Megan grew up in 'America's most hated family'. At the age of 26, she fled.

For most of her life, Megan Phelps-Roper had something most people lack: a sense of absolute certainty. Even as a small child, she had a crystal clear understanding of her purpose in life, what she needed to do each day to fulfil it, and why.

She understood that her job, and that of her family, was to “warn people away from the sins that would send them to hell”.

Megan’s family are the core members of the Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist Christian group founded by her grandfather, the late pastor Fred Phelps, in the US state of Kansas.

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Despite only having a few dozen members, the church’s practices have earned them significant global attention, including from British documentarian Louis Theroux whose 2007 film dubbed them “The Most Hated Family in America”.

That reputation is largely due to the church’s protests against supposedly sinful minorities, including gay people, Jews, and Muslims. They even picket the funerals of American soldiers, where they celebrate the deaths of men and women who chose to fight for a country that “institutionalised sin”. As mourners gather in grief, Westboro members stand nearby, holding signs that read, 'Thank God for dead soldiers' and 'God hates you’. 


This is the world in which Megan, now 37, grew up. 

Speaking to Mamamia’s No Filter podcast, Megan explained that her family saw — and still sees — themselves as doing good, even being loving.

“[We thought] ‘Everybody's job is to obey God, they're not obeying, and that's why God is cursing them. So we have to go and warn them,’” she said. “We really believed that what we were doing was the very definition of loving our neighbour.”

She was just five years old when she first joined her family on the picket line. At her mother’s instruction, she left her dolls in the family van and hoisted a sign that she couldn’t even read yet: ‘Gays are worthy of death.’ 

She continued the practice throughout her childhood. On her lunch breaks at school, Megan would cross the road to picket as peers lobbed insults and, occasionally, food at her.

Over the years Megan became used to the abuse of critics and counter-protestors; her certainty was both her weapon and her armour against them.

She and her 10 siblings (Megan is the third) engaged in rigorous study of the Bible so that they could arm themselves with verses to refute their critics. It was a well-worn tactic of church members, inspired by Pastor Phelps’ career as an attorney (11 of his 13 children followed his footsteps into law school).

“As long as we had an answer for all the questions that people threw at us, we had the sense that this is the unquestionable truth of God,” she said.


“And if you are truly certain that your ideas are unquestionable, it allows you to justify all kinds of terrible things.”

The strength of their conviction is such that, rather than shy away from the mainstream world like some strict Christian groups, the Westboro Baptists immerse themselves within it. They believe that their role is to be watchers, Megan said, to observe the sins of the world so they can preach with authority. 

And so, Megan went to a mainstream school, watched primetime television, listened to pop music, and read the same books as her peers. She simply consumed them through an alternative lens.

“When I encountered a premarital relationship in a book, I didn't think, ‘Oh, that's something I should emulate.’ It was like, ‘Oh, those people are whores.’ I didn’t even think twice about it. This is the language in my brain as a child,” she said. 

The moment Megan knew she had to leave.

It wasn’t until Megan was in her 20s that the inoculation of her faith began to fail. It happened via Twitter.

Megan became the church’s spokesperson on the social media platform, where she’d echo its hate-filled interpretation of God’s word.

She encountered hostility, of course. But after almost two decades confronting angry swarms at the picket lines, she was used to that. What she wasn’t used to, was interacting with people in a way that allowed her to see across the divide between them.

“I'm seeing them in their own environments,” she said. “They're posting photos of their children, and I'm watching those children grow up. I'm seeing aspects of their lives that I just had not been really privy to before that.”


She started to build rapport with some of her critics. As she described in her 2017 TED talk (which has been viewed more than 10 million times), “the line between friend and foe was becoming blurred. We'd started to see each other as human beings, and it changed the way we spoke to one another.”

These conversations began to sow seeds of doubt in Megan’s mind. 

At first, she doubled down and went back in search of Bible verses to reaffirm her position. This went on for roughly a year and a half until, one day, while talking with her sister, Grace (who had also raised doubts about their church’s doctrine), Megan arrived at a question that threatened their entire worldview. It was a deceptively simple and hugely consequential one.

“What if we’re all just people?”

Speaking to Mamamia, she explained, “That was the way it came into my mind. What if these are not the judgments of an infallible God? What if this thing that I've been taught was unquestionable was actually entirely questionable — and not just questionable, but truly destructive? It was a terrifying thought.”

If it were true, Megan realised — if people are just people, and inherently flawed — then she had devoted her entire life to a ministry that was wrong and destructive.

If it were true, she was going to have to leave the church and lose her family, whom she loved so deeply. 


If it were true, she was going to have to go out into a world that she had spent her entire life demonising, into a community that had no reason (in her mind) to give her a second chance.

“It's hard to describe the magnitude of what that moment meant for my life,” she said.

Things crumbled pretty quickly after that. 

In 2012, Megan and Grace found the courage to leave Westboro Baptist Church.

From there, she put herself in a position to have her views actively challenged, to understand different perspectives. She even wrote an apology for the damage she did during her time with the church. She found most people were receptive and encouraging, especially those she’d sparred with on Twitter. 

“It was amazing, honestly, that people were willing to have the grace to engage with me, instead of just writing me off as somebody who is irredeemable,” she said.

Listen to Megan's interview on Mamamia's podcast, No Filter. Post continues below. 

She later married one of those people, Chad Fjelland, and they now have a 4.5-year-old daughter.

Megan is getting her second chance, and she’s making the most of it. She has written a best-selling book about her experience, titled Unfollow, and she now works as a speaker and journalist.

Her latest project is the hugely popular podcast, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, which examines the various controversies around the Harry Potter author, including her comments on gender identity. (It’s the only interview Rowling has given on the subject.)


Through it all, Megan has come to understand the danger of moral certainty — not just for her or her former church, but all of humanity. It makes it hard to reflect on her time with Westboro.

“I was very accustomed to my whole life, dismissing the thoughts and the feelings of outsiders. As those thoughts and feelings and experiences have become mine, as I've come to understand them intuitively and not just intellectually, it's really painful to go back,” she said. “Because I'm not just seeing myself anymore; I'm really seeing the people that we were hurting. It’s a really hard thing to come to terms with.”

But there are other parts of her old life that she mourns. She misses the sense of belonging, of community-mindedness and self-sacrifice. Mostly, she misses her family, whom she thinks and speaks about often with her daughter. They severed ties with her after she left, but she has continued to reach out in hope.

“I know those people, and I know that they are well-intentioned, that they are kind-hearted. That’s very hard for some people to recognise,” she said.

“But in another environment and another kind of ideology, they would be doing incredible things. And I wish so strongly and so deeply that that other world existed.”

To hear more of Megan’s story, including what it was like walking into Jo Rowling’s castle to interview the famously private author, listen to No Filter via your favourite podcast app.