Fighting the self-righteous rush
Some questions to ask before jumping into the public fray
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She held garish signs with shocking slogans even before she was old enough to read them. In her late teens she was an ardent apologist for her group’s controversial views and confrontational style. At the age of 23 she opened a Twitter account to reach a wider audience, and that was the beginning of the end of her relationship with “the most hated family [and most reviled church] in America.” Too many tweets pointed out too many contradictions for her rational mind to process, and at age 26 Megan Phelps-Roper left the cult founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps.
Westboro Baptist Church gained its notoriety in the early 2000s for picketing the funerals of fallen servicemen. The congregants’ chief beef was the swift march of LGBT activism, a stain on America that brought down God’s wrath in the form of slain soldiers and school shootings. “God hates” was their central message, one they believed America and its soft-bellied churches needed to hear and heed. Though Fred Phelps died almost 10 years ago, the Westboro Baptists still faithfully picket concerts, political events, and other churches.
Megan, once their spokesperson, is now known for a memoir, a TED talk, and most recently a podcast featuring J.K. Rowling. Beginning in 2019, the creator of the mega-selling Harry Potter series came under fire for a series of tweets affirming the reality of biological sex. Her opinions would have raised no more than a shrug 10 years ago, but today she’s anathema: a “TERF,” or “trans-excluding radical feminist.” The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling is a fitting title for the podcast.
Phelps-Roper’s radical past and cultish upbringing were key factors in Rowling’s decision to talk to her. After three years of getting hammered on social media by people convinced that they were both right and righteous, Rowling was intrigued by someone who emerged from a similar radical ideology. The final episode is more a conversation than an interview, as the two women share their unhappy experiences with certainty.
Phelps-Roper’s crisis of faith began in her Twitter feed, with direct challenges to dogmas she’d never questioned. “What if you’re wrong?” entered her mind for the first time and raised havoc with the verities. During her intellectual and emotional dark night, she developed a series of questions to help her distinguish truth from dogma. She shared these with Rowling in their final discussion. They are:
• Can I determine the evidence I would need in order to change my position?
• Can I articulate my opponent’s position in a way they would approve?
• Am I attacking ideas, or people?
• Am I willing to cut off relationships with people who disagree with me over secondary issues?
• Am I willing to take extraordinary measures against them, such as forcing them out of their jobs or damaging their reputations?
• Do I celebrate their misfortune?
Rowling added another question, apropos of her own experience:
• Do I get a kick, or righteous rush, out of attacking a perceived enemy on social media?
This seems like a practical list for a culture muddled in bad-faith arguments and straw men. As one who has been on the receiving end of attacks from a Christian cult, I would add one more question, specific to the Church:
• Do I make secondary doctrines the center of my faith?
Neither Rowling nor Phelps-Roper is an ideal model: The former is left-wing and (as far as I know) agnostic, and the latter has walked away from Christianity altogether, not just Westboro’s twisted interpretation of it. But both strike me as people I could talk to. They seem open to questioning where they are wrong, even if they have no definite criteria for where they are right.
Biblical truth is our criteria: precious, reliable, and easy to pervert. While holding fast to truth, it might be wise to test our interpretations from time to time.
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