• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Louis Theroux Returns to Westboro

There were few surprises in Louis Theroux: America’s Most Hated Family In Crisis, last night’s follow-up to Theroux’s 2007 documentary on the Westboro Baptist Church. The “crisis” refers to a number of young adult members who have either left or been expelled from the church: Theroux meets a couple of these, including Lauren Drain, who has been disowned by her father Steve Drain. Lauren explains that her father used to be in a rock band and had taught philosophy and western civilization in college before becoming involved with the church; Westboro Baptist is where he’s now “manifesting his ego” and can have “power over his family”. The main point of interest for Theroux was the psychological efforts of the parents in rejecting their children:

My return visit to the Phelps’ had convinced me that they were embarked on an eccentric mission to live life in denial of the most basic human emotions. Stifling their own feelings, they felt entitled, in fact compelled, to trample on those of other people.

Fred Phelps himself appears only briefly, giving a sermon fulminating against Jews (“these modern Jews have the stinking smell of the criminal Barabbas about their person, and they have the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ on their hands.”); seeing Theroux and the camera crew, he mutters to someone, “Those guys are on the loose, sallying forth. You’ve got to get rid of them”.

The main change since 2007 seems to be that the group has become more urgently apocalyptic, believing that Obama is the anti-Christ and that they will soon be forced to leave the USA: when that happens, they will await the end times either in Jerusalem or in “pink caves” in Jordan. And while some members raised in the church are leaving, the group does continue to attract converts: at the back of the church Theroux meets Jack, an earnest Asian-American from San Francisco who is attending worship meetings with a view to eventually being accepted for membership.

One of the Westboro members also reminds us that a few months ago the church had held a Koran-burning; although not mentioned in the programme, this was after Pastor Terry Jones had reneged on his promise to burn the book (in April 2010, Westboro and Jones’s Dove World Outreach Church held a joint protest, although details are no longer on the Dove website). The stunt did not generate a great deal of media publicity, nor appeals from government officials – and there were no related outbursts of violence in Afghanistan. Now, what conclusion might we draw from that…?