other members of the church went to George W. Bush’s second inauguration, hiding their hate-filled signs on the way to their designated picket spot.
“God hates you!” I declared, as we pushed forward. The high we got from picketing took over. “You are going to hell! You are all fag enablers!” we hollered over one another…We wanted to get people riled up and angry as they came in, all the while remaining calm and controlled ourselves. That way the people scoffing and cursing at us would come off as the hostile ones. I tried to think of powerful and jarring things to yell, hoping to connect with someone in the crowd and engage him in a match he couldn’t win. I desperately wanted to share my beliefs and insights with my four years with the Westboro Baptist Church with a hell bound ignorant sinner.’
Drain then backtracks to how she and her family got involved with the WBC. She was a normal teenager who played sports and was a cheerleader in high school in Florida. Her father was a filmmaker filming a documentary on the Westboro Baptist Church. His take was going to be that they were a hate group. But after spending time with the cult, he adopted their beliefs and started making a sympathetic film. He also imposed those beliefs on his family, forcing Lauren to break up with a boyfriend, quit high school, change her style of dress, cover her hair and have nightly Bible studies.
They moved to Topeka, Kansas, and joined the church. And it wasn’t long before Lauren, deprived of her friends or any real independence, adopted the church’s views to curry favor with her father. Soon, she was engaging in pickets, screaming the vilest messages at passersby, doing the Rev. Fred Phelps’ bidding. Lauren writes that Phelps would watch Fox News every day to get ideas for protests.
The Westboro Baptist Church is made up of mostly members of Phelps’ family. There were two other families that had been with the church since its start in the 1950s, but that was it. The church didn’t seek new members, and it was a long while before her family was accepted into the fold and even then, they never forgot their place in the cult hierarchy.
While Lauren claims in the book that the WBC isn’t a cult, her own description begs to differ. The members must cut off contact with relatives and friends that aren’t in the church. Tithing is mandatory. Members must report the transgressions of other members to church elders. Husbands and wives are not allowed to argue. If a member runs afoul of the group, they are publicly humiliated and shunned for a period. Also, the Scriptures, as interpreted by Fred Phelps, are not to be questioned. When Lauren was sent to the store, her route to the store was mapped out for her and she was given a time limit and list and nothing could deviate from it. The WBC is about judgment. Constant judging.
(Except we’re not supposed to judge Shirley Phelps-Rogers for having an out of wedlock child.)
Lauren Drain writes about an incident when Michael Moore rented a pink party bus, filled it with gay men and counter-protested the WBC for his old show, “The Awful Truth.” Google it. It’s hysterical. (Thumbs up, Michael Moore!)
The weirdest thing is the nuttiness of the church’s purpose. Of course, nonbelievers can easily mock any religious belief but the WBC’s mission is truly a headscratcher. According to Lauren Drain, they believe that 99.9 percent of people are going to hell. Of course, they believe they are the chosen ones. When they picket and condemn sinners, they’re not asking that the sinners repent or join their church or donate to them. They don’t want members and don’t accept donations. They don’t believe people can be saved if they repent because they believe the majority of people are predestined to go to hell.
Reading this I was left wondering, “Then what’s the point?” Just to tell folks they’re going to hell? If they believe gays are hellbound or that we’re all hellbound and there’s nothing we can do about it, then why protest? Why should us evil sinners change our ways if we’re predestined to hell anyway? It makes absolutely no sense.
And from Lauren’s descriptions of how Fred Phelps and his daughter search newspapers for picketing opportunities and interviews, it becomes obvious that this cult is simply about infamy. They enjoy their notoriety. These are people who love being on television. They know that the more outrageous and over the top they are, the more headlines, the more cameras, the more ink they’re going to get.
It made me pause about even writing this column because all they want is attention. The Westboro Baptist Church is a family of sick fame whores determined to take as many selfies as possible in public while they vomit hate.
Lauren Drain is eventually banished from the church because she can’t help being a normal 21-year-old woman. She was caught talking to a guy on the Internet and after the church humiliated her and warned her, she continued talking to him on the phone. So her family had her kicked out of the church.
I’ve seen her do interviews where she claims she was kicked out for questioning their beliefs, and while she alludes to some of that questioning in the book, it’s her normal sexual desires that drive the group to cast her out.
I can’t really recommend the book because when the end comes, it seems like she’s most upset about being banished from the church in an unfair manner. Of course she misses her family that has turned its back on her. But she comes across like a person who would go back if they invited her back. Maybe that’s just to be expected from someone who was indoctrinated into this cult by her father when she was fifteen and remained in it for so long. Still, her apologies and regret at the end seem like an afterthought.
Another problem is the repetitive nature of some of the writing in a story that doesn’t really have an arc. It just plugs along until the banishment. It makes one wonder how many more pickets she would’ve attended had she not been banished. How much more pain would she have caused parents of service members killed at war? Would she have been picketing the funerals of Sandy Hook children? What would it have taken for her to leave?
Shortly before the publication of the book, Lauren Drain posed for the No H8 campaign and delivered a statement that was far more powerful than anything in the book. The epilogue is so short when the list of people she and the WBC have harmed is so long. Maybe she is deeply pained about her past but unfortunately, it doesn’t come across in the book.
While I’m glad Lauren Drain and other members have left that vile cult behind I can’t recommend the book because for 99 percent of it, it reads like a defense of the church and that’s worse than seeing a snippet of one of their sick protests on the news.