Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month, we read Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain, whose father is currently the head of the church. The book covers her childhood, before her family became church members (and they were really the only ones who became new members), her life in the church, and what led to her banishment from the church. Ms. Drain is still a Christian but of course she has a completely different view on the hate-prophecy of the WBC now.
There isn’t really a themed snack for this month’s book, but since the WBC god hates you no matter what you eat, then everything fits with the theme! If you want to get a little Old Testament, make a snack with shrimp or just wear some cotton/wool blends, to assure your abomination status.
The only thing remarkable about Lauren’s childhood is the fact that her dad, Steve, is controlling, arrogant, argumentative, and staunchly atheist. He gets married to her mom when they graduate high school, and she describes her mom as meek, with low self-esteem, and a devout Catholic. In fact, the only time she defies her husband is by going to church despite the fact that he hates it. In the meantime, they have two daughters, and Lauren is the oldest.
Despite Steve’s atheism, or more likely because of his arrogance/argumentativeness, he lets in a door-to-door preacher one day to have a debate about faith. Somehow, what the preacher says is exactly what Steve needs to hear, and he ends up converting to Christianity. But only temporarily–after a while, he quits the religion and becomes atheist again, because the preacher tells him that some of the prophets (like Elijah) are still alive and at least 6000 years old (which apparently was just too far for Steve’s logic). So he became atheist once more. A few years later, when Lauren was a tween, Steve wanted to work on a creative film project, so he decided to film a documentary of the Westboro Baptist Church, for kicks. He named the documentary Hatemongers and he began to spend a lot of time with the WBC members, whom he found kind and gracious, despite their public image.
In a not-so-shocking-but-still-kinda-shocking twist, Steve ends up thinking that the WBC members are the only true principled Christians and he converts. From his point of view, they’re not hateful, and they’re not trying to convert anyone, they’re just spreading the message of God. In fact, the reason they’re not trying to convert anyone is because they believe in predestination (i.e. it has already been decided whether you’re going to hell or not, no matter what kind of person you are).
The conversion to the WBC happens when Lauren is 13 and just starting to get interested in boys. Naturally, her father thinks she is out of control and also a whore, so he consults with Shirley Phelps-Roper, the second-in-command at the WBC. When Lauren is caught receiving love letters from a boy, her father physically assaults him and takes away all of her privileges. By the time they move to Kansas to be closer to the church, she isn’t even allowed to have friends except for Shirley’s daughters.
From Lauren’s perspective, the only way to win her father’s love is to be a faithful member of the church, which involves picketing. Since she has no other freedom, and because she is still young, she gets brainwashed fairly easily and enjoys picketing with the other members at the church’s infamous protests. Tellingly, she says that the picketers feed off of the hatred they get at their demonstrations, and that the only time her feelings are hurt is when police are shooing away an angry crowd, saying “don’t do this, they’re not worth it.” The church loves it when people take photos or bring any attention to them, because in their minds, all attention is good attention.
The main members of the church, mostly the Phelps family (with patriarch Fred as the pastor), are mostly lawyers, which is an asset for a cult. When they protest, they know what they law is, and they have a lawyer waiting to calmly challenge anyone who says that they can’t be there. WBC church members are ignorant in their views on many issues, but they are educated at public school and they go to college. (Perhaps this is why at least four of Shirley’s eleven children have left the church, so far.)
Throughout the book, Lauren’s parents never stick up for her or compliment her. Her dad just tightens his grip on her, and her mom enables him and only speaks up to criticize Lauren. In fact, if they’re in front of other church members, they’re extra critical because by sacrificing her character, they can show that they don’t condone anything “sinful” she does and they think that will elevate the status of the family within the church. They’re right, of course, because behind the scenes, the church members are exceedingly hateful towards each other. (Surprising, right?) In the end, by the time Lauren is banished from the church, it’s clear that her parents don’t love her at all. Lauren was in her early 20’s when she was kicked out of the church, and luckily for her she had a nursing degree to fall back on, so at least she wasn’t homeless or penniless, although she was completely devastated.
Overall, the book was a valuable insight into the workings of the church. I felt terrible for all of the children who were raised in the church and taught to hate from such a young age. Hopefully, some clarity will come to them as adults, but we’ll see.
If you’re interested in seeing how Lauren is doing now, check out this AMA she did on Reddit just two years ago. And last year, the Daily Beast did a profile on Steve Drain, calling him the “future of Westboro Baptist Church,” and they were right.
Next Month’s Book: Brightsided
Next month, we’ll be reading Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich. I’ll be posting on the 17th, and if you’re near the Boston area, we’ll be meeting on the 16th (and if you want details on how to attend, just leave a comment!).