Louis Theroux revisits Westboro Baptist Church in Surviving America’s Most Hated Family
James R | On 02, Jul 2019
13 years since first encountering one of America’s most notorious hate groups, award-winning film-maker Louis Theroux makes a long-anticipated return to Kansas to spend time with the Westboro Baptist Church – a hugely controversial Christian ministry that for years has picketed at military funerals and other high-profile events with deliberately provocative and homophobic placards.
In 2006 – and again in 2011 – Louis uncovered a world of indoctrination, masterminded by church-founder and figurehead Pastor Fred Phelps, known among his congregation as ‘Gramps’. But since his death in 2014 the church has experienced significant changes that have threatened to tear apart what was once a tight-knit family community, and had their relevance challenged in Trump’s America, where outrageous statements are par for the course.
As well as a series of allegations about Pastor Phelps’ final days, including rumours of mental illness and his excommunication, the church has also been hit by a number of high-profile family defections, including Pastor Phelps’s granddaughter Megan – now Westboro’s most prominent critic. Yet despite the unrest, the church has continued to attract new members, including Bradford-born Mathias Holroyd, who sees Westboro’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric as the perfect tonic to his struggle to fit in with modern-day Britain.
Immersing himself in the strange and unpleasant world of Westboro, Louis explores what happens when a hate-group largely populated by one family loses its patriarch. And, as he discovers, Pastor Phelps’ doctrine of divine hate has cast a shadow not only on the church’s true believers, but also on those who have managed to escape Westboro’s vice-like grip.
Theroux says: “I am always interested in how people change over time – both physically and in their outlook – and even more so when they are involved in lifestyles that are somehow wrong-headed or self-sabotaging.
“With our unique access to the inner workings of the Wesboro Baptist Church over the last 13 years we’ve been able to track the changes in an extreme religious group from the inside, and also from the perspective of its ex-members. We’ve been able to tell a story about indoctrination, where it comes from, how it is enforced – but also about deradicalisation, and the way in which a handful of those who were formerly zealots have managed to break free and take a kinder less hateful view of the world.
“In particular, in this, our third visit to Topeka, I was curious to see how the Church was faring after the loss of the church founder, Pastor Fred Phelps, who died in 2014. Gramps’ angry and bigoted outlook had been the bedrock of Westboro’s practises and I was curious to see whether his death might have caused any kind of break-up or re-evaluation within the church, especially since there had been rumours that Fred Phelps might have had some kind of change of heart at the end of his life.
“It was exciting going back for thirds. For their own reasons – to do with spreading their twisted take on the gospels – Westboro let me back in. For my part it was a chance to see the strange machinations of psychology, religion, and social conditioning. I feel lucky to have had the chance to conduct this kind of longitudinal documentary making.”
Patrick Holland, Controller, BBC Two, says: “Louis’ films are always must-watch documentaries, but this return to Westboro could not be more timely and important.”
Clare Sillery, Head of Commissioning, Documentaries, says: “Following Louis’ recent Bafta win for the Altered States series, we are delighted to have him back and revisiting one of his most notorious subjects to date. The film promises to be another engrossing insight into the Westboro Baptist Church.”
Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family is a 1×60’ for BBC Two. It was commissioned by Patrick Holland, Controller, BBC Two, and Clare Sillery, Head of Commissioning, Documentaries. The Commissioning Editor is Emma Loach. The Executive Producers are Arron Fellows and Peter Dale. The Producer/Director is Geoffrey O’Connor.