Megan Phelps-Roper’s conversion began on Twitter. Phelps-Roper is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kansas. Westboro is infamous for its anti-queer protests at the sites of military funerals and other tragedies, deploying church members to hold up signs that say, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God blew up the troops,” “Thank God for 9/11,” and “God hates America.”
In 2008, when she was 22, Phelps-Roper started a Twitter account for the church, where she quickly gathered followers by replying to celebrities and politicians and asserting the church’s hateful message. But Twitter was also where Phelps-Roper’s understanding of faith, God, and identity began to change. In her memoir, Unfollow, Phelps-Roper tells the story of her life in the church and how the dialogue she encountered on Twitter caused her to leave her family and her entire way of life.
Like Phelps-Roper, I also grew up as a fundamentalist Christian and have struggled to come to terms with the faith that raised me and the faith I have now. I recently spoke with her about her conversion in reverse as well as Christianity in America today and the potential for grace and atonement.
Lyz Lenz: When people hear about organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church, the reaction is often: just leave. But it’s more complicated than that. For you, your church was your family; it was your whole world. What did it mean to leave?
Megan Phelps-Roper: If organizations like Westboro were universally bad, they wouldn’t exist. There had to be some draw, and at Westboro, there was a lot of draw. The church was almost entirely made up of my extended family, and everyone in the church felt like family. We did everything together: We had dinner together, played video games; we read books and watched movies together. You were raised to be willing to do anything for one another. As long as you were a member of good standing, there was this incredible sense of love and belonging. In many ways…