Here is the full transcript of social media activist Megan Phelps-Roper’s Talk: I Grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s Why I Left at TED conference.
Megan Phelps-Roper – Social media activist
I was a blue-eyed, chubby-cheeked five-year-old when I joined my family on the picket line for the first time. My mom made me leave my dolls in the minivan.
I’d stand on a street corner in the heavy Kansas humidity, surrounded by a few dozen relatives, with my tiny fists clutching a sign that I couldn’t read yet: “Gays are worthy of death.” This was the beginning.
Our protests soon became a daily occurrence and an international phenomenon, and as a member of Westboro Baptist Church, I became a fixture on picket lines across the country. The end of my antigay picketing career and life as I knew it, came 20 years later, triggered in part by strangers on Twitter who showed me the power of engaging the other.
In my home, life was framed as an epic spiritual battle between good and evil. The good was my church and its members, and the evil was everyone else. My church’s antics were such that we were constantly at odds with the world, and that reinforced our otherness on a daily basis. “Make a difference between the unclean and the clean,” the verse says, and so we did.
From baseball games to military funerals, we trekked across the country with neon protest signs in hand to tell others exactly how “unclean” they were and exactly why they were headed for damnation. This was the focus of our whole lives. This was the only way for me to do good in a world that sits in Satan’s lap.
And like the rest of my 10 siblings, I believed what I was taught with all my heart, and I pursued Westboro’s agenda with a special sort of zeal. In 2009, that zeal brought me to Twitter. Initially, the people I encountered on the platform were just as hostile as I expected. They were the digital version of the screaming hordes I’d been seeing at protests since I was a kid.
But in the midst of that digital brawl, a strange pattern developed. Someone would arrive at my profile with the usual rage and scorn, I would respond with a custom mix of Bible verses, pop culture references and smiley faces. They would be understandably confused and caught off guard, but then a conversation would ensue. And it was civil — full of genuine curiosity on both sides. How had the other come to such outrageous conclusions about the world? Sometimes the conversation even bled into real life.
People I’d sparred with on Twitter would come out to the picket line to see me when I protested in their city. A man named David was one such person. He ran a blog called “Jewlicious,” and after several months of heated but friendly arguments online, he came out to see me at a picket in New Orleans. He brought me a Middle Eastern dessert from Jerusalem, where he lives, and I brought him kosher chocolate and held a “God hates Jews” sign. There was no confusion about our positions, but the line between friend and foe was becoming blurred.
We’d started to see each other as human beings, and it changed the way we spoke to one another. It took time, but eventually these conversations planted seeds of doubt in me. My friends on Twitter took the time to understand Westboro’s doctrines, and in doing so, they were able to find inconsistencies I’d missed my entire life. Why did we advocate the death penalty for gays when Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” How could we claim to love our neighbor while at the same time praying for God to destroy them?
The truth is that the care shown to me by these strangers on the internet was itself a contradiction. It was growing evidence that people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe. These realizations were life-altering.
Once I saw that we were not the ultimate arbiters of divine truth but flawed human beings, I couldn’t pretend otherwise. I couldn’t justify our actions — especially our cruel practice of protesting funerals and celebrating human tragedy. These shifts in my perspective contributed to a larger erosion of trust in my church, and eventually it made it impossible for me to stay. In spite of overwhelming grief and terror, I left Westboro in 2012.
In those days just after I left, the instinct to hide was almost paralyzing. I wanted to hide from the judgement of my family, who I knew would never speak to me again — people whose thoughts and opinions had meant everything to me. And I wanted to hide from the world I’d rejected for so long — people who had no reason at all to give me a second chance after a lifetime of antagonism. And yet, unbelievably, they did.
The world had access to my past because it was all over the internet — thousands of tweets and hundreds of interviews, everything from local TV news to “The Howard Stern Show” — but so many embraced me with open arms anyway. I wrote an apology for the harm I’d caused, but I also knew that an apology could never undo any of it. All I could do was try to build a new life and find a way somehow to repair some of the damage. People had every reason to doubt my sincerity, but most of them didn’t. And — given my history, it was more than I could’ve hoped for — forgiveness and the benefit of the doubt. It still amazes me.
I spent my first year away from home adrift with my younger sister, who had chosen to leave with me. We walked into an abyss, but we were shocked to find the light and a way forward in the same communities we’d targeted for so long. David, my “Jewlicious” friend from Twitter, invited us to spend time among a Jewish community in Los Angeles. We slept on couches in the home of a Hasidic rabbi and his wife and their four kids — the same rabbi that I’d protested three years earlier with a sign that said, “Your rabbi is a whore”. We spent long hours talking about theology and Judaism and life while we washed dishes in their kosher kitchen and chopped vegetables for dinner.
They treated us like family. They held nothing against us, and again I was astonished. That period was full of turmoil, but one part I’ve returned to often is a surprising realization I had during that time — that it was a relief and a privilege to let go of the harsh judgments that instinctively ran through my mind about nearly every person I saw. I realized that now I needed to learn I needed to listen.
This has been at the front of my mind lately, because I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided. We want good things — justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity — but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies.
No nuance, no complexity, no humanity. Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for the other side, the conversation nearly always devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy. And just as I learned to do, we routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions or the merits in our opponent’s. Compromise is anathema. We even target people on our own side when they dare to question the party line.