We’ve all seen the signs; we’ve all heard the rhetoric of hatred: “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “Soldiers die; God laughs.”
The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas remains America’s best-known and least-understood cult. Founded by Pastor Fred Phelps, the rural church believes that the deaths of soldiers and Marines evidences God’s righteous judgment on a land which tolerates homosexuality. Such venom seems to beggar description.
But some people do understand the shadowy cult with its cheerfully-pronounced invective: The few members who have left.
Libby Phelps Alvarez’s Story
The Today Show recently interviewed Libby Phelps Alvarez, granddaughter of Fred Phelps. Alvarez secretly left the cult four years ago.
In a tearful interview with NBC’s Andrea Canning, Alvarez recounts how the church eventually started to pray for people to die. Born into the church, Alvarez began picketing military funerals with fellow church members when she was 8 years old. For 25 years she remained trapped in the cult, a victim of religious brainwashing which taught her that she “wasn’t brainwashed.” Alvarez quietly left the cult after the church picketed the funeral of a soldier. The soldier was the husband of one of Alvarez’s best friends.
Alvarez gathered her belongings and left the church without a word to her family members. Since then, she worries about the hurt she has caused her family, but one relative told her that no one thinks about her or misses her. Alvarez rejoices in her new-found freedom even as she regrets the hurt she caused others–both to those inside the church and those outside.
How could someone as pleasant, soft-spoken, and sensitive as Alvarez be involved in a church which promotes such hatred? The only explanation is that she was born into a totalitarian religious environment which practiced brainwashing in order to keep members from leaving.
The eight steps of religious brainwashing, as outlined by Dr. Robert Jay Lifton–adapted by Stephen Martin–and summarized in previous posts on this blog, help explain how a sweet-natured girl like Alvarez could spew religious hatred and damnation. They are as follow:
- Milieu Control – The church controls the environment and information access of members, thereby controlling their minds.
- Mystical Manipulation – The church leader manipulates circumstances or information to create a sense of awe around himself or herself.
- The Demand for Purity – The cult leader demands total commitment, a narrow life of rigid devotion, and promotes an environment of shame and guilt.
- The Cult of Confession – Totalitarian religious leaders demand that their followers continually confess their sins publicly in order to shame, degrade, and humiliate them. This keeps followers dependent on the cult leader for cosmic absolution.
- The “Sacred Science” – Unhealthy religious groups maintain an aura of perfection and sacredness around their teachings and leader. No one is allowed to question the leader or the doctrines he or she promotes.
- Loading the Language – Cults impose thought-suppression by calling critical thinking “sin” and saying that anyone who questions the leader has attitudinal sins or is in “rebellion.”
- Doctrine Over Person – The group leader puts his or her interpretation of scripture over the needs of the people under their care. This leads to an ascetic lifestyle which results in spiritual, emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. Often all four together.
- The Dispensing of Existence – Cult leaders such as Fred Phelps say that people who do not subscribe to the doctrines of their group are not worthy of life. This sub-speciation makes it plausible, even “righteous” to jeer at the deaths of outsiders. Hence the picketing at the funerals of soldiers and Marines.
We can rejoice that Libby Phelps Alvarez escaped from Westboro Baptist Church. As a former member of a Bible cult church myself, I have great compassion for her. I can remember my own deception and shake my head sadly. But we also must be vigilant to understand how someone as sweet as Alvarez could remain in such a hateful church.
Does God laugh when soldiers die? Of course not.
But he also doesn’t write off members of the Westboro Baptist Church as hopeless–instead, he delivers some of them from their brainwashed state and redeems their lives.
Help prevent spiritual abuse in your church by understanding the eight steps of religious brainwashing.
Related Post: Why People in Cults Don’t Think They’re in Cults