U.S. News

03.24.14

This Man Is The Future of Westboro Baptist Church

Steve Drain was Fred Phelps’s closest disciple inside Kansas’s rabidly anti-gay Westboro Baptist. But did he orchestrate the excommunication of the church’s late founder?

A man of about 48 sits in front of an orange and blue ‘80s school portrait-style backdrop, offering tips on how to tell whether your church is “a stronghold for fags and the majesty the devil himself.” His doughy brow furrows as he drawls in a southern accent, “If your pastor preaches that God loves everyone, you should run as fast as you can from that vile place. This is the granddaddy of all lies belched forth from the bowels of hell.”

This is Steve Drain, the future of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Last week, Fred Phelps’ son posted on Facebook that his father, the longtime head of the notoriously venomous Westboro Baptist Church—famous for protesting military and other high-profile funerals and events with neon “God Hate Fags” signs—was “now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka.” Despite Drain’s attempts to downplay the severity of Phelps’s condition, it was reported Tuesday that the 84-year-old Phelps had passed away.

Most intriguing about Nate Phelps’s Facebook post was not the news that an octogenarian’s health was failing, but that Fred Phelps Sr., who founded the hatemongering church in 1955 and turned his progeny into some of the loudest and most despised people in America, had been excommunicated last summer.

Nate, 55, ran away from the church at age 18 and is now an LGBT advocate working for a non-profit that promotes secular society in Calgary, Alberta. He’s been shunned by his family for 37 years, he says, but has been updated on the goings-on inside the church from two nieces and a nephew who broke away more recently and still live in the Topeka area. From what he understands, Nate tells me, there was an orchestrated shift in power within the church over the past two years. The once loosely, almost democratically structured congregation came under the control of an eight-man board of elders, Nate says. During this time, more of an emphasis was placed on Bible passages highlighting female inferiority—part of the effort, Nate says, to remove his sister Shirley Phelps-Roper from her role as the church’s spokeswoman and, in Fred Phelps’ later years, as its de facto leader.

“I know it sounds kind of crazy,” Nate says, but the board’s apparent toppling of Shirley prompted Phelps to push for more humane treatment among fellow congregants. And that suggestion—that a group of people famed for spewing vitriol and hatred in the name of God should be kinder to one another—was apparently what led to Phelps’ excommunication. While Nate may not have all the details on what was said or done and when, he is positive that there is one man at the center of all this upheavalSteve Drain.

Neither Drain nor anyone from the Westboro Baptist Church returned emails and calls requesting comment for this story.

***

That Drain is one of the church’s few non-Phelps family members is only a small part of his curious story. In 2001, a then-35-year-old Drain set out to make a documentary exposing the gay-hating, disruptive church he’d become familiar with while in graduate school at The University of Kansas. Instead, Drain wound up moving his family from Tampa to Topeka to join the congregation.

Drain was raised Presbyterian but spent much of his youth searching for more from his religion, later identifying as a staunch atheist, according to his daughter. According to a 2011 interview with Kansas City’s The Pitch, he spent one Thanksgiving weekend in grade school going door to door in his Tampa neighborhood and asking people, “What do you believe? And why do you believe it?”

It’s hard to understand how someone who so astutely questioned religion as a child could possibly become converted by the fanatical fearmongers he set out to expose. But his daughter, Lauren, paints a slightly darker picture.

According to former Westboro members, where Drain and Phelps seemed to most overlap was their intensity, their need for dominance, their anger.

Lauren Drain says she was banished from the Westboro Baptist Church in 2008, just before her 22nd birthday, for chatting with a man online and on the phone. Last year, she wrote a book called Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church, detailing her life in Topeka and the events leading up to her family’s move.

In her book, Lauren describes her father as intellectual and rebellious, charismatic and manipulative, yet easily influenced, with an almost manic curiosity that resulted in him immersing himself in one passion after another, occasionally to his family’s detriment. The first time Drain moved his wife, Luci, and their two daughters to Kansas, Lauren was five, and her father had been given a full ride to attend graduate school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence for two years. But Lauren says that Drain switched majors so many times that, by the time he graduated with an MFA in film seven years later, he’d submerged his family in serious debt.

As Lauren recounts in her book, during the family’s first stint in Kansas, the often argumentatively atheistic Drain invited a door-to-door missionary inside for an intellectual debate that sparked a full-blown fanatical phase. Drain began meeting with the preacher once or twice a week for Bible study and, for nearly a year, Lauren wrote, he made his family live in accordance with what he read, forbidding holidays, requiring conservative clothing and opening their house up to strangers in need of food or shelter. According to Lauren’s book, after a falling out with his mentor over whether God’s chosen people would remain on earth forever, Drain abandoned his newfound devotion as quickly as he’d adopted it and his family followed suit.

The Drains returned to Tampa in 1997 after Steve’s graduation, where he got a job as a creative director at the Home Shopping Network. Life was pretty much back to normal, with Drain resuming his place in Lauren’s eyes as “the cool dad,” coaching her softball team and encouraging her interest in music. Around that time, Lauren says, Drain talked a lot about making a documentary to expose an extremist, anti-gay church he’d become familiar with while living in Kansas. Finally, in 2000, he began seriously researching the Westboro Baptist Church, going to Washington, D.C. to film the group picketing the Millennium March, an event held by gay pride organizations to raise awareness for LGBT rights. Lauren wrote that her father had been “super offended by the group’s stance against homosexuals,” but he returned from D.C. more critical of those who participated in the gay pride parade than those who hated them. Drain continued to work on the movie, but it started to take on a lighter tone. He spent hours talking to Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church’s spokesperson and effective leader, and eventually the Pastor himself.

Drain told The Pitch that he went into shooting his film, which he called Hatemongers, with the expectation that Phelps was a “Barnumesque snake-oil salesman,” but came away from their meeting believing that he was “the most misunderstood man alive.”

The WBC issued a video response to Lauren’s book in which Brent Roper, Shirley Phelps-Roper’s husband, does not address the book directly but looks for passages in the Bible that indicate “a man’s enemies are of his own household.” According to Roper, scriptures supposedly show that “in almost every case where you have a father or mother properly believing in Christ, they will be contradicted, opposed, or persecuted by their own son or daughter.” 

Lauren told me that the last time she heard from her father was on Labor Day, 2013 when, she says, they exchanged a series of text messages in which Drain accused her of lying in her book but refused to provide an example, she says. “He loves to argue (and win),” she says. “Except if he can’t win, his answer will be ‘I don’t have to tell you.’” 

***

Fred Waldron Phelps Sr. founded the Westboro Baptist Church in 1955. He, his wife Margie Marie, and their oldest son, Fred Phelps Jr., then a newborn, had moved to Topeka the previous year for Phelps’s job as an associate pastor at the East Side Baptist Church. He was then chosen by the church’s leadership to open a new branch on Topeka’s burgeoning west side. Oddly enough, Phelps, who would later have a brief career as a well-respected civil rights attorney, said he knew Topeka was the place for them when, on the day they arrived, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka desegregation lawsuit.

Raised a Methodist, Phelps was ordained a Southern Baptist minister in 1947 at the age of 17. He’s said to have had a transformative experience that led him to abandon his long-held plans to attend the West Point Military Academy and enroll at Bob Jones University in Cleveland Tennessee, a non-denominational Christian school which, in 1983, had its tax exemption revoked because the IRS said it practiced racial discrimination. Phelps has said it was a revival at a Methodist church in his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi that sparked his change of direction, feeling that God had called on him to become a preacher. In her book, Lauren Drain speculates as to whether Phelps’s sudden submersion into religion and his unwavering hatred of all things gay was perhaps brought on by a homosexual experience of his own.

Before the advent of Westboro, Phelps had already made somewhat of a name for himself as a relentlessly obnoxious street preacher on the campus of John Muir college in Pasadena, California (the third college he went to after dropping out of Bob Jones). A 1951 article in Time Magazine describes the 21-year-old Phelps as a “tall, 6ft. 3 in., craggy-faced engineering student” who approached lunching students on campus and lectured them about “sins committed on campus by students and teachers…promiscuous petting…evil language…profanity…cheating…teachers’ filthy jokes in classrooms…pandering to the lusts of the flesh.” When he was ordered off campus by the college’s principal, and even once escorted by police away from a maddening crowd of protesters, he resumed his preaching across the street.

Phelps often clarified that the Westboro Baptist Church did not have a specific denomination, but was led under Primitive, or Old School, Baptist beliefs. In short, Phelps’ gospel is built on the central belief, contrary to that of most Christian denominations, that God hates almost everyone, except a very select few chosen Christians. Their picketing, as explained by the church’s website, is meant to warn that “the modern militant homosexual movement [poses] a clear and present danger to the survival of America, exposing our nation to the wrath of God.” The more sensitive the setting (like a memorial for the child victims of the Newtown school shooting) and the more provocative the message (such as “Thank God for 9/11”) the better. The Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t want to recruit you, its website implies—it wants to make you mad.

***

By the time Drain had finished his Westboro documentary, Lauren writes, their household was back to being run under a more extreme “godly standard” than the one her father had imposed in Kansas. His family no longer celebrated holidays or listened to rock music, and, adhering to one interpretation of the Bible, his wife and two daughters were not allowed to cut their hair. Drain, who’d always seemingly been a bit of a family dictator, according to the account in Lauren's book, also allegedly became more controlling and even violent, especially towards 15-year-old Lauren, whose budding interest in boys did not align with the Westboro Baptist Church’s no-dating policy.

On March 7, 2001, Drain was arrested and spent a night in jail after allegedly verbally and physically assaulting a 15-year-old boy named Jay Collins, headbutting him in the face three times and breaking his nose, according to court documents. Collins and Lauren had been spending time together, despite Drain’s objections, she says. They’d also been exchanging flirtatious notes at school. Drain, whom Lauren says in the book had begun monitoring his daughter’s every move in order to sabotage this budding high-school romance, went through Lauren’s softball bag and discovered a stash of notes she hadn’t even noticed Collins had snuck in there. Unlike Collins’ earlier letters, these were more explicit, detailing his sexual fantasies, which, Lauren says in her book, enraged Drain. But Collins wasn’t the only target of Drain’s anger. Lauren writes that her father beat her, kicked her, threw her off from the top bunk of her bed and called her a “whore” and a “bitch,” spitting with rage. (Drain has not addressed Lauren’s claims in the book and was not charged with any sort of violence against his daughter; at the time, he was charged with battery against Collins, plead no contest, and had to pay restitution.)

Collins’ mother, Tracy Fingers, filed an order of protection against Drain on behalf of her son and Drain filed one against Collins, to keep him away from Lauren. In Drain’s petition, he claims that Collins’ letters—which Lauren described in her book as “slightly funny, embarrassing, and flattering”—said that he wanted to “rape you and kill you and fuck you while you’re dead.” When he confronted Fingers about the letters, Drain wrote in his order of protection, she told him they were “no big deal” and that “kids will be kids.”

Contrarily, Fingers’ own petition claims she agreed with Drain when he first came to see her that her son and Lauren should probably stay away from each other, given the sexual nature of their letters, but also “stated that his daughter is not an innocent party.” Fingers alleged in her petition for a restraining order that Drain stalked her, her son and his friend Chad Grissom (whose mother also filed a restraining order). He approached the boys at a girls softball game to warn them to stay away from his daughter and twice came to her home demanding angrily to speak with her, Fingers wrote. On the day of the alleged assault, Fingers said Drain told Collins and Grissom that he’d gone to their high school looking for them.

“I do not want to be afraid for my son’s life—this man has no regard for the law,” Fingers wrote in her petition. “He beat up my 15 y.o. son—I’m sure he could be a threat to anyone.”

Neither Fingers nor Collins responded to requests for comment on this story.

Shortly after this series of events, Lauren writes, Drain pulled her out of school to be homeschooled online. And on July 2, 2001, despite the apparent attempts of relatives to persuade them not to go, the Drains arrived at their new Topeka home, on the same block as the Westboro Baptist Church, without jobs or any real plan as to what they were going to do.

After moving to Topeka, Drain apparently inserted himself into the church’s inner circle. He helped Phelps create the now-notorious “God hates…” signs and produced hundreds of videos for the church’s website, Godhatesfags.com. Recurring series include “Beast Watch,” “Jews News,” and “WBC Video News,” in which Drain, Fred Phelps and his son Timothy offer the Primitive Baptist take on the latest news. One of the more recent ones, for example, is titled “God Hates Malaysia,” and is pretty self-explanatory. Drain also writes and records WBC-themed pop song parodies.

***

Lauren Drain tells me that when she and her family first moved to Topeka, she would have never imagined that her father would eventually become a church leader. But over the years, she says, as she watched her father become colder and more callous, she also saw him seeking more powerful roles within the church.

“I do not think he will ever admit to wanting the role of the leader,” Lauren says. “I’m sure he will put on a face of humility, pretending to act like he doesn’t want to become the next Pastor, but he’s always been power-hungry and thrived on control.”

Lauren says her father tries to depict the “board of elders” as a unified group of men who make church decisions together, “but he is the only one that I see answering media questions. Shirley used to be able to do this. I doubt he will ever admit that role was taken from her.”

Drain told The Pitch in 2011 that he didn’t have any plans to lead Westboro. “The whole idea of having some long-range aspiration doesn’t fit the notion of being a Christian,” he said at the time.

Nate Phelps doesn’t buy it. For a long time after Shirley became less present, Nate suspected that either Steve or Tim, Nate’s youngest brother, were running things. “Then all of this happened and it was confirmed.”

***

Nate can’t help but laugh when I ask him what kinds of people join the Westboro Baptist Church of their own volition. After all, the small congregation— about 40 strong —is comprised almost entirely of the Phelps brood.

“There were two families in the church the years I was there,” he says. “My impression of them was that they were both blue-collar, struggling financially, not so bright. They were impressionable.”

Steven Drain might be many things to those who know him, but unintelligent isn’t one of them. Despite being a high-school dropout, Drain got his GED while working as the night shift manager for a trucking company after Lauren was born. He then went to the University of Southern Florida in Tampa as an undergraduate, before getting his masters in Kansas. His intellectual pursuits fit in well with the Phelps’ emphasis on education. Westboro kids go to public school and get good grades. They use the Internet, email and social media and are expected to be as familiar with current affairs as they are the verses of the Bible. Many of Phelps Sr.’s children have law degrees and run the Phelps-Chartered law firm founded by the disbarred Fred Sr.

According to Lauren's book, like the late Phelps, Drain’s relationship with his parents was strained, to say the least. Fred Phelps Sr.’s mother passed away when he was five and his father went on to marry a divorcee. Phelps would eventually alienate himself and his children from his father and step-mom, and make divorce one of the key issues he crusaded against. According to Lauren, Drain was deeply impacted by his parents’ own divorce. He disliked the woman his father remarried, according to Lauren, and resented his own mother, an aspiring actress, for being self-involved and uninterested in him. He’d long distanced himself from both of his parents before they died, Lauren says.

An expansive 1994 series on the Phelps clan by the Topeka Capital-Journal offers a fascinating look at the life of the Westboro Baptist Church’s founder. Unlike the young Fred Phelps Sr., who was known for being disciplined, studious and athletic, if not somewhat antisocial, Drain was rebellious, according to his daughter. Phelps chose studying over sports and had secured a place for himself at the prestigious West Point Military Academy by the time he graduated high school at 16. Drain, Lauren writes, dropped out of high school “not because he wasn’t smart but because he had a problem with rules and authority figures.” Lauren writes that he drank, smoked and did drugs, mostly to provoke his mother who didn’t seem to care, which only made him angrier. Later, Lauren writes, Drain’s alleged relationships with other women would become a source of tension between her parents. In a strangely insightful passage in her book, Lauren describes watching the movie Requiem for a Dreamwith her father after he returned from a month of reporting on the WBC in Kansas. “I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life,” she says he told her, sobbing after the movie had ended. “I have got to fix my life.”

Drain and his wife, Luci, married when they were 18 and his relationship with her devout Catholic parents was apparently similar to the one he had with his own. Lauren writes that Luci’s parents didn’t see Drain— “a high-school dropout, an on-again, off-again drug user, a bigmouth, and a control freak”— as a suitable partner for their daughter. I reached Luci’s mother, Madalyn Stout, by phone at home in Florida, but when I mentioned Drain’s name she promptly said, “no thank you,” and hung up.

According to former Westboro members, where Drain and Phelps seemed to most overlap was their intensity, their need for dominance, their anger. “I always called [Drain] ‘Fred Light,’” says Nate who, along with his brother Mark, has been outspoken about the years of abuse he says he suffered at the hands of his father. “He was like my old man with that angry, in-your-face rhetoric.”

Four of Fred Phelps’ 13 children have defected from the church and approximately 12 grandchildren that Nate knows of, “but I suspect there are more,” he says. Both Nate and Lauren describe a deep lack of empathy, even for family members, which, they say, is promoted within the WBC. Defectors are used as poster children for the evils of the world, so much so that when one leaves they may still harbor ill will towards the others that did the same, according to the defectors that spoke to The Daily Beast. And for those that are left behind, they say, mourning is treated as an extreme weakness, punishable by excommunication.

Lauren points to her father’s ability to “nonchalantly cast aside” the man who he once referred to as “the bravest man to have ever lived” and the “one true prophet in the Last Days,” for supposedly coming to his own daughter’s defense, as evidence of what she says is both her father’s cruelty and the church’s cutthroat mentality.

“Every member of the WBC is expendable. That is the exact definition of a cult,” Lauren tells me. “The irony is, I think he’s too blind to even see that his membership isn’t secure either.”

Additional reporting by Brandy Zadrozny.