Louis Theroux: The Most Hated Family in America

Sunday, April 1, 2007 by

There’s perhaps been a feeling of late that Louis Theroux has just been treading the same old water for some time with his documentaries on the weirdness of the world. Where once Theroux would astonish the viewer with all manner of odd encounters, the most recent film on gambling in Las Vegas (which appeared following a long break from our screens) was fairly weak, insipid and unexciting stuff. Now, however, Theroux more than makes up for any failures with a more promising subject worthy of his examination.

America breeds its fair share of loonies, but the Phelps family are something else. As odious as the white supremacists Theroux encountered in South Africa, and as out of touch with reality as the gun-totin’ hillbillies from the wilds of the USA, here the documentary-makers finds himself as a guest of the Westboro Baptist Church and their appalling attitudes towards the world. These are people who picket the funerals of dead servicemen, upsetting mourning relatives. They parade the streets with home-made placards bearing messages such as “God Hates Fags”, and “Thank God for 9/11″. They don’t like Jews because they “worship the rectum”, and are intolerant of both the rest of society and any other religion, even going to the extent of being happy when a local rival church catches fire.

Their banners condemn celebrities, from Liz Taylor to Princess Diana, to poor old Desmond Tutu – probably one of the most decent men on the planet. A store that sells vacuum cleaners from Sweden becomes a target simply because Sweden has done something to incur their wrath. Louis himself is seen as a sinner for having a child out of wedlock. Everybody is heading to hell, apart from the members of the church. Theirs is a twisted, perverted version of religion that is thankfully relatively contained within a small area of Kansas. The 70-odd members of the church are disliked by the rest of the local community and group themselves together in a large enclave of houses, where, presumably they feel some kind of safety in numbers.

The church is officially led by the elderly Pastor Phelps. We don’t meet him at first, with the documentary team preferring to let him retain an air of mystery so we will be more interested when he finally makes an appearance. Phelps’ brainwashed daughter Shirley is the driving force and what a thoroughly unpleasant woman she is. She is the mother of 11 children, all of whom she’s raising to hold the same views as herself. The family are like the worst characters you would ever meet in an episode of South Park, and it is frightening to think this kind of person exists. If you thought David Koresh’s Branch Davidians at Waco were a peculiar bunch, they had nothing on this lot.

One of the most upsetting aspects of the church is the way they bring up their children. Like all religious groups, the Phelps’ need to pass on their beliefs to the next generation and it is saddening to see tiny kids spouting ideology which has been pumped into them. Theroux talks to a seven-year-old girl who clearly (and thankfully) does not know what she is saying. The church takes the children out with them on their pickets, and the poor kids become targets of the general public.

The church is quite happy to put their own offspring into the firing line – in one case, quite literally, as a young lad is hit on the head by a cup full of drink hurled by a vexed motorist. Surprisingly though, the children attend a normal school and the young adults have normal jobs in the community. Not that they behave in any normal manner – they don’t have friends from outside the church, merely acquaintances. Megan, a young woman, reveals that when she was in school none of the other children wanted anything to do with her, and it’s easy to see that the latest generation of the congregation will probably suffer the same fate. The young can’t have a normal life at all, with one scene showing a 21-year old has to telephone her mother to see if it is okay to go for a coffee with Theroux and the crew at a cafĂ©.

Not only content with filling the heads of their own children with rubbish, they are also attempting to spread their views across America as well as the world. It’s revealed that the church spends around $200,000 a year on flights, just so they can picket funerals on the other side of the country. Added to this, they have a number of websites on which they broadcast sermons. These are run by Steve, an ex-documentary maker who fell in with the church after coming to make a film on them. He was somehow transformed from a normal liberal person, to a hateful member of the Phelps clan. Thankfully the same fate does not befall Theroux.

Finally we do get to meet Pastor Phelps – an unpleasant old bigot. He refuses to answer Theroux’s questions: “You’re just too dumb – sorry”. Phelps Snr can offer no logical or sensible argument to support the views he and his flock possess, and we learn little from him.

As is the norm with a Louis Theroux documentary, we don’t see any real change in the attitudes of the people we meet or much in the way of explanation. Try as he might, “scoffer and mocker” Theroux has no impact on them. They are never going to change their views. There is no clue given as to where this lot sprang from. No mention is made of how they were formed. A bit more historical context might have helped us to understand a little about the church and where their abhorrent views originate.

The Westboro Baptist Church will be content forever to preach their messages of hate and be hated by everybody in turn. They simply don’t care. For their own sakes, hopefully some more of the group will see fit to escape like the four of Pastor Phelps’ daughters who left to join the civilized world. The Most Hated Family in America is fairly typical Theroux stuff, but is the most interesting documentary he has crafted in some time. Hopefully it will pave the way for a few more.


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