Friday, September 06, 2013

When the church replaces God

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, religion, cults, brainwashing

About 11:00 PM last evening, I finished reading the saddest, most disturbing book I've encountered this year. After six hours of tossing and turning, I realized I need to review it and get a few things off my chest so I can put it behind me. The book, written by Lauren Drain with the help of Lisa Pulitzer, is Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church.

Lauren didn't want to leave WBC. She was 14 when her father, who had been making a film documentary about Fred Phelps and his little congregation, became a convert and moved the family to Topeka, Kansas to live on "the block", as the collection of houses surrounding the sanctuary building is known. It was a rough transition, but over time she devoted herself wholeheartedly to WBC and its ways. Hers was the first family to join since the 1970s.

WBC consists mostly of descendants of the pastor, Fred Phelps, and their spouses and children. He started the congregation as a young man, and there were lean years, but he put himself through law school, and later many of his extended family became lawyers also. They became Phelps Chartered and got rich litigating civil rights cases. Although tithing is expected (demanded and enforced) of all members, the church is awash with money from the PC firm members' tithes.

Although in most ways Lauren was warmly accepted by a number of Phelps girls her age, she learned that she would never quite match up or catch up to them. They had been raised in the WBC way, which means doing every single little thing the pastor's way, as enforced by his leading daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper (Phelps females don't give up their names upon marriage, but hyphenate or simply keep their name). To a member of WBC the pastor's word is law, and Shirley is considered the spokesperson of the Holy Ghost. It seems there is no Son of God in their theology, perhaps because the pastor's sons are all rather passive, and those who aren't have left the congregation.

Most of the book details Lauren's struggles to fit in and to comply with the extreme demands of WBC and even more extreme demands of her father. Steve Drain comes across as a real nutcase. He is highly intelligent and creative, but he is clearly so emotionally insecure he has to rigidly enforce his control over every aspect of his family members' lives. In that he resembles his mentor, the pastor.

Lauren loved picketing, and felt a thrill of self-righteousness whenever she and her fellow picketers were scolded or reviled by passers-by or counter-protesters. Of course, she didn't think of it as self-righteousness at the time. She had been taught that only WBC members, in good standing, who had a near-perfect and sinless life had any chance of going to heaven. Perhaps a few others might be among God's chosen, but only if they were actively speaking out against America's corruption and tolerance of homosexuality.

Ah, the "fag" issue. The church's web site is titled God Hates Fags. Fred Phelps is a high-performing person, a real straight arrow, an Eagle Scout, admitted to West Point at age 17. He visited the campus once, then almost immediately rejected the notion of attending and managed to struggle through two or three lesser schools to complete a degree. His extreme anti-gay activism dates from this time, though it became even more extreme when the Gay Rights movement got under way in the 1970s. Lauren reports the known facts, including that if "that weekend at West Point" is ever mentioned by an interviewer, Phelps reacts violently and terminates the interview.

I have read items by a few folks who speculate that he had some kind of homosexual encounter at West Point, and most think he is secretly gay. I think it more likely that he became the "designated victim", to use a term familiar to boys who attended a boarding school. He probably got a thorough reaming out. And it is likely that he became terrified by his own reaction to the activity. Maybe and maybe not. The fact remains that he is emotionally insecure, and in recent years he has become frankly insane.

By the age of 21, after seven years in Topeka, Lauren was working as a nurse. She could see a strong double standard of performance, depending on whether you were a Phelps. But she kept that to herself. However, at church Bible studies, she wanted to know what various Bible verses meant. Not only the tiny collection of verses on which WBC activities and attitudes are based, but all of them. At first Shirley and others might try to explain, but at one point she began asking question like this: "Why do we tell people to repent, when we know it won't do them any good? They are already destined to hell." She was scolded and intimidated for asking such questions, and they intimated that she might go to hell for being "divisive".

The WBC heaven is going to be populated by Phelpses, and hardly anyone else. Sounds like a lonely place. Lauren had already seen several banishments, and then she experienced it herself. WBC cannot tolerate independent thinking, and she was out. Her parents disowned her. After work one day at her nursing job, her father gave her 3 hours to pack, then drove her to a hotel where he'd booked her a room for a couple days. That was that. It was near the end of 2007. In the years since, she has had to learn life skills that are denied to those "on the block". She tried to stay in some kind of contact with her parents, but now hasn't spoken to them for a few years.

Amazingly, she remains a spiritual person. Many would reject God along with the church. She has not. Helped at first by a boyfriend's mother, she learned a new way to understand the Bible and God's ways. Lauren is in the early stages of building a new life with a new understanding of herself, society, and God. Her closing words are, "I don't believe that God rejoices in tragedies, calamities, disease, pain and grief. In my faith, He has better things to do."

Amen. The two Testaments contain more than 30,000 verses. Most Christian traditions emphasize a message that is backed up by 2,000 to 3,000 verses. The strict WBC theology relies heavily on about 100 verses, and twists another thousand or so to fit, while ignoring the rest. The god of WBC is not the God I believe in, not the God that Christians and Jews know from our Bible.

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