How to Defeat Westboro Baptist Church

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About Christine Woodman

Christine Woodman is a mother, wife, advocate, and graduate student in the sociology department of George Mason University. After graduation, she plans to devote her full attention to advocating for the rights of children in religious environments. You may reach her at [email protected]


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Or you could call the Patriot Guard Riders. Those guys are good. Seen them at a couple of funerals for relations. Ditto the local folks. The WB might find a county truck parked behind their vehicles at the motel and nobody knows where the keys are. Traffic offense: Plenty of those.
    Thing is, WB is not a church in the sense of a religious enterprise. They support themselves by provoking assault, and suing. They can be shunned from now ’til doomsday and not change the results when they show up at a funeral. But if their effort is stopped cold–by the PGR, for example–or a misplaced snowplow, they’ve invested front-end costs and realized nothing. A business can’t run like that for long.

    • Richard it is not often that I would ever believe that corporate sabotage and industrial espionage have a place in a good man’s world … and then once in a while you just have to reassess. P^)

  2. Alastair says:

    It isn’t just WBC that are trolling society here. There are a host of ‘offence trolls’ who wish to publicize as widely as they can all of the offensive things that WBC do as a means of dismissing Christians/religious people/opponents of SSM/etc. These individuals have a vested interest in giving WBC as large a profile as possible and have a symbiotic relationship with them. We also have to recognize the trolling of such people for what it is. This means that the next time someone on Twitter or Facebook links something that is merely designed to spread outrage against liberals/Republicans/Christians/atheists by focusing on the offensive actions of some extremists, we shouldn’t take the bait. We should also call them out on what they are doing and remind them that such wilful spreading of outrage and tarring of opponents is one reason why civil and illuminating debate is so hard to find nowadays.

  3. Michael Nellis says:

    Ms. Woodman.

    > It would make sense that people would be more devoted to religions which are
    > popular, exude compassion and forgiveness and do not have a lot of strict rules
    > for their members. But sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke found the exact
    > opposite to be true. The stricter a church is on its members, the more it condemns
    > outsiders and the more contentious its relationship is with society, the more
    > dedicated its members will be.

    Doesn’t the above statement describe a condition that occurs in families being abused by a parent, as well; where the child being abused will show more devotion to the abuser? I don’t know if there is anything to my question, as it was a point raised in a police procedural television show, so I can’t attest any level of veracity to it. The remainder of the behavior you described however, is well covered by Chris Mooney in his recent book The Republican Brain. Basically, it is a matter of an authoritarian personality appealing to like minded people. I find it curious, though, that people might very well be joining such groups with a seeming intent to take up the role of abused children.

    • Cults thrive by Manipulating B.I.T.E – Behaviour, Information, Thinking and Emotions – so do parents who abuse children, domestically abusive partners the same. Abusers all too often build Cults around themselves. The observation may be new to you, but not to everyone.

  4. Michael Nellis says:

    > So when we get firms like Westboro who keep moving the ceiling further and further into
    > contention with society, the entire religious marketplace is dragged along behind it.

    There has been talk about the mass shootings going on in the U.S. since Columbine, at least. Most recently of course Aurora, and now the Sikh temple in Milwaukee. When the news broke about Aurora, one media critic pointed out that the way the media was covering the story was going to guarantee another mass shooting in a matter of a few weeks. This critic made the point that while such incidents must be covered, they also must be downplayed, and the media must stop giving the perpetrators celebrity status.

    Now I’m wondering if Aurora and Milwaukee weren’t perpetrated by congregants of the extended church of Phelps. Might there be a correlation?

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Michael. There was some talk on a radio show out of WI this morning glancingly discussing whether our laws and constitution allow for proactive measures against guys like the shooter in WI. The answer is no, and the same goes for involuntary commitment.
    When shrinks call conservatism a mental illness and somebody writes a book about the republican brain and you connect it to Adorno, you can damn’ well bet nobody with an IQ over twelve is going to let guys like you decide who gets hauled in proactively.
    You will note, I say parenthetically, that the republicans are for less government, which sort of knocks the authoritarian personality meme on its tush.
    That said, high-demand churches select for the more committed since the less committed go elsewhere.
    The extended church of Phelps includes a left-wing nutcase known to the local sheriff but kept on the loose because his mother had some clout–Jared Loughner. A schizophrenic grad student. A wannabe neo-Nazi in WI. Couple of disaffected kids in Columbine. Nutty kid with a nuttier parent at Thurston HS in the Northwest. An islamist shrink major in the Army. Pretty big tent, if you look at correctly.

    WB makes no money from committing violence. They make money provoking others to violence against themselves. They don’t preach violence in this world. So I don’t think they’re the source of the current issues. And then you’d have to have something like them for all the incidents that happened before they got going.

    • Michael Nellis says:


      Your response is a typica right-wing anti-intellectualist screed of lies and misperception. Neither Psychiatrists nor Chris Mooney call conservatism a mental illnes; a point which Mooney stresses in his book. And which I take as an indication that you haven’t read it and couldn’t interpret it properly to save your life.

      Kindly point out to me where I call for locking up people before they commit crimes. Such actions are called for by right-wing extremists. You know, people like Charles L. Worley of Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, N.C., who preached about putting homosexuals into a concentration camp with an electrified fence and letting the die off.

      As for republicans being for less government, that is an obvious and outright falsehood. Republicans are only for less oversight and fewer regulations for corporations, but they demand totalitarian style governance against private citizens. More and more government intrusion and intervention for real people, and total anarchy for bullying rich.

      “The extended church of Phelps includes” . . . anyone with an internet connection and sympathetic prejudices. My point to Ms. Woodman, was that it might be productive to determine if there is a correlation between the increase of media focus on Westboro Baptist Church, and the upsurge in mass shootings. If there is a correlation, then the phenomenon can be studied more closely.

      By the by, in parsing this statement: The extended church of Phelps includes a left-wing nutcase known to the local sheriff but kept on the loose because his mother had some clout–Jared Loughner”, I detect a whiff of, “who should have been pro-actively locked up to protect society from him”. Are you sure you are actually pro-civil liberties?

      And this statement: “That said, high-demand churches select for the more committed since the less committed go elsewhere” is simplistic, and it’s another indication that you haven’t read Mooney’s book. The Republican Brain makes the argument that one factor in people’s choices as to what they expose themselves to is how sympathetic they find it.

      As for explaining the incidents that happened before the WBC mades it media splash, that is not relevant to the issue I raised to Ms. Woodman. Again: It’s about whether or not there might be a correlation between the upswing in the number of mass shootings and increase of media attention focused on WBC. Should there be, it would support her contention that starving the church for attention would also starve it to death.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Michael. I could, really, get quotes about conservatism being a mental illness. But it would make absolutely no difference to you.
        I note you misrepresented what I said. The “church of Phelps” you said includes a lot of nutcases. My point is that they differ in many ways and that means the church of Phelps must be a big tent. IOW, the church of Phelps and the nutcases aren’t connected, Phelps being a pretty small tent. Said nothing about locking anybody up. But you pretended I did. Did you think anybody at all would buy that supposition? Wow. Well, it’s about all you’ve got.
        WRT Loughner, there are rules for involuntary commitment and it’s possible that, had his mother not had some influence with Sheriff Dupnik, her son’s contacts with law enforcement might have resulted in his commitment. That’s not pro-active. Since you can’t actually know what somebody’s going to do. The laws have to do with being a threat to oneself or others. You’ll note Holmes’ shrink sent a threat assessment to the school. Nothing happened. It will be interesting to see if what she had to say would have triggered or suggested involuntary commtment.
        The “upswing” in mass shootings since a particular time needs to be demonstrated. And, of course, the concept of media attention can be finessed to meet the timing, if any. And, of course, mass shootings which are stopped before they get going–church in Colorado where a guard killed a shooter–Pearl, MS, Appalachian School of Law, Kip Kinkel’s attempt, all weren’t “mass shootings, the casualties being quite low. Should they count?
        Phelps’ people are nutcases, but they are not violent. Other groups actually preach it. See NBPP, neo-nazis.
        My view is we’re approaching a third of a billion people in this country and, as a matter of statistics, this is going to happen and turning ourselves inside out looking for causes will result in nothing.
        Welp. The Phelps folks are supposed to come to a church near me this Saturday. I guess I’ll get to see for myself.

        • Michael Nellis says:


          > I could, really, get quotes about conservatism being a mental illness.

          And I can get quotes saying the same thing about liberalism. But neither of us will find any about either mindset from any reputable mental health professionals.

          > The “church of Phelps” you said includes a lot of nutcases. My point is that they differ in > many ways and that means the church of Phelps must be a big tent.

          Ah. A metaphor.

          > IOW, the church of Phelps and the nutcases aren’t connected, Phelps being a
          > pretty small tent.

          Phelps’s tent is the size of the U.S. media machine; which, obliquely, is one of Ms. Woodman’s points. As I said before: “The extended church of Phelps includes” . . . anyone with an internet connection and sympathetic prejudices. Those sympathetic prejudices makes for a tighter bond than you can guess; those prejudices makes them all members of the same ingroup. The far flung hate-mongers might be unknown to the Phelps group, but they would be instantly welcomed into it if they showed up for a service carrying signs reading “God hates fags” and they kissed Phelps’s ass.

          > The “upswing” in mass shootings since a particular time needs to be demonstrated.
          > And, of course, the concept of media attention can be finessed to meet the timing, if any.

          Which makes for a handy excuse to dismiss whatever scientific evidence can be shown, no matter how rigorous the analysis.

          >My view is we’re approaching a third of a billion people in this country and, as a
          > matter of statistics, this is going to happen

          China has more than three times the population of the U.S. Kindly illustrate, in a scientific fashion, that it has three times the number of mass shootings.

          > and turning ourselves inside out looking for causes will result in nothing.

          This is defeatist bullshit. Not to mention that knowledge, or perhaps more precisely, “understanding”, is its own reward.

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            The extended church of Phelps includes” . . . anyone with an internet connection and sympathetic prejudices

            You have an internet connection. So you’re a threat.

            How about Walter Williams’ essay, “White Girl Bleed A Lot”. Refers to another kind of violence. “Kill Whitey”. Mean anything to you?
            Nidal Hasan. If I recall correctly, the feds have him talking to Awlaki–the late–and not Phelps. You have more info on that? Feds miss something?
            Was Phelps a big deal at the time of the Paducah shooting? Columbine? Does Phelps do anything but harass funerals? The Bath school massacre? Without Phelps, you have a problem. So you’ll have to figure out ways for Phelps to be all over the place. Or there have to be other reasons. Then what? Any of the shooters–Loughlin, Holmes, Kinkel, others who lived–ever been shown to have any connection to or communication with Phelps? Their computers show them reading his stuff? The nutcase at V. Tech? He a fan of Phelps?
            Thing you miss is that many of these dudes were demonstrably nuts before they went and shot people. Don’t need Phelps.
            Not defeatist. Point is, you need a real reason, not a handy one. Handy is convenient, wraps up nicely. Real is messy, never get it all figured out, treads on toes like First Amendment, Fourth, presumption of innocence….
            Well, if the WBs show up Saturday, I’ll have a look at them. The family has recruited several thousand of their closest friends to show their support with flags, keep the bastards away from the proceedings. I talked to the Patriot Guard. They’ll be there. I guess you could say WB brought people together.
            Let you know.

      • Christine Woodman says:

        You raise an interesting question about a possible correlation. I am going to be leaving the field of sociological research at the end of my current project and returning to the work of advocacy. But I will be happy to pass it along to others in my field.

        • A large section in “When the Center Is on Fire” By Diane Harriford and Becky Thompson applies Durkheim’s work on suicide to basically suicidal acts of mass violence in our society. It may be an interesting starting point or tangent, depending on how you approach this question theoretically.

          I’d be very interested to see what other information you can find in this area. Thanks for the great article!

  6. Joanna Schroeder says:

    Fantastic piece.

    Hard to imagine just ignoring them when they’re protesting a funeral of someone who died in combat, but I think we do need a massive media blackout on them.

    It always amazes me that they can find more than 10 people who would carry signs that say “Thank God for (insert horrific tragedy here)”

  7. I’m curious how ignoring them will in any way help those already trapped within Westboro. I’m also curious what your suggestion is regarding public acknowledgement of those who do eventually, somehow, manage to escape from that kind of insular, abusive family, like Nate Phelps (if you haven’t heard his story before, I recommend his episode of Living After Faith).

    • I’m curious how ignoring them will in any way help those already trapped within Westboro.”

      Westboro have features of both a cult and also a complex and highly dysfunctional Domestic Abuse environment. The fact that they are so fixated around family and t is so hard for none family to join is about control of reality. they thrice on controversy and are Arational – that is not irrational – they actually lack an rational ability to tap into and activate. Irrational means acting without using rational faculties – Arational identifies that such rational faculties are dead, paralysed or have been beaten into submission and simply can not pick themselves up of the floor.

      Westboro teach that being attached means the devil is present and they go into a feedback loop and frenzy – they have prof of their supposed righteousness. Attacking, Criticising, Questioning their activities, views and behaviours a reward in the their universe .. it’s divine proof of their righteous mission.

      The best option would be to have the love bombed 27/7 365 at home until the explode, but that could actually be quite dangerosue to those trapped inside, both psychologically and physically.

      I like the work of The Patriot Guard Riders. It blocks the cult members from abusing others and also acts as proof to the cult of their divine mission The devil parked the snow plow blocking their truck – Praise The Lord. Given that the Cult is supposed to prove their value by abusing on the street, it will require a long term refocusing to retain cult members and provide sufficient feedback to keep the control in place.

      In one The Patriot Guard Riders actions are so very compassionate to those trapped in The Westboro Cult and offers the best chance for them having the cult control reduced to a point where they can see light and escape.

  8. Copyleft says:

    It’s an excellent suggestion, and I’m confident that it will enjoy the same success that “ignore the troll” always produces in online forums.

  9. Peter Houlihan says:

    “Think of us as infectious disease specialists. We can give a diagnosis, explain how the infection is spread, and recommend a course of treatment that should be highly effective.”

    Well that’s a pretty horrible view of religion. :( Keep in mind that the Sikhs who’s temple was gunned down also harbour this “infectious disease.”

    I like the idea of a media blackout on the WBC, but, being realistic, it’s not going to make them go away. They love the attention and the lawsuits but they were doing that stuff for a long time before they rose to international attention and they’ll continue long after people ignore them. It’s also pretty difficult to ignore them when they’re physically present, shoving signs in your face at your loved one’s funeral.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Peter. Military families know about the Patriot Guard Riders. They show up at no charge and will handle WB or other issues without making a fuss. They have a web site and are responsive.
    Seen them twice in the last fourteen months. Fortunately, no WB guys showed up. I hear the PGR will sit on outraged family members, too, but that’s just a rumor.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Well, well, well. The Weasely Bastards are going to show up about seven miles from here. Well, well, well.
    The family have recruited about three thousand locals to act as a human shield to protect the funeral and the family.
    See if I can find some time.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Went to a military funeral today. The WBs had a permit to demonstrate and the word got out. In addition to the folks in the church–which I didn’t enter–I figure there were about 3500-5000 people along the three mile route from the church to the cemetery. Approximately 600 bikes from the Patriot Guard Riders and other clubs.
    A cop said the WBs had some hotel rooms in the area, and there was a suspicion one had been checking out the cemetery.
    But, as he said, it’s possible the human shield–which was how the folks characterized themselves–intimidated them. One biker told me that with this many bikes, the family wouldn’t notice the WBs even if they showed up.
    The human shield people said they were there to see the family wasn’t bothered by the “protestors” and the process could go on with dignity and respect.
    Interesting sight, three miles of small town road lined with people, mostly holding flags and many with indications of veteran status.
    So the WB came, they saw, they folded.
    That’s how you defeat the bastards.

    • Michael Nellis says:


      You figure you had 3,500 people, at least, to oppose . . . what? a dozen? . . .

      And you think you defeated them? The presence of so may serves only to indicate that the number of decent people in U.S. society is much greater than the proportion of extremist assholes. But that many people showing up also shows how much power WSB has to make the population dance to its tune. Phelps’s daughter said as much the first time there was a counter-protest against them, years ago; and that was before state legislatures started drafting funeral protest laws.

      The only way to defeat WSB is as Ms. Woodman proposes. Declare them to be irrelevant and treat them that way until the movement runs out of energy and just dries up and blows away.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    Michael. You miss the point. While I’m not against ignoring them, the problem is that ignoring them is meaningless. They can’t be ignored if they show up and make a fuss. Ignoring them in between is meaningless. It’s like pretending skunks don’t exist means one will never take up residence under your back porch. Go ahead. Make your day.
    The dancing population is a fallback for the Phelps’ crowd. It’s all they can say when they get beat.
    What you don’t realize is that they’re not a church. They’re a business and they make money by provoking others to attack them and then suing.
    They have to front the money for travel and accomodations and then, if they make none, they lose on that venture. Which they did this weekend. I can’t see assholes like the WB running out of energy if they really believe this stuff. But their job, so to speak, is to make money, and believing it is hardly necessary. They just have to make a fuss. And if they run out of money, or get discouraged and need some other way of putting food on the table, they’ll quit.
    To use an analogy of military logistics: They have to support a long-range expedition. The opposition is already there, with all the resources we need. Costs us nothing to show up. They can’t sustain that without immense resources continuously renewed. Which they don’t have.
    Lastly, if the WB can demonstrate to the rest of us how decent the rest of us are, then they’re actually defeating themselves.

  14. Rebecca Barrett-Fox says:

    I think this well-intentioned article misses a few key points, some of which other commentators have noticed:
    1. “Just ignore them” is impossible. We can’t get everyone on board with that goal, so, no matter what, when WBC shows up, people will stare, scream, honk, and holler. And even if people don’t show a response, they still notice–which is all WBC needs.
    2. Church members don’t do this for the attention. These are overwhelming smart, capable people who could, if they wanted, get attention in other ways. (For example, Fred Phelps already had a profile in the KS State Historical Society before WBC started pickets, because of his work as a lawyer in the state.)
    3. Church members do not do this for money. Travel expenses are about $250,000/year. Each person pays his/her own way. Church members have not won back–and are unlikely ever to win back–that much money in lawsuits. And, though there have been many times when the church could have sued and likely one (See the W. Virginia case, in which a counterpicketers spit tobacco juice in Shirley Phelps-Roper’s hair. He was found “not guilty” of assault in clear violation of the law.) The potential for making money is simply not sufficient–and the church members have not actually made money, in the long-run, on this. I mean, they’ve won some cases, but not enough to recover their legal expenses plus make this profitable. Besides, they are smart enough (9/11 of Fred Phelps’ children are law school educated, and 7 out of 9 of them attend WBC.) to make more money without picketing.
    4. Finke and Stark might be useful here, but also look to Herbert Haines and Jo Freeman’s work on the radical flank.

    I’d argue that outsiders can’t shut WBC up, and we shouldn’t try. Instead, respond as meets your own needs. If you need to scream at them, go ahead. If you need to swear at them, go ahead–though you might remember that the families of the deceased might not prefer this. And don’t forget that WBC has many more years of saying hateful things that you do, so, not only aren’t you going to hurt their feelingsor change their minds, you might get an earful in return.

    If a community needs to respond by building a human wall or inviting Patriot Guard Riders, then it should do that–remembering that WBC will call that, in itself, a victory. (As one church member has said, if a targeted community doesn’t respond to the threat of a picket, WBC will show up to make its message heard. If the community does respond–say, by organizing a counterpicket–then WBC doesn’t need to go, because the message has been heard before they got their. So you’re kind of screwed no matter what.)

    Instead of focusing on how to stop WBC, focus on how to engage and support the people being picketed–fallen military, gay prom kings, students performing in _The Laramie Project_.

  15. WBC loves to hate SO SO many things and people. They even hate survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse.

    If you confront one of them in their natural setting (or with their teeth in your fist), ask them where in the New Testament it says anything about “man enforcing God’s laws, wishes or even man-made god-laws.”

    There is no such passage.

  16. I see that it’s being reported, Anonymous have taken Westboro’s website off line again. Link

    It seems that there has been concern that Westboro may be intending to attend funerals for kids killed in Connecticut. The announcement can be read on this Twitter feed.

    They have also been releasing personal info about westboro church members into the wild.


  1. [...] When Westboro Baptist Church decided to pay Santa Monica High School a visit to protest their active support of LGBTQ students, they were met with a wall of backs as parents and allies carrying signs and holding flags lined the street in front of the school. There was no yelling, only a solid line of backs defending the school and the students who attend there. This is exactly the right way to handle the protests by this hate group, and any other like it. As Christine Woodman said in her article How to Defeat Westboro Baptist Church, [...]

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