Louis Theroux Meets Ex-British Postman In New Wesboro Baptist Church Documentary
Things have changed at the Westboro Baptist Church. Following the death and subsequent alleged excommunication of Pastor Phelps, the head of the church, in 2014, the group has entered a new era.
Many of its main young members have defected from the organisation, going off to do their own thing in the world, without the support of their family.
Megan Phelps, who we have seen picket funerals in the past when she was younger, has now left after meeting her partner on Twitter.
The church has also gained some new members. One of those members is Simon, now known as Mathias, a postman who was originally from Bradford, UK.
After making a new documentary, Surviving America's Most Hated Family, Louis spoke to LADbible about the similarities between Megan's departure and Mathias' arrival, saying both of them merely wanted to fit in.
Louis said: "I think, with Megan, of her journey as being a mirror image of the journey [of] Mathias - the guy from Bradford.
"Both of them were people who can feel they never quite fitted in where they were.
"Then they saw this other community. Mathias saw the Westboro Baptist Church on Jeremy Kyle and also one of my programmes, then Megan was making a presence on Twitter.
"They both chose to migrate to the place where they felt they belonged, so at the bottom it's about human connection I suppose."
In the past, we saw Megan and younger members of her family picketing with the other members of the church, outside the funerals of soldiers, Catholics, orthodox Christians, Jewish people, Muslims, celebrities, American soldiers, politicians and a range of other groups, organisations and individuals.
Louis reflected on whether their indoctrination amounts to child abuse.
He said: "So far as I know of, there is no childhood sexual abuse. There's physical discipline - at least some of them do corporal punishment.
"Megan has alleged that her mum used physical discipline on her to an excessive extent, and it's been documented that Pastor Phelps - Gramps - when he was raising his children was physically abusive to them.
"That being said, we don't make a huge feature of it. In a sense, I think the first concern is the extent of the mental and spiritual indoctrination. So we focus on that, although in some ways that's obviously abusive and is still deeply destructive.
"You know, you can imagine what it's like, feeling that if you have negative or blasphemous thoughts, that means you're going to hell... a perpetual fear of an eternity of punishment that awaits you if you don't toe the line, makes you feel utter obedience in every aspect to what your family and your church are telling you."
When you watch the new documentary, you'll notice that Louis isn't afraid to throw shade this time around. In the past, he's dealt with all sorts of abuse from interviewees, but this time, he gives a bit back. His questions are more provocative than in the past, and he isn't happy to let people sit on the fence.
In one scene, when a male member of the church won't allow his sister to answer questions, talking over her when Louis directly speaks to her, the presenter fires back with the line: "Dude, why are you still here?"
Louis explained to LADbible: "The first time I went there I was an unknown commodity.
"The idea of an hour of TV was seductive to them. We were there for three weeks filming all over the place.
"There is this generation of young girls, granddaughters of Pastor Phelps - Megan, Becca, Lindsay Phelps, Lauren Drain and one or two others - were suddenly odd and almost contradictory about being healthy attractive young women who are outgoing, quite funny and seemingly interested in pop music and TV shows, and then set up spewing this hateful doctrine, right?
"Though it seems to me now that, in going back, the dynamic's changed. I was no longer sort of this curious outsider. They felt they got my measure. The gloves are off a bit."
Recalling some of the insults thrown at him by the church, Louise continued: "They were there quite openly saying that they regard me as slimy and slithery and subversive and a muckraker. And so [with] a little bit less of them pussyfooting around, it was straight into the argy-bargy, which I think is no bad thing.
"Certainly at this point, I think we've each got our agenda, I suppose, and mine is to go in there and try to tell the truth - what I think the real reasons why they preach and do the things they do. You attempt to challenge their point of view and for them it's about trying to get their message out - without allowing themselves to be shown up.
"But I think that you know they've been through such a lot and I think they can't help showing it either. They are in many ways a reduced force; they've lost so many members, and there's a lot of pain and a lot of disappointment that they're having to hide."
Although we are used to seeing the elders of the church unaffected by such situations in Louis' previous films, this latest instalment leaves a very different impression.
Seemingly cold-hearted Shirley Phelps, who we have seen viciously spitting all sorts of vitriol, cries after her daughter Megan leaves the church. In a moving scene, she can be seen trying to hold it together when talking to Louis about the loss of her children, but still standing by her beliefs.
Louis suggested that controversial comments from high profile figures like US President Donald Trump have actually made the organisation seem less shocking - it could be that this sort of vitriol has actually been normalised, which could lead to the downfall of the church's power.
He added: "The other thing I stick with is that... do you think it's possible that, in light of Trump's America, and the fact that there's so much outrage that's being purveyed on a daily basis on the news, on TV and on the internet, that it's weird that we're desensitised to hate speech?
"I wouldn't want to push that too far but I definitely think that's maybe why they [the church] get less attention than they used to."
Louis Theroux: Surviving America's Most Hated Family is on BBC Two, 9pm on Sunday 14 July.
Featured Image Credit: BBC
Topics: TV and Film