Louis Theroux returns to Kansas for his third documentary about Westboro Baptist Church. He tells Stylist why it’s the right time to make the programme, how mainstream hate has diluted Westboro’s message, and whether he’ll make another film about the group.
In 2007, the final book in the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – was released, Apple premiered something called an iPhone, and the Spice Girls launched their reunion tour (the first one).
It was also the year that a small church in Topeka, Kansas, was the subject of one of documentarian Louis Theroux’s most famous programmes, The Most Hated Family in America, about Westboro Baptist Church. This month, BBC Two will show Theroux’s third documentary about the group.
Westboro Baptist Church opened in 1995 as a branch of the East Side Baptist Church, and was headed by pastor Fred Phelps, who soon broke ties with East Side Baptist.
A church was perhaps not the sort of topic you would have expected Theroux to cover back in 2007; his previous work included Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, a series where he met people including swingers, body builders and Indian gurus, and When Louis Met…, where his subjects included Jimmy Savile, Chris Eubank and Max Clifford.
But Westboro Baptist Church is no ordinary church; it’s infamous for its hate speech against LGBTQ+ people, Muslims, Jews, and more. It’s been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre and the Anti-Defamation League. It picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, who was killed in a homophobic attack in 1998. And by 2007 it was at the height of its fame, after years of picketing the funerals of soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Most Hated Family in America filmed some of these pickets, and included interviews with Phelps, who has since died, and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper. Theroux revisited Westboro Baptist Church for his 2011 documentary America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis, which examined what had happened to the Phelps family and Westboro following the departure of a number of people from the church.
So one can’t help but wonder, what more can there be left to say about the group?
It’s a question that Theroux asked himself. “I didn’t think I would make another film,” he tells Stylist. “After the second one, which I was very pleased with, I thought, ‘well, we’ve done that now’. The second one was feistier and more oppositional, more argumentative than the first one. The first one was figuring Westboro Baptist Church out and learning who they are and what they stand for. The second one, I go in with more of an in-your-face sort of approach.
“I thought now we know each other’s games, there is no need to really follow up a third time.”
Theroux resisted pleas for a third documentary from people on Twitter, and didn’t even feel the urge to revisit the topic after the death of church patriarch Fred Phelps. But then something changed.
“Enough time went by and I began seeing signs they were starting to change a little bit,” says Theroux. “Specifically, that this rather extraordinary ex-member called Megan Phelps was beginning to campaign in a very thoughtful and informed and sensitive way for tolerance and understanding. I felt it was a helpful way of looking at the nature of profound ideological disagreement.
“In a sense, it’s a kind of version, I don’t want to stretch this too far, but in its own way it’s reminiscent of the Islamic State, this concept of radicalisation and de-radicalisation. To what extent can someone reform and change? These guys out there in Iraq and Syria who joined ISIS and now say they want to come back, to what extent do we feel that people having espoused hateful views are capable of changing?
“And even in a less extreme way, in the world of Trump and the alt-right, how do you engage with people like that and change minds and change hearts. Or is it better just to turn away and have nothing to do with them?
“Those are the things I wanted to think about.”
For Theroux as a documentary maker, turning away does not come naturally. Surviving America’s Most Hated Family is a fascinating look at a church which is in crisis, although the members of Westboro would deny this assessment (as they do, repeatedly, through the film). Westboro is dealing with criticism from its former members, including Megan Phelps-Roper, mentioned by Theroux above, who left the church in 2012 and has gone on to speak about her experiences, including in a successful Ted Talk about her decision. Her book on leaving the church, Unfollow, comes out later this year.
The death of Fred Phelps, who drove much of the hateful and fiery rhetoric the church became famous for, has also had an effect on Westboro, partly due to claims Theroux investigates about how Fred Phelps was thrown out of the church before his death.
And then there’s the fact that there’s now plenty of hate in the mainstream, coming from politicians like US president Donald Trump, as well as ordinary members of the public. It means that what Westboro is doing is not that threatening or unusual anymore, even if it’s still on another level from much of the hate speech we see on our social media feeds; Theroux says even those in the far right would not count Westboro as allies, and would in fact see the church’s members “as fruit loops”.
Still, the increase in mainstream hate and tribalism has made Westboro’s position precarious. Theroux says: “I do think it’s possibly the case that with so much divisive and angry rhetoric flooding the internet and the airwaves that Westboro are having trouble getting their voices heard in the way that they used to.
“We should also acknowledge that they got most of their headlines at a time when they were picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once those wars basically ended and there were fewer funerals, or almost no funerals, then Westboro were having trouble kicking up as much outrage because there were fewer pickets to go to.
“I also think on top of that you have a situation in which they’re sort of selling hand-made artisanal hate in an era in which you can get mass-produced hate at your local supermarket far more easily.”
There’s no denying that Westboro has changed; Theroux posits in the documentary that it has diluted its message somewhat. But despite the departures of Megan Phelps-Roper (who features in the programme) and other members of the extended Phelps family, it’s not changed that much. Its members – including children – still participate in pickets, carrying banners telling everyone they will go to hell. It’s still deeply homophobic, and continues to attract new members who espouse its frim-and-brimstone rhetoric.
So how does Theroux keep calm in the face of such hatred? It’s a question he gets asked a lot, and one that there is no straightforward answer to. Theroux admits that he “can’t claim I’m always claim to be calm when I’m presented with dogmatic or intolerant people”. It’s a statement that refers to Theroux’s time making My Scientology Movie, when members of the Church of Scientology were hostile in their confrontations of him.
“When the Scientologists were coming for me and accusing me of all sorts of things, I found it a lot more irritating and found it harder to maintain my composure,” he admits.
But with the people from Westboro Baptist Church, Theroux is calm and composed. “I suppose in part it’s my natural temperament,” he says. “In addition to that, I know where they’re coming from because I’ve spent enough time with them that there’s very little they say that is a surprise. I know all their arguments, I know which chapters in the Bible they tend to cite.
“In addition to which, they tend to bring to their fights, when they’re arguing with me, it’s a weird mixture of genuine animosity mixed in with a little bit of affection and irony. The people I spent most time with, with all of them there’s this sort of slightly weird feeling that they like me a little bit, and so as much as they’re telling me I’m going to hell it never feels personal.”
Indeed, in Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, Theroux is greeted with hugs by Shirley Phelps-Roper (Megan’s mum) and welcomed into her home. In addition to Megan, two more of Shirley Phelps-Roper’s children have left Westboro, and according to the church’s rules she cannot have any contact with them.
So, with people previously at the heart of the church abandoning it, does Theroux think it will continue as is?
“I don’t think it will continue to prosper,” he says. “I don’t think it’s prospering now. Their days of greatest visibility are behind them. I think they’ll continue to dial down the rhetoric. I think they will lose more and more of their younger members.
“I think they’ll get smaller and less extreme.”
Will Theroux go back to Westboro in the future to track how it’s changed? “Right now I can’t say see that I’d ever go back but then I said that before,” he says. “One of the best documentaries ever made is a series called Seven Up, and I always am just fascinated by the passage of time. So who knows, in 10 years it might be that it would be worth a follow up and this could be a long range kind of documentary piece looking at how extreme religious beliefs change over time.
“But I never think that far ahead.”
Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family is on BBC Two at 9pm on Sunday 14th July.