What's Really Going On With the Westboro Baptist Church? An Interview With Rebecca Barrett-Fox, WBC Expert

FILE - In this March 19, 2006 file photo, Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Phe
FILE - In this March 19, 2006 file photo, Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Phelps, who founded a Kansas church that?s widely known for its protests at military funerals and anti-gay sentiments, is being cared for in a Shawnee County facility according to Westboro Baptist Church spokesman Steve Drain on Sunday, March 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Editor's note: This interview was conducted before news broke that Westboro Baptist Church founder and longtime leader Fred Phelps has died.

The following is an interview with Rebecca Barrett-Fox, Ph.D., who spent years studying the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and their position in both theological and cultural traditions. She now teaches at Arkansas State University. With all the intense speculation and conjecture on what is going on with the WBC, I sought her out to get a more informed and balanced perspective.

Can you first share a bit about your background with the WBC?

Yes. My first encounters with the church were, as for most people, through TV and the Internet. I first visited the church, just as a casual observer, in 2004, before they started picketing military funerals. By the time the church began picketing military funerals, I knew I wanted to study the group in more depth and had chosen it for my dissertation research. I spent every Sunday for the first half of 2010 with the church, and I also traveled with church members to some out-of-state pickets. This more intense period of research ended with the decision in Snyder vs. Phelps, but I visited the church since then and remain in contact with many church members.

There is such a media buzz about Fred Phelps' possible excommunication. To start, what does "excommunication" mean if that actually has happened?

In some denominations it would be called "disfellowshipped." The WBC has used the word "excluded" to describe those who are made to leave the church. To be excluded is a process that involves both body and soul. Exclusion means being viewed as refusing to "walk orderly," to follow the rules and meet the expectations of the church. Some people leave by their own choice. Some people who have left the group later returned. In fact, while nine of Fred Phelps' 13 children are active in the church now, even most of them experienced some time when they were outside of the church. To be excluded is to lose your family, your friends, your structure, your very identity, the core of what gives life meaning.

You've covered the pragmatic impact of exclusion, but what about the spiritual?

Their theology states that, as hyper-Calvinists, that not only does God predestine who is going to heaven or hell but every other thing, good and bad, that happens to people. While the WBC does not believe that anyone can say who is saved and who is not (not even them), there is no hope of salvation outside of the church. Not everyone inside the church may be "elect" (saved), but it's pretty clear that those outside the church aren't. The church is like Noah's Ark. All the people banging on the door of the Ark to get in as the flood waters rose -- that's the rest of us. Being on the outside of the Ark is terrifying. Nate Phelps, who left the church a generation ago and is a self-described atheist, has said that the fear of hell, a hell that is consistently described to members in graphic and horrific detail, is almost inescapable. This trauma is common for ex-members.

Can those who have been excluded ever return?

Yes, if that person truly repents of their sins. Some members have left the church for some period of time and returned. Many people in the church have spoken warmly of the love and support they received as they've chosen to return, to obey and meet the church's expectations. The many benefits of "belonging" can be a powerful pull.

So, if Fred was "excluded" -- and we do not know for sure that he was, but the church is not denying the allegation -- then why? What could have happened?

That's the big question. I've been running theories for the past two days, but they all seem bizarre. First, is there a new sin that he refuses to repent for? As you noted in your column the other day, you saw him preaching last winter (2011-2012), correct? If he was in a bad place in the eyes of the church, that wouldn't have been happening. And just how much sin can an elderly man get into? Second, is there an old sin recently discovered that he refuses to repent for? I can't see that either. We could speculate all day, but that's all it would be. So what's left? Either Fred Phelps changed or the church changed on some theological point. If Fred changed, others would have changed with him; someone would have followed him. And the same holds true for the opposite: If the church changed but Fred did not, then who stood by Fred? And have they also been excluded? Where are they?

What about the reported change in leadership?

The Topeka Capital-Journal is reporting that, according to Nate, the church has had a change in leadership structure, so it is now overseen by a board of all-male elders. I do not know Nate's sources. According to the paper, this structure was in place prior to Fred's exclusion, so it means that his dismissal would have been under this new structure. The paper said his exclusion was over his "advice" that the group members treat each other with more kindness. Well, whatever it was over, and if it that actually happened, it wasn't over "advice." To be excluded, there must be a serious sin and unwillingness to repent. So, I then look at the issues of power and decision making in the church. Steve Drain came as an outsider some years ago but has assumed more power. If there was a move to establish this alleged board of all-male elders, thus removing the prominent daughters, Shirley and Margie, from having a vote, that would bolster the power of the men. Nate lists six men serving as elders; Steve Drain would be the only one not related by blood or marriage. Shirley and Margie are both very competent attorneys, capable women with strong voices, and they carried the weight of the case that went to the Supreme Court. But the church has suffered losses: Two of Shirley's daughters left last year, Megan and Grace, and that was a blow, not just as a mother but because Megan was a significant leader and a public face of the church, with social media. The bottom line, however, is that the WBC is a church, by theology and structure, that is male-dominated. For decades Fred Phelps was the leading voice and, in worship, virtually the only voice. In decisions, others contributed if their ideas were appropriately presented. That could be totally changing if what Nate Phelps reports is accurate.

Could there have been any theological reasons to remove Fred Phelps from leadership?

This is where is gets a little wild. No one dies in this church. Really, the last funeral was, I think, in 1986. I was told repeatedly that church members fully expected the return of Jesus before Fred Phelps would die, so they didn't need to plan on a future leader. I don't know how much of that was rhetoric, but I have to consider it. Fred's death could be a theological blow to the church. If Jesus' return doesn't come faster than Fred Phelps death, what does that tell us about his "election"? What does his dying say about the whole foundation of the church, and, thus, about the rest of their theology? If they are wrong about this, what else might they be wrong about? So would it be theologically more satisfying, or necessary, to instead find a reason to kick Fred Phelps out than to have to deal with the failure of Jesus to return when they expected or predicted? Religious movements frequently survive prophetic failures, but that survival usually comes at a cost. With the WBC, is the cost Fred Phelps? Now, I'm not sure that that theory would hold water or that, even if it's a good one, that the church members could ever validate, but it might be that the only way for the people of the church to continue on as a church is if Fred Phelps is out before he dies. Otherwise, it might feel like the disciples on Easter Saturday.

As someone who has studied the WBC, what would concern you the most about the future? I mean, can it get worse?

One major concern would be if they began believing in continued revelations -- God speaking beyond the Bible -- that they are literally getting special messages, say, in the form of dreams or visions from God, because those could be about anything and require behaviors we have not yet seen. Before all this I would have said, "No way." But if everything Nate is alleging is true, then the group is really struggling as far as balancing beliefs with reality, as well as the more normal power struggles that often happen within churches, or any organization from families to businesses. There could be elements of an internal/hostile takeover. From my experience I would have thought that the women in the church, who have always been on the front lines, would have been a check on this. But that may have changed.

I've been wondering how it is that the sons who left, Nate and Mark, are providing information. Do they have an inside source? Is there a "Deep Throat" (sorry, I could not resist) in the WBC?

Yes, I've wondered about that also. Part of it -- Fred Phelps being in hospice -- is accurate and has been confirmed by the church. That makes it look like the second part is true, but, of course, it doesn't have to be. So I ask myself: Why would Nate share any of it? At a minimum, it raises security risks for the hospice. And how does Nate know? Did his father attempt to contact him to make amends? That which would make for a nice romantic twist but seems unlikely. If so, while Nate does not owe him any forgiveness, what is being accomplished by going public? Is Nate being prevented by the family from visiting his father before he dies? Or, as you ask, has someone else within the church contacted Nate, who then serves as the voice to the public? It's intriguing, but I'm not sure we'll get a clear picture of everyone's motivations.

I find myself seeing this, maybe just because I was raised Catholic, as like the pope being excommunicated and a gang of cardinals saying they will be calling the shots from now on... and no votes for the women/girls, but then the Catholics have been doing that for centuries.

Yes, Fred Phelps being kicked out of his own church would be significant. It speaks to a major power shift -- an act that someone feels he should repent for, but he doesn't -- or a change in theology. I think we are familiar with WBC being such a tightly focused, on-message group that anything that hints of a disagreement is interesting. And many people would like to hear a twist ending: "Fred Phelps Admits It Was All Because of His Closeted Homosexuality!" or "Fred Phelps Is Brokenhearted at his Bullying and Seeks to Make Amends" or "Fred Phelps Renounces His Evil Ways and Preaches Death-Bed Sermon of Tolerance." Those seem unlikely, but for now we simply do not know. And because this is a closed system, it may take a while to find out what is really happening.

Susan Kraus' novel All God's Children, which revolves around a custody battle over a child who is a member of the WBC, is scheduled to be released in May 2014.