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Megan Phelps-Roper

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Megan Phelps-Roper
photograph of a woman standing at a microphone, in front of bookshelves
Megan Phelps-Roper giving a TED Talk in January 2017 in New York City
BornJanuary 1986 (age 36)
Alma materWashburn University
Known forLeaving and publicly criticizing the Westboro Baptist Church
SpouseChad Fjelland
Children2
Parent
Relatives
Websitemeganphelpsroper.com

Megan Phelps-Roper is an American political activist who is formerly a member of, and spokesperson for, the Westboro Baptist Church, a Calvinist Christian sect categorized as a hate group.[1][2] Her mother is Shirley Phelps-Roper, and her grandfather is the church's founder, Fred Phelps. She grew up in Topeka, Kansas, in a compound with other members of the church. As a child, she was taught the Westboro Baptist Church doctrine and participated in the church's pickets against homosexuality, the American response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the funerals of soldiers who died in the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq. In 2009, she became active on Twitter to preach the church's doctrine. Phelps-Roper began to doubt her beliefs when Twitter users pointed out contradictions in the Westboro Baptist Church's doctrine, and when elders changed the church's decision-making process.

Phelps-Roper left the church in 2012 after she was unable to reconcile her doubts with her beliefs. Following her departure, Phelps-Roper became a prominent critic of the church's philosophy and practices. She travels around the world to speak about her experience in the church and advocates dialogue between groups with conflicting views. In 2019, she released the memoir Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope.

Biography[edit]

Early life within Westboro Baptist Church[edit]

Westboro Baptist Church sign
Megan Phelps-Roper was raised in the Westboro Baptist Church (church sign pictured).

Megan Phelps-Roper was born in 1985 or 1986,[3] and is the eldest daughter of Shirley Phelps-Roper and Brent Roper.[4][5] Her grandfather was Fred Phelps, who founded the Westboro Baptist Church, a Christian sect based on the members' Calvinist interpretation of the bible and categorized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.[1][2] Her parents taught her the doctrine of the Westboro Baptist Church sect from an early age. She grew up on a compound in Topeka, Kansas, that was owned by other church members.[3][4] When Phelps-Roper was 13, her grandfather baptized her into the Westboro Baptist Church.[1]

After graduating from Washburn University, Phelps-Roper worked at her family's law firm, Phelps Chartered, as a business administrator. She also appeared as a regular guest on the Kansas City morning show Afentra's Big Fat Morning Buzz.[1] In 2011, Phelps-Roper appeared in Louis Theroux's documentary America's Most Hated Family in Crisis, in which she described her contact with four Dutch filmmakers. After watching the documentary, her father insisted that she block the filmmakers on Twitter and limit her time on the social media platform. Phelps-Roper complied, reasoning that removing her focus from earthly matters would increase her spirituality. During this period, her mother was accused of not following church doctrine, and Phelps-Roper replaced her as the scheduler for the church's picketing demonstrations.[4]

Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church[edit]

Phelps-Roper has stated that as an adult, she doubted the church's doctrine and noted the existence of many contradictions within the church's beliefs. David Abitbol, a Jewish Twitter user, pointed out the contradictions which he perceived in the church's doctrine, including the fact that the church advocated the death penalty for people who have a child out of wedlock while Phelps-Roper's mother was not married when her first child was born.[6] Phelps-Roper stopped carrying signs which called for the death penalty for sins, but also stopped communicating with Abitbol so that he could not further challenge her beliefs.[4]

Another point of contention that Phelps-Roper cited as increasing her doubts was how decision-making within the church changed.[7] Previously, the church had employed a consensus decision-making model, and women had influential roles in this process. In 2011, a council of nine male church elders met separately from other members and decided to make church decisions by themselves. Later, a member was asked to leave the church by a majority vote instead of unanimous consent. Phelps-Roper felt that both events violated the church's interpretation of scripture and went against the group's concept of leadership.[4][8]

In November 2012, Brent Roper confronted Phelps-Roper's sister Grace about a relationship which Grace was having with another church member. During this discussion, Phelps-Roper encouraged her sister to leave the church with her, and they announced their intention to their parents. The two sisters spent one night in Topeka where they stayed in the basement of a former teacher before they moved into their cousin's home in Lawrence, Kansas.[4] In February 2013, she announced that she had left the church after its members planned to stage protests at the funerals of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.[3] She stated that she did not want others to believe that her lack of response to the protests constituted tacit approval of the church's actions.[3][9]

Life after leaving Westboro Baptist Church[edit]

Phelps-Roper and her sister moved to South Dakota after visiting the Black Hills.[4] She is married to Chad Fjelland, an attorney whom she met through Twitter while advocating for the Westboro Baptist Church.[10][11] Her daughter, Sølvi Lynne, was born in 2018.[10][12]

In 2019, Phelps-Roper appeared in Louis Theroux's third documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church, Surviving America's Most Hated Family. During the taping, Theroux informed Phelps-Roper that two of her siblings were engaged to be married, which upset her greatly. Theroux was criticized for including this scene in the documentary, with one reviewer stating that the revelation exploited Phelps-Roper's emotions and was uncomfortable to watch.[13] Phelps-Roper defended Theroux's inclusion of the footage, stating that she wanted her family members to see her unfiltered reaction to this information.[14] In October 2019, Phelps-Roper released a memoir called Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, which details her upbringing and her decision to leave the Westboro Baptist Church.[3][7][15] (It has also been issued as Unfollow: a memoir of loving and leaving the Westboro Baptist Church[16] and as Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving Extremism.[17])

Activism[edit]

Westboro Baptist Church activism[edit]

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church protesting a Jewish Community Centre. Phelps-Roper would join her church members at protests similar to this one.
Megan Phelps-Roper protested with the Westboro Baptist, employing similar tactics to church members in this image.

Phelps-Roper participated in her first protest with the church against homosexuality when she was five years old.[18] Early pickets took place in Gage Park, Topeka, as part of her grandfather's campaign to stop homosexuals from allegedly engaging in sexual acts at the park.[4] She participated in protests related to significant historical events, including the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the AIDS pandemic.[15] She also picketed her public school,[19] and local sporting events.[18]

At 11, Phelps-Roper gave her first live interview to radio DJs, who had called her house wanting to interview her mother. When interviewers wanted the perspective of a younger member of the church, her mother would often have them interview Phelps-Roper.[4] She participated in interviews with local news stations, documentary filmmakers, and national talk shows, including The Howard Stern Show.[8][20]

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church posing with Howard Stern at their appearance on his show.
Megan Phelps-Roper appeared with her family on the Howard Stern Show, pictured here in 2004.

In 2008, Phelps-Roper joined Twitter but became an active member in 2009 after someone asked if the church was using the service.[4] Phelps-Roper preached the church's doctrine to celebrities and prominent users of the platform.[6] In the late 2000s, Phelps-Roper sent messages to prominent Jewish Twitter users, calling for them to repent and stop their Jewish rituals before they were sent to Hell.[7]

In 2010, Phelps-Roper filed a lawsuit claiming that Nebraska's law against desecrating the American flag infringed on her free speech rights.[21] A federal judge overturned the law, and Phelps-Roper was awarded $8,000 for her attorney fees, paid by the state of Nebraska.[22]

Phelps-Roper and her family created parodies of pop-culture songs to spread Westboro Baptist Church's theology. One of their parodies was "Ever Burn", based on the Lady Gaga song "Telephone".[23] The parody, sung by Phelps-Roper, changed the lyrics to claim that God will not listen to Lady Gaga's prayers and that she will be sent to Hell.[24]

Post-Westboro activism[edit]

Phelps-Roper has spoken at festivals to groups that she previously protested against, including the Jewlicious Festival in Long Beach, California,[4] and a Jewish cultural festival in Montreal.[25] In October 2015, she spoke at the Anti-Defamation League's Youth Leadership Conference.[26] In January 2017, she presented a TED talk discussing her experiences growing up within the church and her decision to leave.[20] In June 2017, she appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast[27] and in 2018 appeared in the first episode of I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman.[28]

Personal beliefs[edit]

Phelps-Roper has stated that she believes the Bible is not written by people under God's inspiration. Instead, she thinks it is a document of people trying to understand how to be good, and that other philosophies were developed with the same goals.[10] She has stated that she is a "believer in humanity" and in that way still classifies herself as a believer.[7] Phelps-Roper said that she avoids using the word "cult" to describe the Westboro Baptist Church.[23] She believes that Twitter should disable bots and remove posts that advocate harm to others.[15] She wants companies to hold public debates on controversial ideas, rather than removing these conversations from their platforms.[27]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Arnett, Dugan (November 19, 2011). "Megan Phelps-Roper of Westboro Baptist Church: An heir to hate". The Kansas City Star. Retrieved August 5, 2020.
  2. ^ a b Lewis, Robert (September 4, 2017). "Westboro Baptist Church". Brittanica. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 11, 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d e Padawer, Ruth (October 8, 2019). "At 5, She Protested Homosexuality. Now She Protests the Church That Made Her Do It". The New York Times. Archived from the original on October 8, 2019. Retrieved August 5, 2020.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Chen, Adrian (November 23, 2015). "Conversion via Twitter". The New Yorker. Retrieved July 20, 2020.
  5. ^ Tuttle, Kate (October 9, 2019). "Granddaughter Of Westboro Baptist Church Founder Chronicles Leaving In 'Unfollow'". NPR. Retrieved July 30, 2020.
  6. ^ a b Burns, Sarah (March 30, 2015). "Why Fred Phelps' granddaughter left Westboro Baptist Church". LasVegasSun.com. Retrieved August 5, 2020.
  7. ^ a b c d Martin, Michel (November 7, 2019). "Megan Phelps-Roper on Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church". Amanpour & Company. Retrieved August 5, 2020.
  8. ^ a b Leon, Harmon (April 12, 2019). "No Longer a Hater: The Long, Strange Journey of Megan Phelps-Roper". Observer. Observer Media. Retrieved August 1, 2020.
  9. ^ Batty, David (February 7, 2013). "Westboro Baptist church key member Megan Phelps-Roper leaves". The Guardian. Retrieved October 16, 2015.
  10. ^ a b c Gross, Terry (October 10, 2019). "How Twitter Helped Change the Mind of a Westboro Baptist Church Member". Fresh Air (Podcast). NPR/WHYY. Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  11. ^ Dodd, Johnny (October 3, 2019). "Westboro Church Founder's Granddaughter Who Defected: I 'Still' Love My Family 'So Much'". People.com. Meredith Corporation. Retrieved July 31, 2020.
  12. ^ Dodd, Johnny (October 14, 2019). "Megan Phelps-Roper Choosing to Leave Hatred Behind". People Magazine. Vol. 92, no. 16. p. 59.
  13. ^ Mangan, Lucy (July 14, 2019). "Louis Theroux: Surviving America's Most Hated Family review – a deeply uncomfortable watch". the Guardian. Retrieved August 7, 2020.
  14. ^ @meganphelps (July 14, 2019). "Louis's choice to tell me this on camera doesn't just make for a dramatic scene. He's showing my family—who have cut me out of their lives, but who will surely watch this documentary—my candid reaction to this news" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  15. ^ a b c Wieberg, Steve (October 24, 2019). "Megan Phelps-Roper, coming to KC, left her Westboro family but still craves their love". The Kansas City Star. Retrieved August 5, 2020.
  16. ^ Barnes and Noble page
  17. ^ Microcosm Publishing book page
  18. ^ a b Raz, Guy (October 27, 2017). "Megan Phelps-Roper: If You're Raised To Hate, Can You Reverse It?". NPR.org (Podcast). NPR. Retrieved July 31, 2020.
  19. ^ Kembrey, Melanie (October 18, 2019). "'I was a monster': Why Megan Phelps-Roper left the extreme Westboro". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved July 29, 2020.
  20. ^ a b Phelps-Roper, Megan (March 6, 2017). "Transcript of "I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here's why I left"". www.ted.com. Retrieved January 12, 2021.
  21. ^ Gibson, Megan (September 4, 2010). "Mutilating the American Flag: Now O.K. in Nebraska". Time. Time USA LLC. Retrieved July 29, 2020.
  22. ^ "Westboro Baptist Church". Anti-Defamation League. Retrieved July 29, 2020.
  23. ^ a b Balcazar, Dahlia (December 19, 2019). "How One Woman Left the Hate Group She Grew Up In". The Cut. Retrieved August 6, 2020.
  24. ^ "Lady Gaga Is 'Devil Spawn' in Westboro Baptist Church 'Telephone' Parody". Billboard. June 1, 2010. Retrieved August 6, 2020.
  25. ^ Hays, Matthew (October 28, 2013). "Granddaughters of an infamous homophobic U.S. pastor find grace in Montreal". The Globe and Mail. Phillip Crawley. Retrieved July 30, 2020.
  26. ^ Blum, Dani (October 20, 2015). "Granddaughters of Westboro Baptist's founder recall fleeing the church". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved October 10, 2020.
  27. ^ a b Rogan, Joe (June 8, 2017). "JRE #974 - Megan Phelps-Roper". The Joe Rogan Experience (Podcast). Event occurs at 58:30. Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  28. ^ Shoemaker, Allison (October 13, 2017). "I Love You, America is chock full of empathy and naked people". The A.V. Club. Retrieved August 8, 2020.

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