We’ve all heard of the Westboro Baptist Church. They are the guys who protest at the funerals of U.S. soldiers blaming their deaths on gays in the military. They also hate Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Lady Gaga, obviously President Obama, and they love using the word fag.
But the church is not really a church and their worldview is not limited to making public protests. The church is more like a family. Almost everyone is related to the head of the church, Fred Phelps. Their theology is a very chaste brand of Baptist style Christianity and is consistently conservative. Check out this great documentary on the WBC: The Most Hated Family in America. (Another previous documentary filmmaker wound up joining the church!)
Megan Phelps-Roper was considered the future of the church. A few weeks ago she left the church and won’t be going back. I learned that one of the keys to her successfully leaving the church was David Abitbol, otherwise known at @Jewlicious on Twitter. Abitbol used theological arguments to diffuse much of what Megan had been taught. She didn’t leave right away. She kept trying to revive her faith and believe as she always had. But she simply could not. So she left.
As an aside, how cool is that? Amazing work by Abitbol. He was outraged by the WBC so he did something about it. Very impressive. The rest of us were just outraged. The best I could muster was a 25 page paper trying to figure out a way they could be sued without protection from the 1st Amendment.
I found Megan on Facebook and requested to be her friend. She accepted and I thanked her for accepting the request and in the process called her a hero.
To me, she is a hero because she is “one who shows great courage” and also because she is “an object of extreme admiration.” Obviously it takes great courage to leave one’s family and entire life behind. But what about Megan is worthy of “extreme admiration?”
More to the point, should, as a religious orthodox Jew, be admiring someone who has forsaken their religion? Is there something hypocritical about admiring her for leaving her group and me sticking to mine?
I have two responses.
First, there is no comparison between the beliefs of the WBC and orthodox Judaism. The WBC puts the focus of their religion on hate. While orthodox Judaism does have some abhorrent beliefs, these are not core beliefs, nor are they central to observance today. If a person didn’t believe in the abhorrent parts of Judaism, no one would even know. Whereas in the WBC, those beliefs are the cornerstone of their religious observance. You can’t possibly avoid it.
More importantly, I think everyone should challenge their beliefs. It’s not easy to challenge one’s own beliefs and subject one’s views to scrutiny. Many of our great rabbis prohibited us from doing that. They felt it is too dangerous. We are strongly urged not to read books that are contradictory to our faith. They might be dangerous. But it’s also dangerous not to analyze one’s beliefs at all. It’s also dangerous if one expects every answer to be perfect. There are not always good answers. We need to be able to be comfortable without all the answers. But as our great rabbis taught us, we must know what to answer. Sometimes, the answer is “I don’t know.” Other times, the answer is “A is better than B, but A is not perfect.” Clearly, we are supposed to subjugate our beliefs to some testing so that we will have some answers.
Questions without any answers led Megan away from the WBC but Megan has not left religion. She simply left a hateful, hurtful, twisted brand of religion.
Megan challenged her beliefs and her beliefs failed to stand up to the most basic of questions. Walking away from one’s entire family because one is fairly certain their beliefs are false and harmful takes great bravery. It is admirable to do what one feels is right against the odds. If I was as convinced that what I was doing is wrong as Megan was convinced about her beliefs, I would hope to have as much courage as Megan. So yes, what she did was admirable. Challenging conventional wisdom and changing one’s beliefs is admirable. Doing it and acting on it is heroic.
The world would be a far greater place if more of us challenged conventional wisdom.
I hope we will hear more from Megan in the future. Hers is an important voice in the religious discourse of the 21st century.