I recently finished listening to the podcast called The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. Part of the pod included interviews by Megan Phelps-Roper, a political activist who was a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church. In case you aren’t familiar with them, as a Church they perform “stunts” like showing up at the funerals of gay people with signs that the deceased is going to hell. She said that she was raised in that Church, and she had always been taught that this type of activity was the only loving way to treat gay people, to warn them of their impending judgment.

How did she change her mind? She was participating in an online space sharing her religious opinions about all the various people who were going to Hell or whose acceptance of homosexuality was bringing destruction to the earth in terms of war, famine, and natural disasters. Because she was young and tech savvy, she had been encouraged by her mother to be the online voice of Westboro Baptist Church, trying to get their message out on Twitter specifically. She saw this as an important part of what she had been taught was her Church’s ministry. While she was spreading her message, someone on Twitter engaged with her and asked her questions until she finally realized that maybe everything she had been taught was wrong. You can read about her (de)conversion story, watch her TED talk, or listen to an interview with her.

It might surprise you to know that Megan and her family are all lawyers, and her grandfather, like Pres. Nelson, was awarded by the NAACP for his support of civil rights. The stranger on Twitter who kindly engaged with her and eventually convinced her that what she was preaching was wrong, was also a lawyer. Based on the Westboro teachings, I certainly expected them to be a bunch of backwoods hillbillies who were probably also racist, not just homophobic, since so many of these things seem to correlate elsewhere.

I mentioned my family is full of lawyers. And they are extremely analytical and very intelligent. And you know, given the premises, like if you go along with the two foundational beliefs of Westboro, which is that the Bible is the literal and infallible word of God, and that they
have the only true interpretation of it, everything else follows. Or so it seemed to me, until I got on Twitter.

There were these few internal inconsistencies in our beliefs. Like if you had made arguments that didn’t go along with those two premises, I couldn’t have heard them. I just dismissed them out of hand. I had Bible verses ready to explain why any argument outside of that was wrong. But those internal inconsistencies, that was the initial wedge that allowed me to see that we could be wrong, that there might be other appropriate ways of seeing things.

Megan Phelps-Roper

She describes conversations with this random stranger on Twitter, and with others on Twitter, people who engaged with her Tweets, and sometimes argued, but often asked her questions that got her to think about the impacts of what she was doing, how she was hurting people by blaming them for their tragedies, and how she was attacking grieving families at the worst moments of their lives.

So before Twitter, I never felt ashamed. I always felt very proud of what I was doing. So I would say, like, all of those things were major contributors to my eventual realization that, you know, this– I came to this question of, oh my god, what if we’re just people? What if this isn’t this divine institution, you know, ordained and led by God himself? What if we’re just human beings trying to figure things out? We think the answer is in the Bible. What if they’re not? And that was this really destabilizing moment. And from then until the day that I left was about four months.

Megan Phelps-Roper

Her newfound Twitter community had become a social group to her, and by violating the norms of that new social group, she felt shame for the actions of her Church, and began to question whether they were really right in their assertion that their interpretation of the Bible was an accurate guide to how God wanted them to act.

When I first listened to her story, I was struck by the fact that during the Mitt Romney campaign, LDS Church members were likewise encouraged to go online to “defend” the Church and to engage with critics. (I entered the blogosphere in 2008 in part due to this mandate). It doesn’t seem that this actually worked out so well for retention, though. Online spaces are communities. In my early days participating online, I had some conversations with other bloggers (I was asked to join the perma team pretty quickly once I started commenting), and we noted that people who joined online discussion groups often left the Church.

One reason is that “doubters” are mostly invisible in our congregations, but online they find that they are part of a very large group of Church members. Because doubts are not welcome at Church, anyone who wishes to discuss them is essentially forced into a space that welcomes dissent, and from there, one’s smaller set of doubts will often grow to a much larger one. People start out thinking they are there to re-convert the heretics, but they often discover that the heretics have some good points, points they have not dared to voice, sometimes even to themselves. They start out closed-minded to the doubts of others, but as they become attached to their new community, their minds open up to different perspectives. I used to refer to this as the Father Damien problem. Father Damien chose to live among the lepers and serve them, but as a result he contracted leprosy and died.

In the J.K. Rowling series, Megan Phelps-Roper shares a list of questions you can ask yourself to determine whether or not you are open-minded about a specific belief (or how open-minded you are):

  1. Are you capable of entertaining real doubts about your beliefs or are you stuck on certainty?
  2. Can you articulate what evidence you would have to see to change your belief?
  3. Can you articulate the opposing viewpoint with clarity and in a way they would agree with?
  4. Do you cut off relationships over disagreements on this belief?
  5. Are you willing to use excessive means against those who disagree with you?

When I began engaging online, I would say I was actually quite open-minded on all these points. I had always been a nuanced believer (e.g. did not believe polygamy was ever divinely sanctioned). My best friend’s mom was ex-Mo and like a second mother to me. I had relatives who had left the Church as well. I might have felt superior to those who had left the Church, but not really superior. As I examined my feelings, I also had a dose of superstition about the Church because it had worked out for me fairly well, and I led a pretty charmed life. Messing with that felt risky, but logically I couldn’t defend that concern.

When you get the rush of adrenaline due to your belief that you are right, stop and question.

J.K. Rowling

Rowling’s perspective in the podcast series is frankly one I find disturbing, but I also recognize how she got there. I don’t agree with her; she’s unquestionably a TERF, even though she is not anti-trans. I have met others who, like her, are so traumatized by their own experience as a woman (and the culpability of sexually violent men) that it clouds their ability to recognize that trans women are women in any real sense. So while I don’t agree with her, I do understand why she thinks as she does. In her case, Twitter has not been her friend. In Megan’s case, it most certainly was.

  • How open minded were you when you first engaged in online Mormon discussions?
  • Have you gotten more or less open-minded over time?
  • What beliefs do you have that you feel are your “deal-breakers,” that are so important to you that you are closed-minded about them?