What parents can learn from the Westboro Baptist Church

Some thoughts on the value of obedience:

Westboro church member holding offensive protest signs saying "You're going to hell" and "Fags doom nations"

Photo by David Shankbone

I expected Unfollow, Megan Phelps-Roper’s memoir about leaving the extremist Westboro Baptist Church, to be a book of hope, an argument for the power of free speech, and in some ways it is.

Afterall, in leaving the Westboro, Phelps-Roper did what few people seem to be able to do: she listened to well-reasoned arguments – on Twitter of all places – and changed her mind.

Yet at its core, Phelps-Roper’s memoir is a tragedy—and a uniquely American one. Few cultures outside of our own so vociferously defend freedom in public life while tolerating tyranny in the private confines of the family. Children growing up in strict or extremist families like Phelps-Roper pay a high price for this contradiction.

Our defense of the hallowed right to freedom of speech allowed the Westboro Baptist Church to picket the funerals of dead soldiers with signs “God Hates Fags” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.” Yet, these same rights were suspended at the threshold of Westboro’s family homes. The parents had complete dominance over their children. As Phelps-Roper writes: “Our duty was singular: to obey them.” 

Unfollow book coverThere is no free speech or freedom of religion in Westboro. Those rights aren’t even conferred at age 18. The only way to gain them is to leave. Ultimately, that’s what Phelps-Roper does when she realizes the hate and hurt her family inflicts on others, and it tears her apart: “Losing them was the price of honesty. A shredded heart for a quiet conscience.” 

Westboro may be extreme, but it is not alone. Many people in America have similar experiences growing up in strict households.

It should give parents pause: How important is your children’s obedience? Do your children have to believe exactly what you do? What price will they pay if they don’t?

If you have a belief system that is “the one true way” —be it religious or political, right or left it doesn’t matter — if you require strict adherence, your family may have a lot in common with Westboro even if you don’t take to picketing funerals.

We all have lines of course. I would like my children to have the same values I do. And there are certain things I might expressly forbid them: like joining a hate group or participating in a violent protest of any kind. Yet, I accept that they will likely have different ideas or beliefs than I do.  

What do you think about obedience? How much freedom exists in your own family?

Comment here, or in the spirit of Megan Phelps-Roper, tell me your thoughts on Twitter.  

This entry was posted in and my super opinion, Book Review, Commentary, parenting. Bookmark the permalink.

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