9 Facts That Westboro Baptist Church Would Rather You Not Know About Them

The Westboro Baptist Church has become a ubiquitous presence in America. Their hateful signs appear outside of businesses, concerts, courts and even funerals. It seems as though they are everywhere. But it’s no accident that the WBC shows up at huge events, causing controversy wherever they appear.

Who are the WBC? How do they make a living? How many of them are there? What the heck do they want? Though these things are not general knowledge, they can be discovered. Here are some answers and information that Westboro doesn’t really want us to know:

 

► They make their own signs. The most recognizable thing about the WBC are those signs. Hateful, nasty and rude, they are brightly colored to attract attention. Since the WBC has its own graphic design and sign production studio on site, they can make them without any outside opinions getting in the way.  Graphic artist Emmet Byrne interviewed the WBC’s media director about the signs a few years ago. The font the WBC uses, by the way is Boulder.

► Those pickets are not for your benefit. Their purpose is not winning converts, but only of warning you of your approaching damnation. The WBC doesn’t actively proselytize and they don’t want to add to their membership. Not from the outside, at least.

► The Westboro group is mostly just one family. It was founded by Fred Phelps and the core of the church’s membership was his family. He had 13 children with his wife, Margie, which grew into 54 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. When Fred died in 2014, his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, became the church’s spokesperson. The group is intensely insular. The Phelps children are raised to hold vile and hateful views and to believe that anyone not in WBC will go to hell. Since the WBC numbers about 70 people, that’s a pretty exclusive club.

► Out of his 13 children, nine of Fred Phelps’ 11 children have remained with the church. However, in recent years 20 children and grandchildren have left the WBC. The most recent was Zach Phelps-Roper, the son of Shirley Phelps-Roper. According to Phelps’ sons Nathan and Mark, Phelps beat them and their mother regularly.

►The WBC’s first protest was at the funeral of Matthew Shepard in October of 1998. This is the event that brought them notoriety. The group’s website maintains a virtual “memorial” (WARNING: it is foul) to Matthew Shepard, which depicts him burning in hell. They sometimes picket at events sponsored by the Matthew Shepard Foundation, as well.

► Attending protests can cost the WBC up to $300,000 a year. And, while some church members work outside the compound — most in the Department of Corrections — the majority of the church’s income derives from lawsuits. Most of the Phelps children are lawyers and they have a law firm in Topeka. People in town come to them, even though they dislike the church, as they are known for winning.

► Besides the employed church members, who are required to give 30% of their income to the church, the WBC makes money by winning or settling civil lawsuits involving the church. They often win against cities and states that try to stifle the WBC’s First Amendment rights. Just recently, they sued the city of Topeka ($43,000), the state of Kansas ($100,000) and the city of Bellevue, Nebraska ($17,000). They are now considering suing the city of Charleston for banning protests at the funerals of the Emmanuel AME church.

► Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of Fred Phelps’ children and the church’s spokesperson, sometimes wears an American flag around her waist, letting it hang and drag on the ground as she walks. She has encouraged her children to step on American flags during WBC protests. She was arrested in 2010 for doing the latter under a Nebraska statute that makes it unlawful to step on the American flag. She filed a lawsuit immediately, which was finally withdrawn when the charges were dropped.

► WBC members have been banned from other countries. They may be able to strong-arm American courts but several Westboro members have been disallowed to enter because of their views and hateful actions. Canada barred any WBC member from entering the country due to their announcement about picketing a funeral in that country. Britain banned Fred and Shirley Phelps in 2009 because of their intent to picket the play, The Laramie Project.

Is the Westboro group a cult? There is a very simple way to ascertain this. Created in 1979 by Issac Bonewits, Druid, scholar, lecturer and polytheologist, the Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (ABCDEF) is an evaluation scale for cults. This tool — which helps evaluate groups as to cult danger — has been used by law enforcement, including the FBI, as well as psychologists and de-programmers. Based on sound psychological theories, observation and “historical research on minority belief systems,” the Frame uses 18 factors which have been shown to be present within cults.

To evaluate the danger level of any minority belief group, one grades it on a scale of 1 – 10 in the eighteen different aspects. The factors include: isolation, dropout control, paranoia, control and dogma. Let’s take the WBC…

The first factor is Internal Control:

Amount of internal political and social power exercised by leader(s) over members; lack of clearly defined organizational rights for members.

We can’t be entirely sure on this for Westboro so we should rate them a middling 5 on this. On factor number three, however, we can rate them much higher:

Wisdom/Knowledge Claimed by leader(s); amount of infallibility declared or implied about decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations; number and degree of unverified and/or unverifiable credentials claimed.

They also rate high on the next factor:

Dogma: Rigidity of reality concepts taught; amount of doctrinal inflexibility or “fundamentalism;” hostility towards relativism and situationalism.

But there are a couple of factors where the WBC rates fairly low. Front Groups, for example. They have one — their law firm — but it is not hidden. Recruiting is another. As explained above, they don’t want you to convert and join them.

You can see all 18 factors and read more about the ABCDEF (easy to remember, isn’t it?) here. It’s a very handy rubric; you never know when you will be called upon to rate a minority belief system.

So, is the Westboro Baptist Church a cult? Well, rating it on the ABCDEF, I came up with a 166 out of a possible 180. Admittedly, there are some aspects of the WBC’s structure and behavior we are not familiar with. In such cases, such as sexual manipulation, I scored a five. So does 166/180 constitute a cult? I lean towards a “yes” but your mileage may vary.

Unfortunately, the Westboro gang will be with us for a while. They’ve indoctrinated their children pretty thoroughly. Perhaps more will follow Zack, Nathan, Mark and the others out of the group. It’s fairly certain that some will grow disillusioned with the steady flow of hate with which they live. When they leave, coming to join us in the real world, we must welcome them with open arms as an example to others who may wish to leave.

As I’ve stated before, I cover the WBC because I see their ugliness. And, as far as I’m concerned, it needs to be exposed to the harsh light of day. So I will continue to turn the sunshine on their foulness. Because this kind of vile behavior has no place in a civilized society.

Photo Credit: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons