Follow-Up to Weber State Brown Bag

Content alert: religiously-justified violence against and neglect of children

Thanks to the Weber State University Sociology and Anthropology Department for inviting me to speak at a brown bag event recently, focusing on family life and children and youth in Westboro Baptist Church. The students were eager listeners who asked great questions. At the time of the talk, I suggested that students with follow-up questions email me so that I could answer them here. Thanks to the many student who did! I’ve answered them in Q and A format below, combining a few questions in cases where they were very similar.


Above, The Signpost, the Weber State student newspaper, covered my recent talk. The coffee stain tells you it’s been read by an academic. 

Q: Do you think children are harmed in Westboro Baptist Church?

A: The first generation of children born in Westboro Baptist Church–people now in their 40s and 50s–tell a variety of stories about abuse. Some, like ex-member Nate Phelps, give detailed stories of physical abuse, violence that goes beyond what would have even then been considered “appropriate” physical punishment. Some of his siblings indicate that their father, the founding pastor, Fred Phelps, was harsher in his physical punishment of children than most people would be comfortable with. Still others say that they witnessed nothing that would rise to the level of abuse. All of them may be telling the truth. Abuse in families often focuses on one child and isn’t spread across families. Fred Phelps’ 13 children were born across more than a decade. The youngest was quite young when her older siblings, including Nate, left the church. It’s possible not only that their memories and experiences were different but that their parents parented very differently between the first and the final child.

Among the second generation–those born to the first generation–physical punishment is still an available option for parents, but no children have identified it as abuse. Additionally, during my time at church events, I never saw a child spanked or smacked. Finally, even ex-members talk about their families as being loving and kind. Lauren Drain has written a memoir, as has Libby Phelps, and they do not suggest child abuse, though some in their generation–like their parents–have noted that there were moments when their parents may have used more than the minimum amount of force that would be suggested.

The absence of evidence does not prove abuse, of course; it’s never possible to say with 100% certainty that no child was ever abused in any church. But there is no reason, from what I can see, to think that children in Westboro would be more likely to abused than children in other churches. If anything, public scrutiny of the church should be a protection against such abuse.

I’ve answered the question in regards to physical harm. Emotional harm and spiritual wounding is a different story. I think that story is still unfolding, but some former members certainly feel that they suffered emotional and spiritual abuse, even as they also feel that they were loved by their families.

Q: Do you think that the government should have the right to remove children from the home due to the ideology of the parents?

A: The law is very clear: as long as the religious practices of a group are legal, parents have every right to rear their children in their religion. Even if the practices conflict with the law–for example, using prostitution as a means to finance the organization–the government cannot intervene unless the people are practicing that part of their faith. So, for example, a group can teach that the use of illicit drugs is sacred or that polygamy is next to godliness, as long as these are mere beliefs. If believers act on those teachings, they may find themselves in trouble.

Even here, though, there are exceptions. The Amish, for example, are legally permitted to withdraw their children from school after 8th grade–though non-Amish children can’t drop out that young. We might wonder, though, if a group that isn’t romanticized in the same way as the Amish would find a similar friend in the US Supreme Court.

There are certainly cases when parents use religious justification to physically abuse–even to the point of death–or medically neglect children. In those cases, the state can intervene, though many states have exemptions to child abuse laws that protect parents from charges of manslaughter on religious grounds. It can be very difficult to weigh respect for the First Amendment with the state’s responsibility to children. In some cases, the unfamiliarity of a religion or our discomfort with it can also cloud our judgments. For example, the US prohibits female genital mutilation (FGM), but, for some people, this may be seen as a religious practice. Is there a way to preserve religious freedom here while also protecting girls?

Interestingly, at the community level, religious beliefs that promote obedience to authority and physical punishment do not correlate to higher levels of child abuse, even though individuals who hold more conservative views of the Bible are at higher risk of being abusive.

To answer with an example: Heath Campbell is a Nazi from New Jersey who’s had a number of children with a variety of women (a family pattern not uncommon among white supremacists). They include babies named “Adolf Hitler,” “Honzlyn Hinler” (yes, it’s not quite spelled right), and “JoyceLynn Aryan Nation.” Turns out that the state can’t remove children from the home because you name them “Eva Braun” or “Rommel”–but they can remove them when you are a domestic abuser.

Q: You said that this topic might be of special interest to people in Utah. Why?

Utah’s colonization as a Mormon settlement has always brought scrutiny to the place. The continued presence of Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints and related splinter groups in the state and in the region provides us with a living example of a group that has a high level of tension with the rest of the world–in part around their promotion of polygamy and child marriage. At times, the state has been too enthusiastic in its effort to eradicate alleged abuse, only to find that its actions were unwarranted or worked to evoke sympathy for the targeted groups–as with the 1953 Short Creek Raid in present-day Hildale, Utah, or the 2008 state intervention at the Yearning for Zion ranch in rural Texas, which was actually populated by those who fled Utah after the Short Creek Raid.

Above, images from the Short Creek Raid and the investigation at the Yearning for Zion Ranch. 

But it’s not just those extreme examples we should consider. Among Utahns in general, mental health is relatively shaky, and that is true for the mainstream LDS subset, including women and youth, who are especially and increasingly vulnerable to suicide. There is speculation that the poor mental health of folks in the state is linked to the high altitude, but we have to keep looking, also, at how religion, both beliefs and practices, can be a negative force in people’s lives.

Q: You conducted ethnographic work. Can it really be applied to other cases outside of Westboro?

A: The cases I’ve referenced here–WBC, The Family, Rastafarians, the Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, FLDS, and even LDS–are all different in their details. We need ethnographers to help us understand those details so we don’t make gross generalizations.

At the same time, each of these groups is protected by the First Amendment; each operates within the US and so encounters US law, so they do have something in common–they are religious minorities, often treated with hostility–in a land where they have, for the most part, not created the rules they must adhere to, which can create conflict.


Above, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, burns after federal agents attempted to end a months-long standoff there.  More than 80 people died in the event.

When we understand these religions better, we can better uphold the principle of freedom of religion while also insuring that vulnerable populations–such as children–are given the protection of the government that they deserve. The eminent sociologist of religion Nancy Ammerman presented a report to the Justice and Treasury Departments after the 1993 disaster at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. In that report, she stressed that the state–in this case, the BATF and the FBI–must understand religion from both a scholarly perspective and from the perspective of believers–that is, from both the etic and the emic perspectives. We could have saved lives had decision-makers there been better informed. I hope that religion scholars will be heard in these debates, which are important in protecting both religious freedom and vulnerable populations.

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