After my post asking that Fred Phelps’ family religious group be termed a cult a few people wondered at the wisdom of the media making such a designation. The Topeka based group refers to themselves as The Westboro Baptist Church and has since the 1940s. Why then, should the media refer to them as a cult rather than how they define themselves?
In a word: accuracy.
For many years Christ followers have equated cults with belief systems aberrant from orthodox Christianity. Christian Science, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses (aka The Watchtower), Armstrongism, and the Unification Church are such groups. However, Tal Davis, cult and sect expert, provides a framework clearly allowing for the inclusion of the Westboro as a cult. The Apologetics Index classifies them in just that way. Davis argues that cults (or “sects”) 1) claim to be biblically based, 2) deny or redefine one or more Christian doctrines, 3) have “official” adherence to Christian doctrine while having other cultic tendencies, 4) claim to have divinely inspired leaders, 5) usually claim to have other scriptures or supplements to the Bible, and 6) claim to be the one true, or most true, church. Only the fifth one is not clearly held by the Westboro cult. Their strict adherence to Fred Phelps’ warped interpretations, however, are held in nearly as high esteem as the Bible.
In a Washington Post article on Dove World Outreach Center the following signifiers of cults are given. I have (inserted) how the Westboro cult fits at each point:
1. high degrees of authoritarian control over members (When his children were small, Phelps used the physical abuse of his kids to exercise control. Now the constant condemnation of others fulfills the role of authoritarian control.)
2. veneration and obedience to charismatic leaders (Phelps is referred to as the “Fist of God,” and given unquestioned obedience by his followers. His preaching is saturated with the message of hate his followers spew constantly.)
3. insider/outsider mindset, through the use of mind-control techniques (They believe virtually ever person is going to hell. Beginning at the earliest ages they teach their children about “fag soldiers,” “fag enablers,” “fag nation,” “Jews who love the rectum,” and more.)
4. infantilization and shaming of members to obviate critical thinking (“God Almighty’s gonna send your ass to hell,” Fred Phelps. Even the older children merely parrot what they have heard all their lives.)
5. absolute claims to truth (“And any preacher preaching it any other way is a false prophet,” Fred Phelps “Do you believe the Westboro Church is preaching the only truth?,” interviewer. “Asked and answered,” Fred Phelps.)
6. punishment and expulsion of the disobedient (see the testimony of Nate Phelps below)
7. using this punishment as a deterrent to inside members. (Even Shirley Phelps-Roper expresses fear of “Gramps.”)
an ideological organization, held together by charismatic relationships, and demanding high levels of commitment.
Cults are at risk of becoming exploitatively manipulative and abusive to members.
Many professionals and researchers use the term “cult” to refer to a continuum of manipulation and abusiveness.
Nate Phelps was 18 when he made a daring escape from the Westboro Baptist Church, where he called home his entire life. He had enough of the physical and emotional abuse he faced at the hands of his father, Pastor Fred Phelps.
He’s been ostracized by his family ever since, not a surprise to those who follow Westboro’s hateful protests at military funerals, football games and even the Oscars. The 50-person Church membership believes in the extreme ideology that not only homosexuals are deviant sinners, but also musicians, athletes, soldiers and many more. Nate couldn’t handle living under Pastor Phelps’ beliefs, so he did what some teens want to do but rarely end up doing: he ran away from home. And never came back.
Earlier this year the website Reddit featured an interview with Nate Phelps. Note the things in his life representative of cultic behavior.
Q: What did you do after you escaped from your family?
Q: Do you think your dad is a bad guy or just ill-informed?
Nate: I think my father is a hateful person first. The religious beliefs gave him a forum and permission to be cruel to the world.
Q: Are members submitted to any form of abuse as punishment for ‘sinning’?
Nate: When I was growing up there it was a very violent environment. It wasn’t constant, but it was often enough and unpredictable enough to be very destructive. It is my opinion that this is the primary reason my siblings stay there and parrot my old man’s theology.
Q: What was the nature of the violence?
Nate: [My father] would grab us by the arms, lift us up and drive his knee into our stomach. He would beat us with his fists on our face and body. He would kick us. He would spit in our face. He would beat us from our lower back down to behind our knees with a mattock handle, often splitting the skin and causing bleeding.
Q: How do you feel about the rest of your family that obviously decided not to leave the church? Are you at all as resentful towards them as the rest of the general population?
Nate: I despise the harm they are doing. I get emails and messages constantly from young people who have read and seen their message. Many of them are terrified. On top of that this whole hate thing adds immensely to the social idea that gays are lesser citizens or humans. This idea is what some people use to do harm to these people. I hold my father and siblings responsible for this harm.
When my older brother Mark left my father moved heaven and earth to try to force him back into his orbit of influence. I recall the day that a group of us from the church hand-delivered the ex-communication letter to Mark. I remember the sense of self-righteousness that I felt at that time. The letter detailed, in my father’s most officious and procedural tone, the “sins” of my brother. “Forsaking the assembly…enjoying the pleasures of sin for a season.” “He went out from us, because he was not of us.” He quoted Bible passages that detailed the extent and the ramifications of my brother’s rebellion.
Finally, drawing on the full power and authority of his position as the Fist of God, he announced that Mark had been “delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the lord.”
But Mark did, ultimately, succeed in escaping; and his escape became the subject of many sermons over the following years. He used Mark as an example of the price we children would pay if we abandoned The Place.
“The Place” is how Fred Phelps, Sr. refers to their “church.”
Mark Phelps addressed the kind of thought control exerted by the elder Phelps in a 1994 article in The Topeka Capital-Journal, by Joe Taschler and Steve Fry. They write,
From the time he was a small child, Mark Phelps said he was told he would be a lawyer and nothing else.
Fred Phelps’ attitude was “‘You know, all this school stuff is just so much garbage. Just get your A’s and get out so you can get to law school so you can help take care of the church,'” Mark Phelps said. “That’s how he looked at it.”
And it was not just related to career choices. Mark Phelps left the Westboro cult at the age of 19.
He left after he “began to sense there was something in the world other than what I had experienced. I knew I had to leave,” he said. “I just decided I had had enough.”
His girlfriend Luava, who later became his wife, refused to see him back then because of his father, he said.
That was one of the big reason why he decided to leave.
Fred Phelps Sr. still refers to Luava as “the Philistine whore,” Luava Phelps said.
Everything about Westboro fits the current accepted usage of the word “cult.” Whether defined theologically or sociologically Westboro is a cult. No person, nor any media outlet would be remiss in dropping the name “Westboro Baptist Church” in favor of “the Westboro cult.”
Monday I will be posting the documentary The Most Hated Family in America. It is worth your viewing time. Unequivocally, it reveals that Westboro is neither “Baptist” nor a “church.” By definition any group who says “We do not exist to lead people to Christ” or “We are the instruments of God’s hate” is not a church whatever else they may be.