Can you track the precise moment change is cued? With Megan Phelps-Roper, former member of the famously inflammatory Westboro Baptist Church, it started with a man named David, whom she met while managing the Church’s Twitter account with her trademark blend of bible verses, pop culture references, and smilies.
Initiated from infancy, by 2009, Megan Phelps-Roper was running the church’s Twitter account (as granddaughter of Fred Phelps, church founder, and daughter of Shirley Phelps-Roper, former church spokesperson, she played a central role in spreading its signature brand of hateful rhetoric to a global audience). In a recent visit to Lavin’s Toronto office, Phelps-Roper described interacting with calm, civil, and genuinely empathetic individuals online—including a Jerusalem-based blogger named David. Through dialogue, she began to question the dogmatic assertions of her faith and its celebrations of human tragedy. In 2012, she and her sister made the incredibly brave (and rare) decision to abandon their cloistered way of life, leave their family and home, and renounce the teachings of the church.
Raised in a community that normalized an intolerant expression of faith, Phelps-Roper had little to counter the influence of her family’s beliefs. As she explained in her Lavin visit (and outlines movingly in her 2017 TED Talk), her doubts in Westboro’s convictions and practices came to a head thanks to the patient dialogues she had with strangers online, and then in person. Her choice to leave her home, family, and faith led her a to a truer and more just view of the people around her. It’s a message that speaks not just to religious faith, but to the alienation of partisanship, and the division it nurtures. “We must engage the other,” says Phelps-Roper—as she herself was, and now does in turn.
Featured in a major New Yorker profile, and working on an upcoming memoir, Phelps-Roper is a unique example of how empathy can overcome hate, and how tolerance can bridge ideology.