Following the exit of people like Libby Phelps-Alvarez, two women have left the cult known as the Westboro Baptist Church; one, Meghan Phelps-Roper, was in charge of the group’s “social media.” From this interview she gave to gay Christian author Jeff Chu, social media played a big part in her release from the cult’s ideological grip:
Her departure has hurt them already—she knew it would—yet there was no way she could stay. “My doubts started with a conversation I had with David Abitbol,” she says. Megan met David, an Israeli web developer who’s part of the team behind the blog Jewlicious, on Twitter. “I would ask him questions about Judaism, and he would ask me questions about church doctrine. One day, he asked a specific question about one of our signs—‘Death Penalty for Fags’—and I was arguing for the church’s position, that it was a Levitical punishment and as completely appropriate now as it was then. He said, ‘But Jesus said’—and I thought it was funny he was quoting Jesus—‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ And then he connected it to another member of the church who had done something that, according to the Old Testament, was also punishable by death. I realized that if the death penalty was instituted for any sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent. And that’s what Jesus was talking about.”
I’m always fascinated by cults, cult-like groups, and those belief systems which offer their members certainty, but only so long as no one looks outside the bubble at opposing views. It seems like a very delicate balance to strike: “our belief system is the One True Way to salvation/prosperity/greatness/ whatever but by all means, don’t look at any other alternatives because that would be Wrong.”
In particular I’m curious about the precipitating events which cause people to suddenly “wake up” — the thing that penetrates the shield of indoctrination and pops that bubble. For Meghan Phelps-Roper it was a Jewish person pointing out the error of WBC’s devotion to one passage of Leviticus and blindness to the rest. For Paul Haggis, it was reading Scientology’s Tommy Davis lie to the press about the church’s disconnection policy, a church-ordered shunning of “suppressives,” since the Haggises had been forced to do this to members of their own family who had left Scientology. Vyckie Garrison left the Quiverfull movement when one of her kids attempted suicide, and she realized the promise of perfect Christian family life was a hoax.
I know several Mormons who broke from the church-induced fog after realizing that nothing in the Book of Mormon is archeologically accurate: horses, oxen, goats, cattle, barley and wheat were all introduced to the New World after Columbus’ arrival, though they are mentioned several times in the Book of Mormon. That got them wondering why, for instance, you can go to Israel and visit places named in the Old Testament and archaeologists are still uncovering shards of antiquity in that part of the world, but nothing from the Book of Mormon has been uncovered in America.
It seems like the precipitating event is always something comparatively small or inconsequential; I mean, Paul Haggis, really? The whole Xenu thing didn’t get you but church officials lying to the St. Petersburg newspaper did? But I get it, I do. It’s easy to believe the fantastical thing, it’s the mundane day-to-day stuff that trips people up.
These aren’t epiphanies, they’re drops of reality that boink a person on the head at just the right time, causing them to have one of those “hey, wait a minute” moments. In America’s political world, I’m convinced Hurricane Katrina was just such a moment, it was a bucket-load of reality that hit millions of people square in the face and showed that government really isn’t the enemy, small government really doesn’t work, and Republican government really doesn’t function. That started it and the right-wing bubble kept getting hit with more bunker-busting reality bombs: the real estate bubble bursting, the economic collapse, Republican Senators embracing TARP, Alan Greenspan’s mea culpa, and on, and on.
Another important reality bomb was the last presidential election. This one hit people waaay inside the bubble, the Kool-aid drinkers who really, truly believed the polls were skewed and Fox News was the only unbiased media source. The election results proved every one of their experts wrong, and Fox is now scrambling to regain its credibility.
Conservatives are frantically at work at their rebranding effort, though if columns like this RedState piece are any indication, they still seem to think the problem is not their failed ideas but their failed image. Here’s an actual screenshot from that RedState.com story:
In other words, don’t change the thing that needs to be changed. Awesome! Enjoy repeating this process over and over again then, because these reality bombs will keep falling.
Leaving cults is scary because you really do feel alone. You can’t cross over to the other side, which has been your sworn enemy for so long. But you can’t go back to that old way of thinking, either.
I suspect Karl Rove is trying to offer a life raft to those folks who feel disillusioned and abandoned by the failures of conservatism these past few years. Problem is, he’s so associated with those failures that I don’t think anyone wants to climb aboard with him.