‘America’s Most Hated Family’ doesn’t delve deep enough into Phelps clan


Journalist Louis Theroux (left, with Jael Phelps) doesn’t push to get below the surface bile of the Phelps family. (BBC/BBC)
January 12, 2012

‘America’s Most Hated Family’ doesn’t delve deep enough into Phelps clan

First, the title. “America’s Most Hated Family” is a bit of a misnomer, since it gives too much credit to Fred Phelps’s nuclear family of wingdings, whose numbers are minimal but whose influence is magnified by the fact that we — the media, the counterprotesters, the sane people — keep upturning the rock they live under to examine them, again, and again, and again.

Most hateful family? Sure. It would be hard to argue with that characterization, since it’s what the members of the Westboro Baptist Church pride themselves in being. These are the folks who turn up at military funerals carrying day-glo posters (“God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for AIDS”) espousing their belief that the Lord’s displeasure with homosexuality has led Him to smite all sinners and “enablers.”

“Every time a woman dies of cancer,” one member of the congregation cheerfully explains, “it’s a God smack.”

In 2007, British journalist Louis Theroux spent time at the Westboro compound, producing a BBC documentary. British critics were mesmerized by the enclave of saucer-eyed, corn-fed Kansans whose malice was so darned perky. Four years later, after one of his documentary subjects wrote to say that she had left the church — and after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a Westboro free-speech case — Theroux returned. His update, “America’s Most Hated Family,” has its American debut Friday on the National Geographic Channel.

Patriarch Fred still runs the church on his property in Kansas, preaching with a combination of fire and brimstone and seeming dementia. “These modern Jews have the snarled, curled, furled-back lips [saying], ‘We killed Jesus and we’ll kill you, too,’ ” shouts “Gramps,” before signing off with an incongruous “Love you!”

The Phelps progeny, a cheerleading squad’s worth of attractive young women, is similarly sweet, flouncing around the yard doing a dance routine created to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” (The lyrics have been replaced with “F-Fornicating.”) The weirdness of applying anti-gay lyrics to a Lady Gaga song appears completely lost on them — but that, of course, is an irony of the Westboro clan: The women’s precise choreography, meticulous pageantry and rainbow-colored signs all look like something whipped up by Kurt from “Glee.”

Theroux observes these goings-on with gentle incredulousness; he comes across as “The Daily Show’s” lost correspondent — Louis Theroux doing John Oliver doing Louis Theroux. But his gentle prodding never really gets below the surface bile that the congregation has spewed forth in countless other television appearances. Which is to say, this documentary gets at the “hate” but not at the “family.”

How do the Phelpses interact with one another? When they’re not talking about gay people — which surely can’t be a 24-hour pursuit — what are they talking about? The next episode of “Downton Abbey”? Theroux asks if the family has any outside acquaintances, but he never follows up with these classmates or co-workers for additional perspective.

Understanding the history and family dynamics that spawned this group could go a long way toward exploring the origins of its hatred, but we don’t see the Phelpses when they’re reflective, only when they’re frothing.

When this show made its British debut in April, it was called “America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis,” the last two words apparently referring to the mini-exodus of a few church members. On National Geographic, that descriptor has been lobbed off and wisely so. The Phelps family does not believe it is in crisis. The Phelps family believes that it’s the rest of us who are in crisis. The family members are relieved, they say, that their daughters have defected, because their daughters have gone astray.

This possibly explains why the most interesting interviews in “Hated Family” are the brief ones Theroux conducts with two of the excommunicated young women. One was shunned for wearing a bikini, the other for pursuing a flirtation (church law forbids romance between unmarried couples, and because everyone in the congregation is related to one another, the marriage pool is de facto dry).

“Some people lose their parents to cancer or car accidents,” says Lauren, a former Westboro member who lives in Connecticut and works as a nurse. “I’ve lost my parents through a cult.” It sounds like a great opening for discussion. Unfortunately, it represents the end of one, and it’s the deepest analysis that the audience gets.

America’s Most Hated Family

(one hour) debuts Friday at 10 p.m.
on National Geographic Channel.

by Monica Hesse

First, the title. “America’s Most Hated Family” is a bit of a misnomer, since it gives too much credit to Fred Phelps’s nuclear family of wingdings, whose numbers are minimal but whose influence is magnified by the fact that we — the media, the counterprotesters, the sane people — keep upturning the rock they live under to examine them, again, and again, and again.

Most hateful family? Sure. It would be hard to argue with that characterization, since it’s what the members of the Westboro Baptist Church pride themselves in being. These are the folks who turn up at military funerals carrying day-glo posters (“God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for AIDS”) espousing their belief that the Lord’s displeasure with homosexuality has led Him to smite all sinners and “enablers.”

“Every time a woman dies of cancer,” one member of the congregation cheerfully explains, “it’s a God smack.”

In 2007, British journalist Louis Theroux spent time at the Westboro compound, producing a BBC documentary. British critics were mesmerized by the enclave of saucer-eyed, corn-fed Kansans whose malice was so darned perky. Four years later, after one of his documentary subjects wrote to say that she had left the church — and after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a Westboro free-speech case — Theroux returned. His update, “America’s Most Hated Family,” has its American debut Friday on the National Geographic Channel.

Patriarch Fred still runs the church on his property in Kansas, preaching with a combination of fire and brimstone and seeming dementia. “These modern Jews have the snarled, curled, furled-back lips [saying], ‘We killed Jesus and we’ll kill you, too,’ ” shouts “Gramps,” before signing off with an incongruous “Love you!”

The Phelps progeny, a cheerleading squad’s worth of attractive young women, is similarly sweet, flouncing around the yard doing a dance routine created to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” (The lyrics have been replaced with “F-Fornicating.”) The weirdness of applying anti-gay lyrics to a Lady Gaga song appears completely lost on them — but that, of course, is an irony of the Westboro clan: The women’s precise choreography, meticulous pageantry and rainbow-colored signs all look like something whipped up by Kurt from “Glee.”

Theroux observes these goings-on with gentle incredulousness; he comes across as “The Daily Show’s” lost correspondent — Louis Theroux doing John Oliver doing Louis Theroux. But his gentle prodding never really gets below the surface bile that the congregation has spewed forth in countless other television appearances. Which is to say, this documentary gets at the “hate” but not at the “family.”

How do the Phelpses interact with one another? When they’re not talking about gay people — which surely can’t be a 24-hour pursuit — what are they talking about? The next episode of “Downton Abbey”? Theroux asks if the family has any outside acquaintances, but he never follows up with these classmates or co-workers for additional perspective.

Understanding the history and family dynamics that spawned this group could go a long way toward exploring the origins of its hatred, but we don’t see the Phelpses when they’re reflective, only when they’re frothing.

When this show made its British debut in April, it was called “America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis,” the last two words apparently referring to the mini-exodus of a few church members. On National Geographic, that descriptor has been lobbed off and wisely so. The Phelps family does not believe it is in crisis. The Phelps family believes that it’s the rest of us who are in crisis. The family members are relieved, they say, that their daughters have defected, because their daughters have gone astray.

This possibly explains why the most interesting interviews in “Hated Family” are the brief ones Theroux conducts with two of the excommunicated young women. One was shunned for wearing a bikini, the other for pursuing a flirtation (church law forbids romance between unmarried couples, and because everyone in the congregation is related to one another, the marriage pool is de facto dry).

“Some people lose their parents to cancer or car accidents,” says Lauren, a former Westboro member who lives in Connecticut and works as a nurse. “I’ve lost my parents through a cult.” It sounds like a great opening for discussion. Unfortunately, it represents the end of one, and it’s the deepest analysis that the audience gets.

America’s Most Hated Family

(one hour) debuts Friday at 10 p.m.
on National Geographic Channel.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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