Abandoning Your Religion

Tucker Coombe reviews "Leaving the Witness" and "Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church."

Abandoning Your Religion

Leaving the Witness by Amber Scorah. Viking. 288 pages.Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages.

MEGAN PHELPS-ROPER BEGAN protesting against homosexuality in 1991, at Gage Park in Topeka, Kansas. She was only five years old, too young to read the sign she carried: “Watch Your Kids! Gays in Rstrms.” Over the next few years, she’d join her family in chants about “filthy faggots” and “whores.” At age 13, she asked to be baptized into the Westboro Baptist Church. “[T]here was nothing in the world of greater significance than this battle for the cause of God and truth, and I was ready to dedicate the rest of my life in service of it,” she writes. In Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, Phelps-Roper tells of growing up in Westboro and describes the terrifying awakening of conscience that caused her to abandon the church, and almost all of her family, at age 25.

Westboro, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” was started in 1955 by the author’s grandfather, Fred Phelps, an attorney and “fire-and-brimstone” preacher, who thought himself uniquely qualified to interpret the will of God. After his crusade against homosexuality — which garnered national attention for Westboro — Phelps broadened his lens to protest anything he considered morally degenerative. In his view, tragic events (terror attacks, mass shootings, deaths of children, soldiers and celebrities) needed to be recognized as “[God’s] punishment for [America’s] great sins: homosexuality, adultery, fornication.”

Phelps-Roper provides a vivid sense of what it felt like to be a child in this unusual family. There’s an old-fashioned feel, of sorts, to her childhood (Phelps-Roper is one of 11 children; her mother, daughter of Fred Phelps, is one of 13). The extended Phelps family, she explains, lived on a communal block and shared a large, enclosed backyard. It’s here that all the cousins would gather to swim, jump on the trampoline, play tennis and football, and sled in the winter. “It’s where I’d sit on the white porch swing with the big canopy, rocking gently with a paperback and a baby sibling propped in the crook of my left arm,” she writes, a place that felt “safe, secure, shielded from anything bad that could possibly happen.” She also reminisces about Saturday mornings, when her parents and older siblings would clean the house as pop music blared from the stereo, and she and her younger sister would dance on the window seats. “Dad would pick us up and twirl us around, and Mom would sashay over with a dusting rag in one hand and a can of Pledge in the other […] and she’d lean in to kiss our cheeks, serenading us at the top of her voice.”

But love and affection, she writes, were dispensed only to those who’d toe the line. Even small infractions could incur swift, violent punishment. The worst was reserved for those who’d chosen to leave the fold. Phelps-Roper describes the morning of her high school graduation, when the family awoke to find that her 19-year-old brother, Josh, had “gone apostate.” All day long, she writes, “a steady stream of visitors poured into our house […] church members coming to affirm our righteousness and my brother’s wickedness. Their bitter demonization of him began almost instantly.”

As a child, she’d occasionally hear rumors of frightful abuse by her grandfather. An uncle who’d left the family spoke publicly of “beatings that lasted for hours […] heavy leather straps […] bloodcurdling screams.” In a chilling scene, she describes how seven of the uncle’s siblings appeared on a TV show to respond to the charges. Together, they laughed away the accusations, and then “went on at length about [the uncle’s] shortcomings as a child — ‘disruptive, destructive, distressing’ — and I sat there mouth agape.” The bottom line was this: “[My uncle] was to be held forever accountable for not conforming.”

Phelps-Roper describes a family, and a church, that sees its strength in complete submission. She recounts a story, beloved by her mother, of an aunt who defied God by attempting natural family planning. The aunt and her husband, finding it hard to care for the six children they already had, tried “counting the days” to prevent another pregnancy. But God, so the story goes, taught the aunt a lesson, and she became pregnant with twins. “‘The womb business is God’s business,’ Mom summarized. ‘You can’t outsmart the Lord!’”

Submission, for young Phelps-Roper, justified the family’s picketing and protesting. “We had taken to the streets because we had a solemn duty to obey God and to plead with our neighbors to do the same. It didn’t matter that the world hated the message […] This was what God required of his Elect,” she writes.

But increasingly, as she developed her own sense of right and wrong, submission became less tolerable. The author does a particularly nice job charting this growing tension. She describes the horror she felt, one evening, at hearing her grandfather implore God to kill select enemies of the church. But, she writes, my “feelings were irrelevant. I would sacrifice them on the altar of submission to the church, because that was my first and foremost duty in this life.”

It’s useful to step back and examine the forces that ultimately brought about the author’s awakening. Much can be attributed to her temperament: deeply faithful, but increasingly curious about the outside world. “Whenever journalists and filmmakers came around for interviews, [my sister] Grace and I would ask almost as many questions about their lives as they asked about ours,” she writes. But in some respects she was simply lucky: in her early 20s, she’d become Westboro’s official Twitter correspondent. In this role, she’d spar for days with people about Westboro’s interpretation of Scripture. Invariably, she’d reflect on their comments afterward.

One correspondent in particular, a mysterious man from South Dakota, piqued her interest. Using the online platform “Words with Friends” to avoid detection, the two conversed daily, arguing about the church but also discussing books and music. Well aware that she was playing with fire, the young Phelps-Roper couldn’t help but hope that the friendship would lead to something greater.

But changes in the church — unexpected and disturbing — were what finally pushed her over the edge. When she was in her mid-20s, a coup, of sorts, took place within Westboro’s hierarchy, and her grandfather was replaced by a group of corrupt and ruthless male elders. “I wanted the simplicity of all my old position — ‘trust and obey’ — but it was proving elusive,” she writes. 

In a powerful scene, the author describes how all her beliefs came crashing down. It was a Fourth of July, and she and her sister Grace were painting a church member’s basement, their minds reeling at recent developments: their mother had been targeted by the elders and stripped of her responsibilities, and Grace had been severely disciplined after elders decided that “her heart wasn’t in the right place.”

“I moved the brush over the deep purple stripes […] again and again and again — [but] the darkness was still visible underneath,” she writes. In a “moment of horrifying clarity,” the cruelty and hypocrisy of the church became apparent. “We had been claiming to love thy neighbor all my life[.] […] But at the same time, we had been wholly dedicated to antagonizing the world. We mocked and delighted in their suffering […] [and] prayed for Him to destroy them.” One might approach this book wondering how a group such as Westboro can exist in 21st-century America. What feels remarkable, after reading Phelps-Roper’s story, is that she was able to leave at all.

Amber Scorah’s debut memoir, Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life, tells of her life in the Jehovah’s Witness, and charts her ultimate disillusion with the faith. Scorah, who grew up in Vancouver as a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness, rarely, if ever, describes the church as a source of comfort. Nor, she writes, did her family provide much in the way of emotional succor when she was a child. Her mother was “distant,” she writes, and her father spent his days and nights holed up in the TV room with a box of wine. In the midst of her community, she was lonely: “I longed to be a part of a family, to be somewhere with love.”

It was this longing, she tells us, that led to an illicit relationship (sex outside of marriage being strictly forbidden) in high school. Scorah describes her boyfriend in heady, vivid detail: “smart” and “intense,” he “slept on a giant waterbed that smelled of Giorgio VIP cologne,” and blasted the Rolling Stones and Tom Petty from his car stereo. Although the two of them confessed to church elders and were “swiftly disfellowshipped” — kicked out of their congregation, but given the opportunity to repent and be reinstated — the relationship opened her eyes to what the forbidden could offer: “I had what felt like love, for a while. And then it rotted me. None of the apples would ever taste right now.”

She also got a taste of life as a shunned church member. Her father died shortly after her transgression, and at the funeral, she writes, “I sat in the back row of the Kingdom Hall, because that was where disfellowshipped people were allowed to sit. No one spoke to me. No one even looked at me.” Scorah — never one to offer excuses for her own shortcomings — acknowledges that it was fear, not faith, that drove her back to her religious community to find a church-sanctioned husband. “Instead of searching for my lost self, for my freedom […] I searched for the thick relief that would come from plugging my gaping hole with a reliable stop from among the only world I knew. I looked […] for a relationship that would last forever.” Jehovah’s Witness teaches that at Armageddon, God will destroy unbelievers, while the faithful will live “forever” in Paradise on Earth.

The memoir opens in 2005 as Scorah and her husband — a man who’s never named — arrive in Shanghai to begin their work as Jehovah’s Witness missionaries. Scorah is particularly adept at showing the crosscurrents at work inside her younger self. On one hand, she was thrilled at the prospect of proselytizing in China: “I said a quick prayer of thanks to Jehovah for bringing me here and knew I was never going to leave, at least not until Armageddon.” But she readily admits to the real reason for being there: “I had dragged this husband […] to the farthest place I could imagine, far enough away to escape what haunted me.”

With perception and humor, Scorah describes the bizarre life of missionaries preaching in a country where their religion was banned. A seasoned missionary — he introduced himself with a false name — met with Scorah and her husband and laid out the rules. No mention of the church in email correspondence, texts, or phone calls. Gatherings of the faithful were held in hushed motel rooms. Door-to-door proselytizing, common in the United States and Canada, was out of the question: the best way to search for Bible students, he explained, was to strike up conversations with likely looking strangers. Bibles, which were necessary for preaching, were to be wrapped in brown paper.

Missionary work, as it turned out, did nothing to deepen the author’s faith. Scorah describes a Bible-study session: “A look or a pause [from a student] would reveal to me that some of the things that I had taken as lifelong truths, things that I had built my life around, seemed just crazy,” she writes. “The things I taught as universal truths completely disregarded the lived experience of much of the world’s population. Creation? One God? Everlasting life?” As she came to realize, “You preach because you are sure. You preach to people who don’t need to hear it, because possibly you are the one who needs to be saved.”

To fill her spare time, Scorah found a job as a translator at a Chinese podcast. (Later, she’d become well known for a popular podcast of her own: Dear Amber: The Insider’s Guide to Everything China.) Here, in what started as an online correspondence, she began a relationship with a man named Jonathan, who lived in Los Angeles. In often-playful fashion, he poked holes in just about everything she’d been taught:

“What about food?”

“No one tells me what to eat, what are you talking about? Okay we don’t eat anything with blood in it, which I mean that is gross anyway. Or take a blood transfusion, which actually protects us.”

“I saw that. So you are cool with dying then.”

Inevitably, her marriage soured. “Years of enforced togetherness, of secret regrets, of suffocating apathy had now become unbearable[.] […] It wasn’t like we hated each other, we were just loveless.” Scorah walked out on her husband — and the church.

She moved to New York, thrilled at the prospect of freedom but also, she writes, “completely naive about how hard New York can be for a person without an education, without job experience, without even one connection.” In the face of profound loneliness, she showed tremendous courage: “I [made] it my job to talk to people, I [worked] at it like an avocation, like a skill I [needed] for survival.”

Scorah’s world — both inside and outside her religion — is harsher and colder than the one depicted by Phelps-Roper. After finally settling into a job and a relationship, she would suffer a horrific, life-changing tragedy: her young son died the first day he was left in daycare. But in writing of her loss, and the grief that followed, the author shows how far she’s come since her days in the Witness. “I have called a truce with the unknown, and I am learning to live with the disquiet. I do not attempt to pray to a God who will not answer.”

Prior to their defections, these two authors held vastly different positions within their respective communities. Scorah was a mere foot soldier, a missionary already on shaky ground with church elders. Phelps-Roper was a shining star, “a jewel,” within the reigning Phelps family. But each dove into a surprisingly intimate, online relationship — enlivened by the spark of romance — with someone who cajoled and questioned, and eventually eroded the rigid tenets that controlled their lives.

In an era when so many of us are locked into ideological silos, both of these books offer insights into what makes a person susceptible to change. Phelps-Roper shows that, while she was in Westboro, angry taunts and derisive language only reinforced her existing mindset: “I learned early to ignore the casual insults (the counter-protesters) tossed around — ‘hateful,’ evil,’ ‘monsters,’ ‘stupid’ — for the simple fact that I knew my family.” Her mother had a favorite saying: “‘You wanna sum up the whole Bible in just three words?’ she would ask. ‘Obey, obey, obey!’” The best strategy, perhaps, for opening another’s mind is equally simple: Engage. Engage. Engage.


Tucker Coombe writes about nature and education. She lives in Cincinnati.

LARB Contributor

Tucker Coombe writes about nature and education. She lives in Cincinnati. You can find more of her work at tuckercoombe.com.


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