Monday 4 April 2011

America's Most Hated Family: An American Tragedy

America's Most Hated Family in Crisis, Louis Theroux's follow-up to the 2007 documentary The Most Hated Family in America, is upsetting in a way the first film wasn't.

In this sequel, broadcast by the BBC on April 3, Theroux revisits the Westboro Baptist Church, run by the Phelps clan, the Topeka, Kansas-based fundamentalist cult infamous for its message that "God hates fags," "God hates America" and, dammit, God just hates everyone in the world but them. But this time round, it was a more upsetting experience for me. Back then, they seemed just a bunch of isolated weirdos. In the new film, Theroux probes deeper, especially into the minds of the church's young people, some of whom have since left or been shunned by the church.

One such young person is Libby Phelps, who tearfully describes how a series of events, stemming from the sin of wearing a bikini on a vacation to Puerto Rico, led to the sudden realization that she just "had to get out." I was reminded uncomfortably of my own mom's experience in an abusive fundamentalist church, and my advice to her when the control it had over her began to unravel: Run.

An aspect of the Westboro Baptist Church that came through very strongly in the original documentary was how brilliantly its members managed to hide all signs of inner conflict. Jael Phelps, for example, displayed a remarkably wide and resilient smile in the face of a grilling. In the sequel, we see the veneer begin to crack, however, and never more so than in Theroux's interview with the likeable teenager Grace. She is visibly uncomfortable toeing the Phelps line, and it's clear the rest of the clan know it. Her peers surround her, watching her words like hawks. Eventually some of the other girls let their masks slip as they get emotional talking about their attachment to a group of young (male) students who visited the church from Holland. Jael exerts such control over the situation that Louis turns to her and says:
What are you, like the Gestapo now? ... Your role is [to] interject the doctrinal hard line at key moments, when people are showing vulnerability?
Another tragic moment is when Louis talks to an Asian man, who sits taking notes at the back of the church during a service. The rather effeminate young man hopes to join the church, but isn't yet sure he's ready. He believes he's going to hell, and when asked whether he's obeying God, he answers, "Truthfully, no, because that is something that I have to work on." Matriarch Shirley Phelps-Roper interjects to inform Louis the guy came in "off the streets of San Francisco." It's not difficult to fill in the blanks -- and it's tragic.

Viewers in the UK still have until Sunday April 10 to watch the documentary on BBC iPlayer. The videos are also on YouTube, although they may not remain there for long.


  1. Anyone else felt like giving Libby a hug after seeing her remember when she left?

    I also felt bad for noah, after he apologized for telling Louis to shut up, and when the girls were talking about the dutch guys.

  2. We are recording it tonight (repeated) and I just hope it doesn't upset me too much in recalling the spiritually abusive situation I faced in the church.

    Is it any wonder that I have left fundamentalist Christianity behind and now walk in such freedom to be who I am? Dave, I will be forever thankful for the understanding, compassion and wisdom you showed to your mom through a very difficult time. I love you so much for that. xxx

  3. Anonymous, there are a lot of kids in that cult could do with a hug.

    Mom, don't watch it if you think it'll be a "trigger." I don't often describe shows as personally "upsetting," but this one made me a bit uncomfortable.

  4. David, I understand, and did not mean to leave them out.

  5. No problem, Anonymous -- I was agreeing with you. :)

  6. If the Phelps are going to be in heaven, then send me to hell! (Dan Blackman)

  7. I haven't decided if I will watch it yet, Dave. It doesn't take much to work me up though so I may need to give it a miss. If this programme made you uncomfortable it may just be too much for me to view.

    I think it is good that the activities of this church and their beliefs are exposed and yes, extending hugs to those affected seems a very healing thing to offer.

  8. anonymous. but you know who it is (your fellow freelancer).
    i havent seen any of the documentaries. but i ve read bits on the beeb and saw a snipet of louis with some guy who must have been there tech guy. he had made a sign louis going to hell or something. called louis a nice guy but.... and then it all started.
    often think about when jesus said "i didnt come into the world to condemn it" whether they ve heard of this notion??? do they have dictionary that can explain to them the meaning of grace, or mercy, or love.
    and i hate seeing children like in the picture you displayed above. talk about ticking time bombs (how much will have to be fixed or come to terms with in later life - if they even get that chance). Reminds me of Boot Camp (a documentary about Ted Haggards church - before the fall - not Adam and Eve the other one). Children picketing abortion clinics with placcards (from what I can remember).
    A huge responsibility and opportunity always exists for the church to tell people about God and show who He really is. Sadly those opportunities are often missed in subtle ways that do damage over time. But this is way beyond those boundaries. It makes it harder. But I for one will redouble my effors.

  9. The words of Jesus that came to my mind when watching this were his warning that there will be people at the judgement who call him Lord but he says he never knew them; and that for those who cause little ones to sin, it would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone round their necks. It is truly shocking to see children being so imbued with hatred and the general deception and abuse that seems prevalent.

    It's like some sort of sick horror film to hear the songs and chants of pure malice coming from people wearing smiles that never seem to crack. I felt dirty after watching it.

  10. This is the anonymous from the first comment (Dee, just for reference).

    I noticed that Fred Jr. doesn't have as much of the "fierceness" and wrath as much as the other family members. He seems lost/sad. Is it cause of what happened to him and Debbie Valgos?(read Addicted to Hate. Crazy stuff).

  11. He was much more mellow, wasn't he?

  12. Yep, and so was his wife (but not as much). More so than the others. I do feel that they feel bad about her leaving, but just couldn't admit to it cause of what they're been taught.

  13. Over analyze much, my dears??

    That documentary was just soo good - God did that! I could correct all your false judgments in the review & comments, but I have no need or patience for such things. :)

    Watch & see what our kind & merciful God does next!