They call themselves the most hated family in the US and they picket funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. So what did Louis Theroux make of the Phelpses after three weeks?
In any country, let alone one as patriotic as the US, few actions are as provocative as protesting at a soldier’s funeral.
The Phelps family pickets mourners across the country, to mark what it describes as God’s revenge on the US for tolerating homosexuality.
Their actions are in the name of the Westboro Baptist Church, which numbers 71 and is headed by “Gramps”, preacher Fred Phelps. The church, which is based in Topeka, Kansas, mostly comprises his extended family.
Louis Theroux, himself no stranger to people with unconventional views, says the Phelpses are the most extreme people he has ever met. But in the following interview, he reveals how three weeks with them left him perplexed by their motivation.
The Magazine: How well known are they in the US?
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Louis Theroux: They’re well known because of these pickets which they’ve been doing for at least 15 years now. The pickets weren’t always of soldiers’ funerals, but it got more extreme as it went on. Originally it started as pickets of places where gay people congregated – a local park becoming a cruising area which they objected to, and then when Aids came along they said it was punishment for homosexuality and they began picketing Gay Pride parades and marches and also then the funerals of people who died of Aids. And they didn’t originally use offensive words like “fag”. They would say “homosexuality”, but then it just escalated.
You say that in America the media tries not to give them the coverage, but aren’t you just giving them a voice over here?
Viewers will have to see the show and judge for themselves how these people come across. Certainly this group view it as a platform and that’s why they agreed to do the show. But I think what we did was something more than that. What we did, I think, was try to understand how a group like this operates; its group psychology, the way the beliefs are passed down the family, and how those beliefs can be held by very urbane, intelligent, professional people. So when you cover a group like this, you take a gamble that you will be able to get under its skin and reveal something about it, and something about us all as people, and I think we managed to do that.
They don’t separate their children from the real world either, do they?
They go to school; you can have normal conversations with these people. They’re intelligent, high achieving, have good jobs, and they’re kind, for the most part, when they’re not on pickets. They’re easy to communicate with and deal with too. It’s just this one area – their pickets. They will even – so I’m given to understand and I have no reason to doubt it – work alongside gay people very happily in the work place. If a gay person goes along to talk to them outside the church or if a gay person even turned up to the church to attend a service, they wouldn’t humiliate them or be rude to them; they’d shake their hand and welcome them in.
Do all the children follow this Church?
Gramps, the pastor, who’s the head of the whole ministry, he’s had about 13 children. But four fell away. You could say that for only four to fall away shows that you can escape from it but then you can also say how amazing that nine of them stayed in it. That there are 71 of them in total is a testament to how powerful an effect your upbringing has on you.
Are the ones who left, ostracised from the whole family now?
Yes. Once you leave, that’s it, there’s no going back and if you’re still in the group you’re not allowed to “fellowship” with an ex-member. That’s a no-no.
They’re relatively “normal” apart from this obsession with the pickets?
Louis: Yes. In some ways they’re a model family. All these things that you associate with the breakdown of families, like the dad’s gone to the pub all the time or they just watch TV and the parents don’t talk to the kids, well you can’t put that on this family. They spend all their recreational time together and they all look out for each other. They don’t really have friends outside the church because all their best friends are in the church. It’s important to recognise the good qualities of the family as it helps explain why so many of them have stayed in it and embraced the hateful stuff.
Were there any other aspects of the family that intrigued you?
Louis: I first saw the family through reading about them and on their website but now, having met them, the most incongruous thing about them is how they look. What I mean is, for example, many of the women are these nice-looking young ladies whose beliefs are so old-fashioned in some ways so you’d think they’re kind of like the Amish or something and wear head dresses and long skirts and dirndls. Instead, they’re all wearing shorts and T-shirts. They’re all-American girls with long hair and good teeth and looking tanned and relaxed, playing volleyball and laughing and joking around and that is, for me, a totally new kind of experience. Dealing with these people with, like, Palaeolithic beliefs but hearing them coming from fresh-faced teenagers and women who you think you’d run into at the mall.
Isn’t what they’re doing just the ultimate in free speech and democracy?
Well yes, in the sense that they have a right to their beliefs. Although I don’t think they have a right to invade someone’s funeral, they have a right to hold their signs on street corners. I don’t think they should be stopped from doing that. I still think it’s a pretty weird thing to do and quite a horrible one.
What else do you tackle in the film?
What we’re trying to do in the documentary is look at an activity that is so antisocial, so strange, so futile and at its worst, so cruel, and we’re saying “Why? Why do that?”, especially when you seem to be, for the most part, kind and sensitive people. We’re exploring what is cruelty, trying to explain how something that really does very often just amount to cruelty could be perpetuated and passed down in a family. Why would nice people do such horrible things?
Do you think you’ve come to an answer?
Yes, I think we do. I think that the pastor is not a very nice person. I think he’s an angry person who’s twisted the Bible and picked and chosen verses that support his anger, that sort of justify his anger, and he’s instilled that in his children and they’ve passed it on to their children. Although the second and third generation are by and large quite nice people from what I saw, they still live under the influence of their Gramps.
It shows you what strange avenues the religious impulse can take you down. I think another part of the answer is that parts of the Christian Bible are pretty weird. There’s a lot of weird stuff in there and when you take that and you add this angry, domineering kind of a father figure, which is Gramps, and you add that he has sort of separated them off from other people, other families and driven them to achieve a lot, and he was kind of a charismatic guy, and still is up to a point. He was a very verbal, very persuasive, an extremely compelling speaker. All these things added together combined to make a powerful influence.
Louis Theroux: The Most Hated Family in America is on Sunday at 2100BST on BBC Two