Rare is the person who has never heard of Westboro Baptist Church. The small sect from Topeka, Kansas owes its notoriety to its rabid invective and public pickets against homosexuals and military funerals.
Rarer still is the person who understands this extreme group of people. Most Americans shake their heads or their fists at the church. Perhaps they puzzle for a moment over WBC’s vitriole. But most folks feel bewildered and angry and move on after banging their heads against what appears to be an unsolvable riddle: How could anyone enjoy hate so much? And how could anyone believe that God revels in calamity and destruction?
Lauren Drain understands.
In 2008, the Westboro Baptist Church excommunicated Lauren, who had been a member for seven years.
Banished is Lauren’s memoir of life prior to the WBC, why her family joined the controversial church, what life was like within the extreme sect, how she was banished from the group, and her healing process and newfound sense of love and security apart from the church.
The book (co-authored with Lisa Pulitzer) provides an insider’s view from start to finish. What family dynamics make someone susceptible to joining an extreme religious group? What makes such a person stay? And what does such a person experience when the group they love excommunicates them?
As a member of a Bible-cult myself for 25 years, and as the author of a blog which confronts spiritual abuse, I found Lauren’s memoir filled with pain, candor, and courage.
This could not have been an easy book to write.
Though Lauren never uses the word “cult” to describe the WBC, the concept of religious brainwashing is frequently cited. Indeed Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s eight components of thought reform are all present in the book.
Here is how the Westboro Baptist Church achieves religious brainwashing:
1.) Milieu Control—Pastor Fred Phelps interprets scripture and all current events for his congregation. Families live together in a compound which ensures information control and mutual surveillance.
2.) Mystical Manipulation—By claiming that the group has special access to God and alone interprets scripture accurately, leaders manipulate group members into believing they are God’s elect.
3.) The Demand for Purity—Fear of sin and damnation drives the Westboro Baptist Church. Appearance and behavior seem the only evidence of salvation, so group members must practice extreme measures in order to remain “pure.”
4.) The Cult of Confession—Group members are publicly shamed and humiliated through church-wide emails, group confessionals, and tattle-taling. This system of surveillance and public accountability keeps a lid on any independent behavior.
5.) The “Sacred Science”—The teaching of Pastor Phelps is held as the standard of perfection. The Westboro Baptist Church allows no critical thinking. Other interpretations of scripture by Bible teachers are viewed as corrupt. Only the WBC has it right.
6.) Loading the Language—By calling members “whores,” “rebels,” and “fag-enablers” if they transgress group rules or expected norms of behavior, church leaders trigger submission and instant fear-based obedience among group members.
7.) Doctrine Over Person—The thoughts, feelings, and individuality of group members are all discouraged. Instead, members of the WBC must think and behave as clones of a religious system.
8.) The Dispensing of Existence—The Westboro Baptist Church believes that their interpretation of scripture is correct and that God judges America for its support of homosexuals. As a result, the church believes it serves as a prophetic voice to declare God’s hatred of everyone outside of the WBC. Outsiders are viewed as less than human—a form of sub-speciation—and therefore are shunned except when the church interacts with them to deliver prophetic warnings.
While the Westboro Baptist Church serves as the most well-known and extreme example of a current Bible cult in the United States, the eight dynamics of religious brainwashing it highlights are present in numerous other groups.
Yes, read this book to understand Westboro Baptist Church. But read it most of all to gauge whether similar dynamics may be at work in your church.
Such churches are not so rare.