When Megan Phelps-Roper was just 5 years old, she stood with her family in a Kansas picket line, clutching a sign that read: “Gays are worthy of death.”
That’s just one of several eyebrow-raising experiences that Phelps-Roper, who is the granddaughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, shared in a Feb. 17 TED Talk, footage of which was uploaded to YouTube Monday. Now 31, Phelps-Roper explained what it was like growing up as a member of Westboro, which is known for its vehemently anti-LGBTQ views, and why she ultimately decided to leave the church in 2012.
“In my home, life was framed as an epic spiritual battle between good and evil. The good was my church and its members, and the evil was everyone else,” she said in her speech, which can be viewed in full above. “From baseball games to military funerals, we trekked across the country with neon protest signs in hand to tell others exactly how ‘unclean’ they were and exactly why they were headed for damnation. This was the focus of our whole lives.”
Phelps-Roper then explained that she joined Twitter, where she continued to express those right-wing conservative views. She was introduced to a Jewish blogger named David through Twitter, and it was through her relationship with him that she began to question her faith. “We’d started to see each other as human beings, and it changed the way we spoke to one another,” she said. “It took time, but eventually these conversations planted seeds of doubt in me.”
Looking back, she said she now sees parallels in the belief system of her former church and the “public discourse” that is currently taking place in America under President Donald Trump. “We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided,” she said. “We want good things —justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity — but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago.”
As challenging as it can be to converse diplomatically with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum, Phelps-Roper believes there’s strength in trying. “We are all a product of our upbringing, and our beliefs reflect our experiences. We can’t expect others to spontaneously change their own minds,” she said. “If we want change, we have to make the case for it.”
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