Is Westboro “Baptist Church” a cult? Yes, it is

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.”)

The International Cultic Studies Association defines a cult as

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.

June 20 of this year the Digital Journal reported on a former Westboro cult member: Nate Phelps, son of Fred Phelps. David Silverberg writes,

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?

Nate Phelps

Former Westboro cult member, Nate Phelps (Image source)

Nate: The first three nights after I ran away, I slept in the bathroom of a gas station near the high school I attended (Topeka West). From there, my brother’s (Mark) mother-in-law offered me a room at her home. Very little I miss. It was so destructive and took years to undo. I have talked about the sense of security and belonging I can recall feeling from time to time when we were having church services on Sunday evenings. Something about being tucked in that building that’s half buried and feeling like we’re the only one’s that god loves…it’s hard to articulate.

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.

From Nate Phelps blog:

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.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

3 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Pingback: An open letter to all media outlets re: 'the Westboro cult' | Kingdom In The Midst()

  • Where only the law and not the gospel is proclaimed, there is no church of Jesus Christ. The details of this cult’s history and ideology are different, but at its core there’s not much to distinguish it from David Koresh’s group that perished at the hands of our government in the 1990s.

    • Marty Duren

      That’s absolutely correct.

  • Good for Mark and Nate. I hope they did not turn their back on Christ who would never break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick. God’s nature is one of humility and self sacrifice for others. Christians are to resemble these qualities. The word Christian means follower of Christ which Westboro doesn’t by any means.

  • Pingback: Marty Duren Parses “Cult”, or When I Would Rightly Pass as an Atheist | The Edge of the Inside()

  • Pingback: Have Megan Phelps-Roper and her sister Grace left the Westboro cult? | Kingdom In The Midst()

  • LLW

    I’ve always wondered how does Westboro Baptist Church get away with having “Baptist” in their name? Isn’t that kind of going against what the Baptist denomination is, just a little bit??

    • martyduren

      That’s a really good question. This is the only way I know to explain it.

      The Catholic church is monolithic. Every Catholic church in the world, no matter the city or country, is part of THE Catholic Church.

      There are hundreds of Baptist denominations. There is not single leader because there is no “Baptist Church.” Anyone could call themselves a “Baptist” church and no one can do anything about it. Every major Baptist denomination in the United States has disavowed Westboro, but nothing can be done about their name.

  • Truth

    Experts on cults deny that the Westboro Baptist Church meets the definition of a cult. To also claim WBC’s beliefs are not part of mainstream Christianity is also ridiculous. Everything they preach comes straight from the Bible. The only unconventional or new thing they do is picket at peoples funerals.

    If WBC is a cult, then Jesus was a cult leader.