Introducing a Class-Workshop Model

REL 402.Empathy and the Religious “Enemy,” Fall 2019

In this course, students will investigate the religious beliefs and practices of radical, oppositional religious groups in the U.S., including but not limited to Westboro Baptist Church and anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews. Course modules will address their histories, approach to outsiders, social dynamics, as well as their reception in American society as an “enemy.” Students will improve and examine group datasets through qualitative data analysis (QDA). You will build the critical-empathetic skills needed to study such groups, interact with them, and engage thoughtfully in public discourse about them.

Bobbie Hall published in “Odyssey”

Be sure to check out Bobbie’s article, “I Interviewed The Westboro Baptist Church For 4 Days And Came Out A Changed Woman,” excerpted below, in which she discusses her personal experiences as an interviewer with the project, engaged in field work in Topeka, KA.

“I hope to be a psychiatrist after school, and a crucial part of that will be having the skills to listen to a person with no judgment and to truly understand them. This was my first step in gaining those skills.”

For more student content, see the “student paper” tag in the right-hand toolbar!

Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” Participants Featured in the Miami Student

The Miami Student has run a piece on our project, focusing on sophomore Alexa Lawhorn and senior Sofia Vlahakos. The article features their field work experiences through interview, and provides background on the project. To read all about it, click here!

Final Thoughts On Westboro Baptist Church 2018 – Bobbie

A few days after this trip, as I’ve finally had time to reflect, I’m mentally going back to a paper that I wrote for Dr. Gray’s religion 101 course. Without posting the entire paper, my thesis was that the WBC’s marginalization isn’t only due to the way that they practice their religion, but also strongly due to how they react to others when confronted. In the paper, I cover many topics, including totalism, social exclusion, and reactions to social exclusion (prosocial and antisocial).

Previously, I made assumptions that they are constantly practicing totalism. It seems to me, that it is something they do struggle within day to day life. Jonathon mentioned that he enjoyed running but there were times that he felt he had to pull away because he was devoting so much of his life to it. Maybe totalism isn’t something they are doing, but rather something the WBC members aspire to do.

So, what about my assertion that a reason they are so marginalized is that the group reacts in an antisocial way when confronted? This would be like when in past interviews, a member of the church would yell at someone who is confronting their values and beliefs.

When discussing outsiders counter-protesting, it seems that they feel like it’s almost laughable. At the same time, though, they mentioned that they really respect the first amendment and therefore also respect these people sharing their opinions and using their freedom of speech. So, I wouldn’t say that they respond in an antisocial way, as I had previously assumed. Their response to this social exclusion is not antisocial or prosocial but maybe, nonsocial. A nonsocial response can be characterized as pulling back into your “comfort zone” when faced with exclusion. Usually associated with cowardice, this might just be a result of exhaustion. The church members seem to just be tired of fighting back. They don’t engage in the discourse as much anymore, possibly.

I was also curious why they believed that they are so marginalized. In an interview with Abby, she mentioned that she believes that one of the strongest reasons why the Westboro Baptist Church is so strongly marginalized can be attributed to the media. A term the media uses a lot when describing the WBC is “hate group”. She mentioned that this tends to then cause people to shift to the word terrorism. It was shocking to her that a term such as terrorist could be attributed to this group, considering they don’t partake in any physical aggression.

But does the group even care that they are incredibly marginalized? And are they really? In an interview with around 6 girls ranging from their teen years to their 30s, I found some answers to this question. While it can be seen from previous interviews with older adults that they were incredibly bullied for being in the church when younger, these girls say that usually, people let them keep their church life and home life separate. They also mentioned that they don’t care much to hang out with people their own age outside of the church. So, they do seem to be socially excluded or marginalized but that seems to be due to their own preferences, like a separation strategy. I don’t think this means that they want to be separate in all situations or seen as bad people, but it’s almost what comes with their choice to stay separate in most ways from the general population.

Overall, I feel that my previous assessment of the church doesn’t represent who they are as a group. It might have in the past, but it seems that the church has changed in their mannerisms. Many people have tried to explain this to us, but can’t exactly find the right words. I don’t know if this change will help or hurt how marginalized the group is, but I do know that it is happening, and it is noticeable.

Concluding Reflections on 2018 Trip

I feel a mix of emotions after this trip, mainly awe, fear, and pain. It brings me joy that I have the empathetic capacity to relate to a group that may seem so different than me. As I was talking with one of my roommates about the trip, she mentioned that coming out and being in the church may not feel all that different. When I, and unfortunately many LGBT-identified folks, had been considering coming out, I was worried that my community would reject me. I felt terrified by the possibility that my family may not accept me.

First, I am awed. Awed that many members of the church may have had similar thoughts, now or if their views happen to expand. This has been apparent in some cases of ex-members, like Nate Phelps, who has spoken about the terror they had in leaving their family, their community, and their home. From what I observed, the members of the church seem like a big loving family. Although, not to entirely discredit that, we were only able to observe members during isolated circumstances and in select environments. In a way, they come out to, whether that be to outsiders regarding their beliefs, in physically leaving the church and separating the group’s beliefs from their own, or in times where they may falter in their faith. I am awed by these potential circumstances, and how they could elicit feelings of fear.

Next, I fear for their future and for their well being as individuals. As we spoke to each interviewee, I thought to myself, “Do you truly believe this deep down? What if Fred Phelps Sr. never founded the church 50 years ago? Would you still be supporting this doctrine and these beliefs?” Several outsiders have integrated into the church, presenting that some do come to believe in the message of the church.

Moving on, though I see them in a different light, as Pedro noted, that does not nullify the pain that many have felt as the church’s messages impacted them. Furthermore, as we came to learn, Child Protective Services have been very investigative of members of the church. This leads me to have fear for the well-being of members of the church. Will there be some significant event that changes the trajectory of the church’s softening? Something that brings back the more offensive messages of Fred Phelps Sr.? Many people do not agree with the message that the church is trying to convey, past or present. Some instances of such vehemence in disagreement have escalated in violence toward the church. As noted in “God Hates,” this may very well reify their perception of the outside world, which is one full of sin. Staying true to what you believe in can be scary, especially when others don’t agree.

Lastly, I feel pain as I wonder what members our own age, and younger children, would be like had they not been born into or taught this. Many members don’t leave Topeka, aside from vacations and pickets. When Shirley broke down on the way to the soldiers funeral, were the tears for our inevitable damnation? Or for the circumstances that members were traveling into? Was she exhibiting fault in her belief or empathy for the fallen? I feel pain for members of the church as it is apparent that many outsiders are not yet willing to show them compassion. From human to human, I believe we all deserve a little kindness. I feel that this is “not their fault, but it is their responsibility.” For example, Noah Phelps-Roper stated that he “wants to become a lawyer because others from this generation haven’t.” He feels responsible… Is he? I don’t think that he should be. Are they being responsible? Will they continue to change? Are they scared to change? Despite all of this, I do feel overly joyous that we could show them compassion, something they don’t appear to be used to and have them be so receptive to it.

Observable shifts in our interactions with Westboro Baptists (draft)

For the August 2018 trip, I visited with 3 student research assistants from 2017 and 5 students who were new to the WBC-Topeka encounter. It was clear to those from 2017, including myself, that the Church was presenting a different look and feel than last summer. Indeed, it’s fair to say that a couple of Church members confirmed that their approach to us had shifted.

Our project aims to carry out a methodology that is adapted from known methods, but not heretofore applied to WBC, one of the most hated, provocative, and isolated religious groups. The methodology calls for us to:

  • Stick to the role of a critical-empathetic observer, in order to understand cognitively and emotionally their perspectives, attitudes, feelings, and idears.
  • Speak and engage with church members, and publicly, in a nonjudgmental manner. Refrain from any direct or implied condemnation or praise of the Church or its activities.
  • Be warm, friendly, attentive, respectful, and curious, as with any religious and ethnic group one might study.
  • Do more listening than telling. Be open-hearted and, in effect, open-minded.

Our rapport, relationship-building, and improved interactions with WBC may be indicated by the following:

  • WBC members appeared friendlier, more cooperative, less combative, hostile, or aggressive.
    • This was true of every church member in my rough age cohort. While Steve Drain expressed disdain for academia, he did so in perhaps a softened way. (Some pointed comments about Jews may have been intended to test or unsettle me, but there were far less than in the past.)
    • I hadn’t spoken before (except incidentally) with the younger generation interviewees. A few came across as distrustful or combative, but such behaviors mostly dissipated during our encounters.
    • This kinder conduct toward outsiders does fit with my article’s analysis of their picketing signs, with their heightened emphasis on scriptural charity, and (as I heard described) as a gentler or softened style in the Westboro Baptist Church.
    • Caveat: Interviewees were self-selected, not chosen randomly. Members who declined to be interviewed could be those more antagonistic to my project or more hostile to outsiders. Nonetheless, at a communal level, isn’t such self-selection (hostility avoidance) by individuals itself a form of cooperation and hospitality?
  • My recent article, front page of the Capital-Journal of Topeka, was favorably received and discussed with WBC. Even their criticisms were framed as minor. See RNS version.
    • Before the visit, Steve Drain cooperated with info and photos for the RNS article. This article (and social media posts) could have disposed WBC favorably to us.
  • Eight student research assistants helped create goodwill by assiduously following the protocol. They did not report any hostile or aggressive questioning or confrontations with any WBC members.
    • Our 2018 team built upon the 2017 work of five students, three of whom returned, though that 2017 group had reported hostility from WBC on a number of occasions.
  • Two collaborative projects were discussed:
    • With Tim, a co-authored article on (Jewish eschatology) and the Zionist movement;
    • With Margie, a co-authored article on the draft Principles of Harmful Speech and Nonviolence toward WBC.
    • Caveat: In 2011, I discussed their participating in demonstration interviews at Miami. I never proposed such collaboration because they never seemed so responsive and cooperative to me before. I may have been wary
  • Three families brought children (including minors) to interview. I had seen interest from families in 2010 but not in recent years.
    • A couple of minors were enthusiastic to speak with me. Family interviews: Shirley and 3 sons; Sam/Jen and 1 minor (another watched); Charles/Rachel and 5 children.
  • Interviewees discussed the project in neutral or favorable terms.
    • Several talked about their “interest” or “curiosity” in where I am going with this project, viewing the inquiry as academic (e.g., Tim, Charles, Steven H). We sensed a consistent and rather favorable narrative about me and the project.
    • Charles compared our inquiry favorably to media and other scholarly projects, which have a clear (and perhaps incompatible) end product (Charles).  Whereas the past trope was to portray my inquiry as the same as anyone’s and not memorable, this year a few interviewees treated our project as different than what they get from other outsiders.
    • In his sermon, there was Jon’s explicit positive reference and a double coding to the Miami team. He also said that a hymn was chosen for us.
    • Paulette said that Dr. Gray’s descriptive work is fair, though not necessarily accurate.
    • WBCers appear to trust me more, some said as much [check]. Nobody openly broached the possibility that I am a wicked or satanic threat, even if they still feel it.
  • There are numerous examples of new information shared with us, which is indirect evidence of trust and relationship-building.
    • Biographical info, including many incidents of harmful behavior toward them
    • Examples of open expression of feelings and experiences: Abigail, Becky P-D, Bethany, Brent (about Fred Sr.), Jen, Margie, Steve H, and possibly Tim.
    • WBC collected and destroyed a set of picketing signs that it no longer uses. I can now ask Steve Drain for this list, which could justify a follow-up to the article cited above.
  • More “social” interactions.
    • The interview with young women was fairly casual and free form.
    • Drains invited the project team to dinner. (Granted, I had not asked in the past.)
    • The Bible reading invitation was not offered last year. (At Ben & Mara’s in 2016.)
    • Jon invited students to swim in the pool.
    • WBC invited us to the church service, where a few people interacted with us.
    • They also invited us ad hoc to their group singing.
    • Shirley lent my female students scarves as head coverings.
  • Jon referred to Dr. Gray as possibly one of God’s army, etc. While consistent with the sharp dualism of WBC theology (elect vs reprobate, sheep vs goats, Good vs Wicked, Church vs Enemies), this still hints at a category for the more trustworthy or fair-minded non-elect.
  • A picket to KC with my students was canceled, they said, so as to avoid risk to the students. To be sure, WBC cooperates with the policy to ensure their safety at pickets. But it’s uncommon for them to assert or even communicate that they made a change for the sake of outsiders.
    • In its place, two WBCers agreed to an open-ended interview, which lasted 3 hours.

Overall, the evidence strikes me as fairly strong: there is increased trust, openness, and cooperation. It takes two to tango:  folks from both WBC and our Miami team have taken steps and made overtures to improve our personal and working relationships.

Perhaps a foundation is being built, stone by stone, line by line, conversation by conversation, with this strange work, listening to each other. Even if we mess up and fall backward, maybe we can get back on track by not making haste.


This blog post is a work-in-progress. It may be edited as we assimilate the data and student reports.


Recap: Interviews and other interactions

Our trip to Topeka was very productive. It demonstrated significant and observable progress. While progress comes partly through the quality of interactions that we’re pleased to have with the WBC community, it helped to have a good quantity of interactions. We recorded more than 20 hours of interviews.

We appreciate WBC for its hospitality, cooperation, and devoting so much personal and family time to the interviews.

Here’s a breakdown of the main interactions in the field, with (random) highlights:

  • Steve Drain, welcoming interview, 0:30 hr:min
  • Tim Phelps, scheduled interview, Thursday, 1:54
    • Understanding employees; personality traits; childhood and young adult experiences; Israelite tribes and priestly classes; idea of co-authoring an eschatology piece with Dr. Gray; “you write one article a week and I got your back” (1:31); interest and curiosity about where our project is going
  • Abigail Phelps, scheduled interview, Thursday, 1:50
    • Her work on offender re-entry; knowing someone with an abusive father; understanding personality types (My True Colors, e.g., helper, right thing to do, control, cerebral); experiences of prejudice; compartmentalization and Others; she recommends distributing our “Principles of Harmful Speech and Violence” to SPLC, ADL, etc.
  • Rebekah Phelps and Kathy Griffin, scheduled interview, Thursday, 1:49
    • Kathy into and through law school, with Becky’s help; Kathy’s journey in and out of the church; family relationships; Becky’s work in family law, its stress and emotions; “he took my client’s child when she was nursing that baby” (1:40)

  • Singing hymns in the church (not recorded,  ad hoc participation)
  • Jonathan and Paulette Phelps, ad hoc scheduled interview, Friday, 2:53
    • Students conducted this interview on their own.
    • Originally, six students were to accompany Jon and Paulette to Kansas City and observe their picketing. WBC canceled it, they said, due to safety concerns for our students.
    • School situations and family relationships; Paulette’s joining the church; racism and class; doctrinal matters; their impressions of our project, “fair not accurate,” Ps. 68:11 and “he’s simply enrolled in the army of the lord”  (2:42:28)
    • “What possessed you to traipse across [many] miles… to come here and to want to sit through this? Seriously.” (2:43) As a teacher, I appreciate that Jon took the time to listen to the students reflect on their reasons for voluntarily signing up for this trip.
  • Field-observation of WBC picketing, Friday morning (not filmed)
  • Shirley Phelps-Roper and Brent Roper, scheduled interview, Saturday, 1:40
    • Charity in the WBC sense; Brent’s relations at work and charitable volunteerism; their early relationship; personality, temper, passion; Brent’s love for Pastor Phelps; posters that were eliminated; newborn babies’ names
  • Jonah, Gabe, and Noah Phelps-Roper, with Shirley, scheduled interview, Saturday, 2:02 (G and N after 1:40)
    • experiences at school and college (e.g., bullied to “say you’re gay”); career plans; their questions about practicing Jews; participation with our project
  • Margie Phelps, scheduled interview, Saturday, 2:26
    • her work on the SCOTUS Snyder v. Phelps case, “I gotta know the story” (1:54:15 to 2:06:01); anti-WBC prejudice in agencies; managing chaos; style to improve: “how to effectively navigate a negative, disruptive, bullying person” (~32); possibility of co-authoring an op-ed on the draft “Principles of Harmful Speech and Violence”
  • Spaghetti dinner with Steve, Luci, Boaz, and Faith Drain (not filmed), Saturday. Thank you!
  • Family Bible reading led by Steve Drain, Saturday, 1 hour. Ecclesiastes ch.5
  • Bekah Phelps-Roper, Deborah Phelps-Davis, Faith Drain, Becky and Julia Jaques, Esther Griffin. Scheduled interview, Saturday, 1:08 hr:min
    • This was, in effect, a “bridging conversation” conducted by the Miami student team. Topics included personal interests, career ideas, relations within the church and with schoolmates, and popular culture.
  • Field-observation of WBC picketing, Sunday morning (not filmed)
  • Church service, including sermon by Jonathan Phelps, prayers by Steven [H] (07:00) and Brent (39:50), two hymns, 0:49 min.
  • (Tim Phelps and Hillel Gray, ad hoc planning of a co-authored article on eschatology and Zionism, Sunday, 0:33 min)
  • Sam, Jen, Isaac, and Moriah Phelps, (minors in room), scheduled interview, Sunday (1:42)
    • Hospice and nursing work; transgender girl in school and other challenges (“Why do you believe in a God that created people just to destroy people?” 19:05); dealing with emotions and religion in the workplace; missing the Hockenbarger parents; their “courtship” narrative
    • Value of retelling emotional stories and participating in the project’s interviews (Jen, Isaac, and Sam separate times)
  • Charles, Rachel, Steven, Ruth, Bethany, (Jeremiah and Gideon) Hockenbarger, scheduled, Sunday, 2:10 hr:min
    • Rachel as a Judge Pro Tem working on state custory; Steven at work (40:20) “I am a robot” <joke>, Bethany at 47:30; Charles on our project different than media, and other scholars, by not having a certain end-product

This is a work-in-progress. We hope to prepare better summaries down the road.

Showing “Critical” Empathy

Although they are known for their controversial messages, the Westboro Baptist Church has been able to show compassion and understanding for individuals who are not within their community during interviews with The Topeka Twisters. Despite outsider’s opinions on what they might believe the WBC to be a community of heartless protesters, we have been able to see another side from members of the church when discussing the types of individuals they defend in court. While talking with the two sisters, Kathy and Rebekah, they first described the hardship they underwent when applying to law schools. Subsequently, their persistence eventually led them to being excepted into their desired programs.

The sisters also opened up about the difficulties they have faced when dealing with the criminal court system. During the late 1970’s to early 1980’s they worked on defending minorities and their civil rights during the Wichita aircraft cases. Without disclosing case details, the sisters continued on to elaborate on certain challenges when handling cases involving domestic and child abuse. They informed us that Kansas has a No Fault Divorce law, which just adds another obstacle for WBC attorney’s grueling case loads. The sisters started getting choked up when remembering some of the most emotionally tolling cases they defended for, which only showed their sympathetic and humanistic characters.

Kathy and Rebekah continued to compare their law skills to their father’s, where they noted his litigating skills over his negotiating ones. They reminisced on their childhood, where Rebekah communicated her desire for always wanting to go into law. Her father was in school to become an attorney when she was born, so the law has always had a special place in her heart. Kathy acknowledged her reasons for leaving the church, but also the spiritual aspects of what drew her back to the Westboro Baptist community. Overall, it was an enthralling and refreshing interview.


Reflections on Empathy

As our interview with Kathy and Rebekah pressed on, it became increasingly clear that there was no lack of empathy between these sisters, although they expressed this aspect of themselves in very distinct ways. Becky could have talked through the night about how emotionally invested she is in the family law cases she handles, going into great detail about the impact this type of work has had on her. This same zealous advocacy for clients is very apparent in the other WBC lawyers my group has interviewed, such as Jonathan Phelps. Both Kathy and Becky expressed a strong sense of empathy for those who belong to marginalized groups.

We then spoke to Kathy about her estranged brother, Nate Phelps. She related to us that, despite their fragmented relationship, Kathy has a “soft spot” for her brother. These feelings for Nate may be unique to Kathy because she is able to relate to his situation. Having been formerly estranged from the church, she may be understanding of Nate’s perspective more so than other current members. Kathy also spoke to us about her eldest son, who is autistic, and her hope to one day open a center to help others with disabilities through sensory integration therapy. This left me with the impression that she feels a certain empathy for individuals with disabilities and possibly mothers with disabled children.