Glenn Talks With Megan Phelps-Roper, Former Westboro Baptist Church Member

Megan Phelps-Roper joined Glenn on radio this week for an enlightening discussion about her conversion from Westboro Baptist Church member to someone focused on understanding and inclusion. Like Glenn, Phelps-Roper is a hopeful advocate for bringing people together through honest, civil conversations --- and she's laid out a four-step plan to do just that.

RELATED: 4 Steps to Break Down Walls From a Former Westboro Baptist Church Member

Enjoy the complimentary clip or read the transcript for details.

Welcome to the program, Megan, how are you?

MEGAN: I'm wonderful. How are you?

GLENN: I'm good. It's really an honor to talk to you. We're big fans of what you said in your TED talk, especially from where you started, you know, in a church that is more than a little tough.

MEGAN: Yes. Absolutely.

I grew up at the Westboro Baptist Church. And my family -- the church is almost entirely my family. So around 80 percent -- there's only 80 or so people in the church. And about 80 percent are people -- my grandfather is the one who founded the church. And my mother was the de facto spokesperson for a long time. So, yeah, I grew up on the picket line.

PAT: Yeah, you actually held those hate-filled signs at funerals and other places, right?

GLENN: When you were a kid.

MEGAN: Yes. Absolutely.

PAT: Yeah.

MEGAN: It started out as a protest at a local park, and it sort of really expanded from there. As soon as, you know -- my grandfather was very aggressive, kind of hostile personality. So when people started to come out to counterprotest, everybody who was against us became a target. And eventually -- what started out as it being a protest against gay people, became, you know, we were protesting against other Christians and Jews. It expanded rapidly, until literally everyone outside of our church became a target. And so it was basically a -- you know, I was marinating in this idealogy of everybody is against us. We are against everybody because they're all against the Scriptures. You know, memorizing chapter and verse why they're wrong and why they're headed for hell. And it's our duty to go out and warn them.

STU: I'm fascinated, Megan, because I think to my childhood, and I remember fun picnics and fun trips to amusement parks and things like that. Do you have those types of memories, or is it just -- is there a competition between that and you carrying some awful sign around during a protest?

MEGAN: No. I absolutely have those memories. My -- a lot of people have a hard time understanding that they -- other than these protests and that worldview, they're -- we were a very normal -- obviously there's a lot of kids in our family. There's 11 kids in my family. And -- but we played video games and read books. And we went to public school. And, yeah, we went to amusement parks. We did all of those things, but we also -- that was all sort of organized around this nationwide picketing campaign.

So I have -- I absolutely have both, but that -- that loving family -- the nature of that is part of what makes it so, so, so hard to leave or to even consider leaving. The idea of giving it all up.

GLENN: So I just had a guy in who we're going to interview on a program that I'm working on. He was a member of the Hitler Youth. Now, he's in his 80s now. But he came of age in the Hitler Youth, until I think World War II ended, when he was 20. And he still had -- he sees the world very differently. He thinks that Churchill is a war -- should be held for war crimes. A war criminal.

STU: Hmm.

GLENN: And he doesn't agree with Hitler. But he said, I never saw -- we never saw any of that. At least he said, I didn't. I was in the front row of the 36 Olympics. You know, I -- I saw all the good stuff. And the bad stuff that was thrown up, you just dismissed it because you thought it was somebody that was trying to tear us down. Is that kind of the way your childhood was in a way?

MEGAN: Well, I mean, I know -- I knew at the time -- so, for instance, the funeral picketing, I knew at the time that it was hurtful. But the way that it was framed in our church was, you know, these people don't understand that they're headed for hell, for eternal destruction. And it's a loving thing to go and warn them.

And so I saw it as a necessary evil, like we had to go do this because this was the truth and the only thing that mattered, more than anything else was the truth. And it didn't matter how we said it, where we said, or in what context, it was always a good thing. And -- and it was a point of pride for us not to consider people's feelings.

GLENN: And the people -- and the people that were coming against you, because they were screaming back in your face, it only reinforced that these are bad people.

MEGAN: Absolutely. Especially because -- I mean, there's all these passages. So, for instance, Jesus talks about blessed are ye when men shall hate you and revile you and persecute you, for my name sake. So for us, like we wanted that. It was -- we expected it. It was confirmation that we were doing the Lord's work.

STU: Wow.

GLENN: Now, take us to how someone finally broke through.

MEGAN: So Twitter -- Twitter was -- and I didn't realize it at first. I didn't realize that it was happening exactly. But Twitter was an empathy machine for me.

I really hate how it's gotten such a bad rap because that platform has done more to teach me good communication and how to engage with people than almost anything else in my life.

So on Twitter, people would -- would come at me with the same kind of, you know, hateful rhetoric and loud, you know, accusations and just very bitter. And, again, I expected it.

And I would respond, you know, in kind. And -- but then some people -- and I don't know exactly why or what motivated them. I think they -- they saw -- they say that they saw something in me that maybe I would listen or something. But in any case, they stopped yelling and stopped, you know, insulting me and started to ask questions. And they were like -- they seemed like they were actually listening to me.

GLENN: They were honest questions. They were honest questions.

PAT: Yes.

GLENN: They weren't questions of setup.

MEGAN: Right. Exactly.

And it made me feel -- and because, again, I thought I was doing a good thing. I thought that those words that we were preaching, I thought that was the absolute, unquestionable truth. So I wanted to share it with them. That's why I was on social media.

And so I would, you know, answer their questions and sort of -- we had these back-and-forths. But then because of Twitter, I'm also seeing the photos they post of their children and their friends. And it just became this -- this way for me to see people as human beings. And it was because of the way -- because of the fact that they stopped -- the way they engaged me.

STU: That's incredible, that that came from Twitter too. Someone tweeted the other day, Instagram, my life is a party. Snapchat, my life is a quirky TV show. Facebook, my life turned out great. Twitter, we're all going to die. When I go on Twitter, man, I just get so depressed. But it's amazing you were able to take that out of this.

MEGAN: Yeah. I know. But there's a couple of things about Twitter that were really helpful to me. So like, for instance, the character limit, it first made me give up insults. Because at Westboro, we would include these elaborate insults when we responded to questions that people sent us by email. But on Twitter, there just wasn't space for it.

And also, Twitter was just this immediate feedback loop. If I did insult somebody, I could watch the conversation just derail in realtime. I could see that I wasn't getting my point across because I was too busy indulging that vengeful little voice in my head that wanted to call people names. I mean, we all have this feedback loop.

GLENN: Megan, I will tell you, I've been doing these kinds of experiments myself over the last couple of years, where I've gotten in -- because I just stopped engaging for a while. About years ago, I decided, you know what, I'm just going to answer everybody and assume the best. And just answer the -- the worst with something kind and try to be humble and kind and nice to everybody. Really hard to do.

And it's amazing the results. It's truly remarkable. It doesn't cure everybody by any stretch. But it's remarkable.

And I've talked about it on the air. And so many people say, it's not going to make a difference. You can't engage with them. They're all crazy. They're all whatever. What would you say to that?

MEGAN: Man, I just disagree so -- so much with the idea of hopelessness when it comes to talking to people.

I had -- I had grown up, you know, being -- basically cultivating this mindset of us versus them, being wary -- like specifically being wary of people's kindness. And even though I consciously was aware and trying not to be persuaded by kindness, it was still a powerful thing.

It's really interesting because over the past few years, I've been thinking about this a lot obviously. Because it's only been four years since I left. So it's kind of been just this huge -- you know, huge event in my life. And what you're describing there, about, you know, assuming the best and, you know, changing the way you respond. So if somebody comes at you angry and you respond in kindness and angry, that's called like, non-complimentary behavior. And we as human beings are wired to respond in kind.

But like you said, it's incredibly difficult to do. But we can cultivate a more useful mindset. Like one thing you said -- well, my mom used to tell me, to make sure my behavior was appropriate, I should add the word "judge" on to the end of my sentence, as in, "Here's why I did it, Judge." And I still use that trick, except now I add the word "friend." If someone attacks me and I start to get riled up, I try to pause for a beat and add friend, as if I'm disagreeing with someone I love. And I don't do it to be a goody two-shoes. I do it because it works. It's just so much more effective than anger or insults or hostility.

GLENN: All right. I want to get to -- you say there are four steps. And I want to get to those here in a second. Let me just ask you one more question, and then I have to take a quick break.

Do you -- are you well aware of how appropriately timed your discovery and your story is for the rest of the world?

MEGAN: I -- I just -- I hope that -- I hope that I can be a voice or that the story can be something that will help other people see the value in engaging. Because honestly, my experience has -- has given me so much hope. I never thought I would leave. And at first, when I first left, I thought that my family, there was no hope for most of my family. I don't believe that anymore. And I'm still reaching out to them. I'm still trying to convince them to see things other ways. And if there's hope for me, if I changed, I think that there's a lot of hope.

You know, I know that the political climate is so polarized right now, but I can't help but feel so hopeful.

GLENN: Megan Phelps-Roper. She'll continue with us here in just a second. You need to hear what her solution is. It's really a four-step process. And it's really pretty easy. Left the Westboro Baptist Church because of kindness. You want to hear her whole story. Watch the TED video because it's quite amazing.


Megan Phelps-Roper is a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church, where people were kind to her and started to talk to her. And she says, this really works. And, you know, you could be in the cult of a political part. And I think this works. I think we need this across all lines in the world right now.

Megan, you did a TED talk. You said there are four tips on how to talk to people who you disagree with.

MEGAN: Yes. Exactly.

You want me to tell them to you?

GLENN: Yeah. Sure.

MEGAN: So the first one is -- I think it's really important -- don't assume bad intent. It's so easy to look at -- I mean, Westboro is such an easy example. They've got these neon signs. It was so clearly obvious to everyone that we were hateful and evil and awful people.

GLENN: Uh-huh.

MEGAN: But underneath it was well-intentioned people trying to do what they believed was right. So it's really easy to look at the surface and assume the worst of people, assume you understand where they're coming from. But that almost immediately cuts you off from really understanding what they're about.

GLENN: It's one of the reasons why -- I've tried to cut the word evil out of my lexicon because we use that to -- too often. And we use it about people. And I really think most people have great intent. You know, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, you can disagree with either one of them, but neither one of them think they're doing evil. They think they're doing the right thing. You just don't see it that way.

MEGAN: Exactly. I think very few -- maybe sociopaths or psychopaths. And even then --

GLENN: Right.

MEGAN: People who are deliberately doing wrong, I think they're very, very, very few and far between.

GLENN: Yes. Right. And that doesn't mean you have to go along with it, but if you say to them or their followers, you know, your guy is evil, they stop listening to you.

MEGAN: Right. Exactly. And you stop asking questions to get to the bottom of it, which is the second point. Asking questions helps you bridge the gap between your point of view and theirs. It helps you understand where they're coming from actually. And it also signals to the people that you're talking to, that you're actually listening to them.

And that is a huge benefit to the dialogue because they -- they no longer -- they don't want to yell at you. They see that you want to understand. So they're much more willing to engage. So the second point is ask questions.

GLENN: And it matters that they're honest questions, not setup questions. Not a question where I know you're going to say one thing so I can give you the Scripture quote or whatever to beat you.

MEGAN: Exactly.

GLENN: It has to be a question that's not designed for me to win. We're going to take a quick break. Come back with the last two with Megan Phelps-Roper, when we come back.

(OUT AT 10:32AM)

GLENN: Megan Phelps-Roper, somebody that we saw on TED talk, giving a great TED talk on how to bring people together. She was in the -- she's a Phelps. So she's part of the founding family of the Westboro Baptist Church. And she got online and started making friends with people who were friendly to her, not just yelling at her all the time. And she said there are four things that if you really want to change people's minds, four ways of engaging people so that real conversations can take place. The first one is don't assume bad intent. Instead, assume good or neutral intent. The second, ask questions, as opposed to accusing. Ask honest questions. It will help people let them know they've been heard. And quite often, this is all that people want.

The third is stay calm. Welcome back to the program, Megan. Explain stay calm.

MEGAN: So this one is really difficult because the natural inclination is always to respond the way that somebody is -- is speaking to you. So when somebody comes at you with hostility, the instinct is to be defensive and to respond with hostility. But that just brings the conversation to an end quickly. But if you can learn to step back, calm down and -- and try to diffuse the anger -- and you can do it in a few ways.

So, for instance, I actually ended up marrying -- my husband was one of these Twitter friends who started out as this angry, sort of insulting --


MEGAN: We just got married seven months ago.

GLENN: Congratulations.

MEGAN: Thank you. So what he would do, for instance, he would tell a joke or recommend a book or start talking about music. He would sort of turn away from the hostility for a minute and then come back to it -- come back to it later.

You don't necessarily -- I mean, that's -- that can be a last resort. A lot of times just staying calm and speaking as if you were addressing a friend and not somebody that you hate and that you despise that you can't -- you can't stand to hear their words. It helps so much to keep the conversation going.

GLENN: Step four.

MEGAN: Step four is make the argument.

And this one -- this one seems obvious. But there's this argument that seems to have taken hold on both the left and the right. And I think it stems from the hopelessness you mentioned earlier. Oh, they're just too far gone. They can't be reasoned with. But where does that lead us?

It leaves us at loggerheads. Deadlocked. And no one wants to be there. So you make the argument because they don't understand -- your opponent doesn't necessarily understand your thinking and the way that you're approaching the problem. And by making the argument -- if you fail to do that, you're definitely not going to change someone's mind. You actually have to articulate the reasoning and the thought process behind your position.

And there's actually a fifth point that I would have included if I had enough time -- should I tell you now?

GLENN: Yeah, go ahead.

STU: We're breaking news here. The fifth point in Megan Phelps' TED talk.

GLENN: Go ahead.


MEGAN: It's take heart. Changing hearts and minds is incremental work, and it takes patience and persistence. And you're not going to see results necessarily immediately, not right away, but we can't give up. You know, and you might not be the person to persuade somebody else to turn away from a bad position, but every interaction is an opportunity to help turn the tide. So stay the course, trust the process, and take heart.

GLENN: How many people -- how many people were like this to you?

MEGAN: Well, the ones who had the biggest impact -- I mean, a handful who were engaging me continually over the course of a couple of years, considering I had been in the church. I had been raised in this. And I was 24 when I got on Twitter. So I was, again, marinating in this ideology and this way of thinking. So the fact that it only took a couple of years to really affect me and how I saw things, I think that's pretty remarkable.

GLENN: So did your husband -- was there a time when your husband -- is now your husband --

MEGAN: Yeah.

GLENN: Was he falling in love with you at the time? Did that happen later? Did he say, I can't believe I'm saying this to you -- I mean, how did that happen?

MEGAN: Well, it's a -- it's a really strange -- it was a really strange dynamic because obviously I was at the church. And at Westboro, you could only marry somebody who was in the church. So we were having these discussions, and there was nothing -- it was like a Jane Austen novel, like nothing overt. Like we couldn't say how we were feeling to each other because it just wasn't acceptable. And he sensed that.

And -- but he also, again, saw that I was a human being. And he came to believe that I had a good heart.

GLENN: So would this have worked -- would this have worked without love?

MEGAN: Well, I think -- well, so here's the thing. I -- yes, I believe so. And the reason is that the very first interaction was with a friend. I mentioned him in the talk too. Jewlicious. His name is David Abitbol.

And so it was -- I think I was talking with him for a little over a year. And, again, he's asking these questions. And in the course of asking these questions, he was the one who found the first -- the first bit of internal inconsistency in Westboro's doctrines. And when I look back at how I responded to that -- so my husband -- I didn't actually start speaking to him until months after that. But when I think about how I responded to that first bit of internal inconsistency, that was when I first started to challenge, in my own mind, Westboro's doctrines.

GLENN: And you didn't let him know that.

MEGAN: No. For sure. As soon as he had made that point, I was actually terrified to speak to him again. I didn't even let on that I recognized that he was right. I just stopped speaking to him.

GLENN: Wow. What was the point, if you don't mind me asking?

MEGAN: Oh, yeah, no, not at all.

It was a sign that said "death penalty for fags."

GLENN: Oh, my gosh.

MEGAN: Yeah. So, of course -- we used, you know, the verses in Leviticus and also in Romans 1 that talk about how, you know, gays are worthy of death. And he brought up -- so he's Jewish. I was really surprised that he brought up Jesus, saying, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

And I didn't -- I just had never connected that that was talking about the death penalty. And we thought, we're not -- we're not casting stones. We're just preaching words.

And David said, "Yeah, but you're advocating that the government cast stones."

And so that -- when I brought that point to other members of the church, the response was just to double down. They never addressed the passage that -- you know, that contradicted us. They just reiterated the passages that supported us. And so that was the first time that -- and the way that I reconciled it in my own mind was I just stopped holding the sign because I didn't know how to defend it anymore. And I didn't believe in it.

GLENN: Did they tell you to stop talking to these people?

MEGAN: I don't think -- I don't think people quite realized how much -- I mean, they knew I was very active on Twitter, but I don't think they realized how much it was affecting the way that I was thinking. I honestly didn't -- didn't understand it either.

Because in my mind -- I think I was in denial about it because -- you are not supposed to be impacted by other people. You are not supposed to be anything, but preaching to them. You're not supposed to really, you know, care -- I was going to say care about them. It was a very strange dynamic. But I was in denial about it. And I think that definitely helped it seem to others as if it wasn't really having an impact on me also.

PAT: Is anybody in your family speaking with you? Do you have a relationship with anybody anymore in the family?

MEGAN: Not anybody in the church, no. But there has been over the last decade or so, about 20 or so people who have either left or have been kicked out of Westboro. And my brother actually, the morning of my high school graduation -- he's a year and a half older than me. We woke up and went downstairs, and all of his stuff was gone. And so I have -- I didn't get to speak with him for the eight and half years between when he left and when I left. But now we're really good friends. And he's wonderful.

PAT: What was he thrown out for?

MEGAN: No, he left actually.

PAT: Oh, he left on his own.

MEGAN: He left at 19. Yeah, he also had Scriptural objections to some things. And also the extreme -- he objected to the extreme level of control because everybody in the church -- we all lived within two blocks or so of one another and did everything together and were obviously not developing relationships with people outside. But the level of control is -- is really -- really, really extreme.

GLENN: Do they -- do you think this will just die out as the family dies out, or?

MEGAN: Actually, I thought about this. My sister and I would talk about this about how could the church end in a way that just wouldn't destroy everybody on the inside?

There's still about the same level of membership as there has been. Because a few people -- a few new converts have joined. And then, of course, my generation has now -- they're having kids. But there's not many.

GLENN: What kind of people would join -- what kind of people join this? They really believe -- the newcomers that come in --

STU: It's one thing to be raised in it, but to be converted as an adult.

GLENN: Decent people. Yeah.

MEGAN: So honestly, I've speculated about this too. So, for instance, my dad -- my dad joined the church long before the picketing started. He was only 16 at the time. And, you know, his family wasn't -- I mean, his mom had been divorced. I don't think he -- he was attracted to the love and unity and connection I think in my family. In the Phelps family, I think. And I think that's a draw for some people. And it really lends credence to the idea that they're doing what they're doing out of love, out of good intentions.

And, again, some people just, I think are drawn to that defense of the idea of having all the answers and knowing for sure what you believe and how you're supposed to live. Like, it's -- that was such a powerful thing. When I left and realized like, I don't -- I don't have that anymore. I don't have that sense of -- it's a very comforting sense of certainty. And, you know, nuance and questions and uncertainty are a lot more difficult to deal with. I think some people are attracted to that part of the church.

GLENN: Next time they're out protesting, what should people do?

MEGAN: I think engaging at protests is actually not a very effective thing because they're -- on picket lines, they're already in these attack/defend mindsets. I think the internet is a much -- you know, Twitter. There's a lot of them on Twitter now. I think that's a more effective way of engaging. But if you -- if you do see them and if you are moved to go and speak to them, just remember that -- that responding with, you know, yelling and name-calling, all those things, it just reinforces what they already believe. It's adding to, you know, their certainty that they're doing the right thing.

GLENN: It is really -- it's really great to talk to you. Megan Phelps-Roper. You can find her @MeganPhelps. That's her Twitter handle. @MeganPhelps.

Really great to talk to you. And thank you for sharing this. And I think you have an important voice that needs to be heard.

STU: And I will say, Megan, will you confirm this, because we got the fifth point out of you, we are 25 percent better than your TED talk.

MEGAN: Yeah, for sure.

GLENN: Megan, can we pay you an off-handed compliment. Stu wanted to say this, we said it during the break. And it's weird because it's exactly what we're talking about. We don't know each other. We don't talk to each other.

We look at people in the Westboro Baptist Church and think that their kids just must be dumb as a box of rocks. And just, oatmeal! Every answer is, oatmeal! (chuckling) And you're so articulate. I mean, it's amazing just to have that view shattered.

MEGAN: Thank you.

I will say -- I mean, another thing that's not so well-known about the church, education was really important in my family. Most of the people there -- many lawyers, people who work in health care, and IT. And they're very well educated.

PAT: Wow.


MEGAN: Which is partly I think what makes it so much more difficult for them to see outside of it. This is like a psychological thing where, by -- by having these very strong mostly internally consistent arguments, they -- they think they're so certain that they don't even question the -- they don't even question it.

GLENN: Amazing.

MEGAN: But, yeah, anyway...

GLENN: Thank you so much. @MeganPhelps. Thank you so much, Megan. Appreciate it.

MEGAN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

GLENN: You bet.


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