A cult has a way of ensnaring its members with promises of spiritual freedom, the seductions of power and charisma, and in some cases, just the sheer influence gained by tapping into the fears, biases and bigotry of potential recruits. Scientology has used those many tools in attracting followers, as has every cult from Jim Jones with his People’s Temple mass suicide tragedy in Jonestown, Guyana; David Koresh and the Branch Davidians of Waco notoriety, Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints and its polygamous sexual abuses; right up to the Westboro Baptist Church and their pervasive and media-savvy mission statement of hate and bigotry.
While it’s one thing for adults to be ensnared, willingly or otherwise, it’s another for the children of cult members to be held captive simply for being unfortunate enough to be raised by a cult member. Such was the case with Libby Phelps Alvarez, the granddaughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, whose particularly toxic view of gays and Jews–and anyone who supports either–is well-known and much vilified (you have to see Brit comedian, Russell Brand, take on a few of his henchmen!).
Libby had no choice but to tag along with her family of religious zealots when their “life’s work” demanded that they express hate in the “name of God” by protesting funerals and screaming vile insults at grieving families. Now, after having ultimately escaped the clutches of her nefarious family, she is publicly speaking out about their malignant world view and its impact on her while growing up.
In an interview with Andrea Canning from the Today Show:
She said she first began to question church activities after a friend’s husband died while serving in the military. Her family picketed the funeral. She stayed behind.
“There was a point when we started praying for people to die,” she said. “I didn’t actually do that, but I was around when they did it.”
In addition to disrupting military funerals, Westboro church members also are known for extreme anti-gay and anti-Semitic rhetoric, targeting both groups in their protests. But they shocked the nation when they announced plans to protest the funerals of the children killed in the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting.
“Westboro will picket Sandy Hook Elementary School to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment,” the church announced in a tweet.
“They think that they are the only ones who are going to heaven and if you don’t go to that church you’re going to hell,” Alvarez said.
Religious narcissism is not new and certainly not specific to this controversial branch of the “Christian” faith. Most of the more fundamentalist religions believe their way is the only way to get to Heaven, making that promise–and threat–a significant part of their pitch. It’s the depths to which the Westboro group takes this philosophy that separates them from the more benign interpreters of that zeal, however. There is a sociopathic thread that weaves through their hate-based doctrine that goes far beyond the standard “we’re the only way you can get to Heaven” message, as demonstrated by their “God hates fags” signs and comments, and their suggestion that everyone should “sing praise” in response to the Sandy Hook massacre.
Given the sheer saturation and public demonstration of that level of hate, it’s not hard to extrapolate that some of those raised in the church–ones who may have had the good fortune of holding on to their individual thought processes and seeing the malevolence being sold–would find themselves repulsed by the group’s principles. Alvarez was one of the lucky ones in that regard.
She decided to leave the church four years ago, slipping away while her parents attended a protest.
“I was terrified I was never going to see my family again,” she said, still tearful at the memory.
Alvarez still aches to see her parents, but “my aunt emailed me and said that nobody wants to talk to me anymore.” [Source]
Still, the pain of leaving her family, who, despite the toxicity of their faith, remain her family, was sharp. She remains close by: only 30 miles from the church. While she has sorrow for any hurt she may have caused them on a personal level, she’s firm in her own decision to leave, and even hopeful that her courageous move will encourage and inspire others to do the same.
“I would tell them I love them and that people aren’t evil like we were taught,” she said. “And even though I am crying right now, life isn’t full of sadness and sorrow and disease and heartache like they told us. You can lead a happy and good life.” [Source]
Like many “apostates” who managed to find their way out of other cults to reach back to help others do the same, here’s hoping Libby is successful in her goal. Thinning the ranks of the Westboro Baptist Church can only be a good thing for everyone.
See video of Today Show interview:
UPDATE: Another granddaughter of WBC founder, Fred Phelps, has also defected. Read her equally compelling story of escaping hate and intolerance in: Second Westboro Granddaughter Loses Faith In Bigotry