At the face of each American tragedy memorial-- the remembrance of a soldier, Newtown shooting victims or most recently those whose lives were lost in the Boston bombing-- the Westboro Baptist Church latches on to the opportunity to protest their extreme ideologies.
Westboro, founded by Pastor Phelps, promised to picket at the funeral of a female bombing victim in Boston. Instead of mourning the loss of marathon runner Krystle Campbell, Westboro celebrates the "act of God", as they refer to it. Westboro claims the bombs were sent in fury as a response to God's disgust in humanity. The group introduced a new sign for their picketing that reads "God sent the bombs."
What's ironic about the celebration of the marathon bombing is that the Phelps' force their children to run vigoriously each night as part of their extreme dietary and health requirements. They even participated in a few marathons.
Running five to ten miles each night wasn't the only oddity that Nate Phelps, ex-Westboro member and son of Pastor Phelps, mentioned in the account of his childhood prior to his escape.
"With 12 siblings there was a lot of activity in the family. We attended public school but our father insisted that the school remove us from the classroom whenever Christmas activity was going on. He also preached to us from infancy that we were different, the world was evil and that we had to be diligent in our condemnation of other belief systems. We were largely isolated from the world because of our father's beliefs and his treatment of others," Nate says.
The Phelps children aren't completely isolated from society. They participate in social and community activities. After school each day and on Saturdays for seven years, Nate and his siblings sold candy. Between candy sales and homework is when the children would do their running. Nate relates the rigid exercise regime with his father's fear of death.
Nate's father is the founder of the organization. The church is basically fuelled by his idea that the world is disobeying God.
"My father is black and white. There is no compromise. There is no discussion. He alone has discovered the Truth. Conversely, the world has turned it's back on that truth. His God hates those who turn their back on the truth so he must hate them too," says Nate. "He simply views the world as spiritually evil and he is supposed to revile and fight against that."
As a child, Nate felt unusual about the way that he was being raised but this extreme upbringing was normal to him. It wasn't until leaving that Nate realized just how different his childhood was in comparison to others.
"I felt different from an early age. It seems like the knowledge of our beliefs left me feeling that everyone around me was somehow, in a hidden way, evil or bad. Even though my father made it clear that we would be shunned if we left home, even that felt normal because his preaching and justification was so unassailable. I suppose that when I went out into the world and tried to talk to people about it is when I realized just how unusual we were. Even that took years of peeling back the layers and comparing my childhood to the childhood my children had," Nate explains.
Like many radical religions, Westboro sends an ex-communication letter to anyone who leaves their church, including their own children.
The ability to shun a child is something that most right-thinking people don't possess. Most children are privileged to feel love from their parents in developmental and growth years. Although Nate can remember his parents hugging each other on rare occasions, that closeness wasn't offered to him or his siblings.
"I honestly don't remember the soft moments where a parent hugged me and told me they loved me the way I did with my children," Nate says.
At midnight of his 18th birthday, Nate executed his plan to leave Westboro and his family behind. He moved to California and now lives in Alberta, Canada.
"In the early months I was dizzy with freedom. I was young and dumb and certain that my distance from the violence was all that was necessary. I eventually got involved in business with my brother (who also fled Westboro) and soon after started a family that I focused my attention on. It was during those years that the underlying damage from the theology and the violence began to impose itself on me," Nate says.
Aside from overcoming the trauma of living in the conditions that Nate was exposed to throughout his childhood, Nate had to adapt to the freedom to form his own opinions and religious views.
"I am, practically speaking, an atheist. I cannot state, as a rationalist, that I know for certain that God doesn't exist. But when you look at all of the existing versions of God and the evidence for them, atheism is the most rational response. What legitimate evidence exists for any of those gods? Any discussion of God that stays focused on the discovery process must lead to the invocation of faith to justify the belief. What is faith but belief in the absence of evidence?" says Nate.
"By the traditional definition, I don't have a religion. I call myself a humanist because my view of the world comes closest to the ideals expressed in humanism. I believe that we are born, we live and we die. The absence of any evidence to the contrary demands that I believe that. When evidence comes along to change it, I will change my belief. I don't believe there is anything that I can say I absolutely know for sure. I think there are many reasons to live, love and die. I believe that, since we are alone in this journey on earth, it is incumbent on each of us to strive to improve life circumstances for everyone, including future generations."
Nate is working on a book called "Leaving Westboro-- Escaping America's Most Hated Church & Family." For updates on the publication of his book visit his official webpage www.natephelps.com.