West Baptist Church – Convergence Theory, Conformity and Charismatic Groups – The Organization for World Peace

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Since June 1991, located in Kansas, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has organized religious events. A movement based on old-school Baptist principles, the church has been condemned by the Baptist Church and other Christian organizations. Identified as an alt-right conservative movement, followers of this church are generally considered homophobic, transphobic, anti-American, and anti-Semitic. They have been known to demonstrate at the funerals of veterans and HIV/AIDS victims. The Westboro Baptist Church is often identified as a “new religious movement” or “cult”.

Convergence theory is the examination of collective behavior in which individuals with similar desires, attitudes, goals, or personalities come together to create mobs, social movements, and other types of mass action. Marc Galanter similarly theorizes to study religious movements and cults determining “charismatic groups develop uniformity among members through similar belief systems, social cohesion, behavioral norms, and charismatic power.” (Galanter, Marc. 2013. “Charismatic Groups and Cults: A Psychological and Social Analysis.”)

Westboro Baptist Church, their extremist views and proclamations are analyzed in this essay, to determine whether they should be defined as a cult.

WBC identifies itself as “old school Baptists”, arguing that even though people usually (more accurately) call them “hyper-Calvinists”, they are not. They follow Jean Calvin, a French theologian, and believe that God elects a select few to heaven while the rest of humanity is destined to go to hell forever. Basically, their beliefs are formed that mankind is doomed because of Adam eating the apple while in Eden, mankind’s first sin. In this regard, they are defined as radical because unlike most Christian churches and organizations, WBC believe that belonging to their Church (not another) may be the only way to avoid hell because God does not forgive not sinners and their sins.

Westboro Baptist Church’s core belief is that God is punishing America for embracing homosexuality so readily. Evident in their famous slogan “God hates fags”, which is their website URL, features heavily in sermons, plastered on signs at protests, including gatherings at funerals for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and veterans. In addition, followers blame homosexuality as the cause of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the resulting deaths of American soldiers in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that only the fittest survive. Most major religions in modern times have adapted to accept people from the LGBTQIA+ community or quietly present their disapproval, but extremist ideals run counter to this. People who share similar ideals may believe that WBC is the only place that offers them a safe space from perceived religious persecution. Since these beliefs are so severe, followers can feel comfort and conformity in sharing these beliefs with others like them. Exacerbated by widespread public opposition to the WBC (Barrett-Fox, 2016). Establish a divide between “us” (WBC) and “them” (non-followers), increasing group conformity and conformity in collective group behaviors and beliefs.

Because these ideals are so diametrically opposed to other Christian doctrines, WBC followers come together to raise their collective voice. Their rallies are meant to warn Americans of their impending doom, and they believe that by fostering a strong sense of unity and cohesion, they can foster greater acceptance in society.

If these members did not come together, radical WBC protests would be unlikely to occur. The radicalized, extreme and uncommon nature of these beliefs means that WBC operates with a high level of social cohesion. Members who chat with the media speak alike as if quoting doctrine, promoting their radicalized views without remorse or disdain.

Appearing to share the ideals of founder Fred Phelps, during their protests showing a united front while displaying and spouting hate speech. No member is isolated on a belief or an action. As Darley et al point out, “When people are part of a group, they tend to extend this to the fact that the group generates their feelings and emotions that are part of that cult’s identity. The larger the group, the easier it is to change mindsets and influence emotions” (Darley, John M. and Bibb Latane. 1968. “Bystander Intervention In Emergencies: Diffusion Of Responsibility.”)

This social cohesion of the members increases the pressure to conform to the teachings of the church. No one wants to be the odd one out, and everyone seeks group approval.

Such social cohesion increases the expectation of conformity to WBC beliefs, practices and teachings. As individuals, they seek validation from the collective, not wanting to feel isolated in their opinions.

The behavioral norms of the WBC are clearly visible, in opposition to the behavioral norms of other “new religious movements”, which are less known because they are more private and ritualistic. Any ritualistic behavior, on the other hand, can be considered a standard of behavior and is a requirement for a group to be classified as a “cult” (Eister, Allan W. 1972. “An Outline Of A Structural Theory Of Cults “).

Since its inception in 1991, WBC has claimed to have staged 69,000 protests, often holding multiple protests a day. Actions like this mimic ritualistic behavior known to cults. Cialdini et al, describe compliance as a “process of social influence that involves modifying behavior in response to a direct demand”, in this case, modifying one’s behavior to respond to the call for protest (Cialdini, Robert B ., and Noah J. Goldstein. 2004. “Social Influence: Conformity and Compliance”). Failure to participate in any of the group’s demonstrations would allow for expulsion from the church.

The group claims to have demonstrated more than 40,000 times since 1991 – and regularly schedules several protests a day. This type of behavior, when practiced this frequently, mimics the ritualistic activities of many known cults. Every member of the Church attends these events, as failure to do so will result in expulsion from the group. The group claims to have demonstrated more than 40,000 times since 1991 – and regularly schedules several protests a day.

Hate protests against homosexuality set a standard for behavior within the WBC. Rigorously adhering individuals to these daily rituals promotes uniformity within the group, while dismissal of non-conforming members ensures that these standards of behavior are strictly adhered to.

Charismatic power is the final element of Galanter’s description of a “cult.” WBC differs from other well-known religious news organizations in this regard. The majority of members are still the extended family of founder Fred Phelps. Most cults recruit new members by converting potential followers, but the WBC has failed to gain traction with non-family members.

The lack of new recruits stems from the fundamental belief that offenses are unforgivable and that no amount of repentance will spare you eternal damnation. As a result, WBC-born members living “sinless lives”, can escape hell, becoming the privileged few to enter heaven. Procreation is the only reason the church has continued to grow since its inception.

That’s not to say Phelps lacked charisma. Nine of his thirteen children remained devout members of the Church, while the other four became alienated. These alienated children contacted other family members, alerting them to their distorted religious views. Generally, they failed to persuade family members, implying that Phelps and the other family elders have enough persuasion and charisma to retain a following. This suggests that charisma is a necessary skill to instill in obedient members.

To foster conformity among its members, the WBC utilizes its members’ shared anti-gay beliefs, its vile script and coordinated acts, its ritualized protests, and the charisma of its founder. The Westboro Baptist Church is well known as a hateful organization, but based on Galanter’s definition of cults and Convergence Theory, it appears that the Church can be classified as a cult.

Bibliography:

“About Westboro Baptist Church”. 2022. Godhatesfags.Com. Accessed January 9. https://www.godhatesfags.com/wbcinfo/aboutwbc.html#.

Barrett-Fox, Rebecca. 2016. God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American

Nationalism and the religious right. Lawrence, Kansas: Kansas University Press

Barrett-Fox, Rebecca. 2016. God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American

Nationalism and the religious right. Lawrence, Kansas: Kansas University Press

Barrett-Fox, Rebecca. 2016. “God Hates: The Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right. Lawrence, Kansas: Kansas University Press.

Bouwsma, William. 1989. “Explaining John Calvin”. Wilson Quarterly 13 (1): 68-75. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40257444?mag=john-calvin-religious-reformer-influenced-capitalism&seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents.

Cialdini, Robert B., and Noah J. Goldstein. 2004. “Social Influence: Conformity and Conformity.” Annual Journal of Psychology 55 (1): 591-621. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.142015.

Columbus State University. 2018. “Cults: A Psychological Perspective”. Georgia: Columbus State University. https://csuepress.columbusstate.edu/theses_dissertations/361?utm_source=csuepress.columbusstate.edu%2Ftheses_dissertations%2F361&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages.

“Convergence Theory”. 2022. American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/convergence-theory#:~:text=a%20conceptual%20analysis%20of%20collective,goals%2C%20or%20personalities%20come%20together.

Darley, John M., and Bibb Latane. 1968. “Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8 (4, Pt. 1): 377-383. doi:10.1037/h0025589.

Eister, Allan W. 1972. “An Outline of a Structural Theory of Cults”. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 11(4):319.doi:10.2307/1384673.

Gallanter, Mark. 2013. “Charismatic groups and cults: a psychological and social analysis”. APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, no. 1:729-740.

“Westboro Baptist Church”. 2022. Southern Poverty Law Center. Accessed January 9. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/westboro-baptist-church.

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