Reese Witherspoon’s New Film Centers Around a Woman Who Left the Westboro Baptist Church
Reese Witherspoon, known for playing Elle Woods in Legally Blonde and for starring in/producing recent HBO hit Big Little Lies, is producing a film about the “God Hate Fags” folks from the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). Specifically, the film will cover Megan Phelps-Roper, the now-31-year-old former WBC member who left the church in November 2012, and David Abitbol, the Jewish blogger who helped convince her to leave.
The screenplay will be based on Phelps-Roper’s upcoming memoir and a long-form New Yorker article by Adrian Chen detailing her gradual conversion from fundamentalist troll to compassionate human being.
The WBC has been called a “small virulently homophobic, anti-Semitic hate group” by the Anti-Defamation League. But since Phelps-Roper’s departure, the WBC has become best known for being the next-door neighbor of the Equality House, a rainbow-colored drop-in LGBTQ center.
How a Jewish man helped convert a Christianist homophobe
Phelps-Roper grew up in the WBC believing that their church and home compound was an island of sanctity and salvation in an evil world. At age 5, before she could even read, she was placed along the WBC’s picket lines holding a “God Hates Fags” sign.
She grew into a teenager, and barely a month after launching the WBC’s Twitter account in August 2009, Phelps-Roper began trading tweets with Abitbol, a Jewish blogger and activist in his 40s who ran the website Jewlicious and signed off on his tweets with “—ck” for Christ Killer.
Phelps-Roper found him charming in spite of her mistrust. Over time, she found him and other Twitter users funny, friendly and even humane.
Phelps-Roper and Abitbol eventually met in person during a WBC protest of a Jewish festival in Long Beach, California. Phelps-Roper held a sign that read “Your Rabbi Is a Whore,” and Abitbol struck up a conversation, asking her why the WBC protested homosexuals but not women who had sex while menstruating (something forbidden in the Old Testament book of Leviticus). Phelps-Roper had never thought of that, and the thought stuck with her.
She told Abitbol that the WBC would be picketing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations in New Orleans later that year. The two continued talking via Twitter and met up at that protest — they even exchanged gifts.
At some point, Abitbol asked Phelps-Roper about her willingness to hold up a “Death Penalty For Fags” sign when Jesus himself said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” Phelps-Roper’s own mother had committed the sin of premarital sex, birthing a son before she was married — did she not deserve death as well?
Phelps-Roper responded that her mother, unlike homosexuals, had repented. But Abitbol mentioned that homosexuals could hardly repent if the WBC was so willing to kill them. The church’s logical incongruity bothered her.
Sensing a change within herself, Phelps-Roper cut off communication with Abitbol.
The WBC turns against Phelps-Roper and her growing secularism
Later on, as she continued to grow closer to other Twitter users, Phelps-Roper began to question the WBC’s joy at others’ suffering. Her family members rejoiced at the Dec. 20, 2009, death of Brittany Murphy, the actress who played Tai Frasier in the 1995 teen comedy Clueless.
Phelps-Roper herself had rejoiced at the carnage of 9/11, but suddenly felt something approximating sadness over Murphy’s death while the other members of her church excitedly discussed picketing the actress’s funeral.
Nearly two years later, Phelps-Roper burst into tears after seeing pics of Somali children starving from the widespread famine. Her mom composed a triumphant blog post about the starving kids entitled, “Thank God for famine in East Africa!”
Eventually, Phelps-Roper became romantically attracted to another Twitter user: She began playing Words With Friends with him on her mobile phone, she started listening to music he recommended and even embraced him in front of the WBC compound’s security cameras.
In response, the WBC’s male leadership scaled back her responsibilities and made her start wearing high-necked shirts and ankle-length skirts to school. The pastor began preaching more often about biblical commands that women should not preach and that they should be subservient to their husbands.
After a lifetime of hearing about powerful biblical women, she began to feel as if the church had turned on her.
“It was like we were finally doing to ourselves what we had done to everyone else. Seeing those parallels was really disorienting,” she said.
Phelps-Roper and her sister leave the WBC compound
Megan Phelps-Roper began asking her younger sister Grace (who had noticed Phelps-Roper’s changing attitudes and taste in music) questions like, “Does it really make you happy when you hear about people dying or starving or being maimed? Do you really want to ask God to hurt people? I ask myself these questions. I think the answer is no. When I’m not scared of the answer, I know the answer is no.”
Together they planned to leave the church, storing some of their possessions in the home of a sympathetic teacher. While plotting their departure, Grace had an affair with a sympathetic older congregant who also attended the WBC. When the man’s wife discovered the affair, she wrote a letter to the WBC leaders exposing the affair and the girls’ plan to leave.
The family confronted the girls but ultimately allowed them to leave. The girls spent many days crying, feeling adrift and waiting for God to destroy them for their defiance. Eventually, in February 2013, Phelps-Roper announced in a blog post that she had left the WBC.
“Until now, our names have been synonymous with ‘God Hates Fags,’” she wrote. “What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on.”
When Abitbol learned they had left the WBC, he invited them to speak at his next Jewish cultural festival in Long Beach. Attendees were skeptical (even angry) at first, but their story touched many people. Afterwards, Abitbol’s Rabbi invited the girls to stay with him.
Here’s video of Phelps-Roper talking about why she left the WBC:
In a TED Talk that Phelps-Roper delivered in February 2017, she said:
Once I saw that we were not the ultimate arbiters of divine truth but flawed human beings, I couldn’t pretend otherwise. I couldn’t justify our actions ‚ especially our cruel practice of protesting funerals and celebrating human tragedy. These shifts in my perspective contributed to a larger erosion of trust in my church, and eventually it made it impossible for me to stay. …
I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. … We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies. No nuance, no complexity, no humanity. Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for the other side, the conversation nearly always devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy.
And just as I learned to do, we routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions or the merits in our opponent’s. Compromise is anathema. We even target people on our own side when they dare to question the party line. This path has brought us cruel, sniping, deepening polarization, and even outbreaks of violence. I remember this path. It will not take us where we want to go.
Phelps-Roper’s suggestions on how to talk to ideological opponents
In her TED Talk, Phelps-Roper recommends that people not assume ill intent on behalf of those they strongly disagree with or hate. “Even when my words were aggressive and offensive,” she says, “I sincerely believed I was doing the right thing.”
She suggests that people ask questions and give their opponents room to speak. This way, she says, they’ll feel heard and possibly come to understand the potential flaws in their arguments.
She advises that people embroiled in the debate stay calm rather than let a conversation come to a fiery end: “Instead of lashing out, we can pause, breathe, change the subject or walk away, and then come back to it when we’re ready.”
Lastly, Phelps-Roper suggests that people “make the argument” and explicitly say what point they’re trying to make rather than just assuming that anyone should understand without being told.
“My friends on Twitter didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles,” Phelps-Roper said, “only their scorn.”