The recent death at 84 of Fred W. Phelps Sr., founder of Westboro Baptist Church, has left an opening at the top of the tiny congregation notorious for its hate-filled rants about homosexuality at soldiers' funerals. Westboro's new leader, according to news accounts, is Steve Drain, who lived in Tampa and attended the University of South Florida. Drain's unusual path to Topeka, Kan., where Westboro is based, has been documented by Justin Kendall, who interviewed Drain in 2011 for the Pitch, a Kansas City news outlet, and recently by Caitlin Dickson for the Daily Beast website. Below are excerpts from those articles, the church website and a church video.
From Daily Beast
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.
Drain graduated in the late 1990s from the University of Kansas with a Masters of Fine Arts. He later returned with his family to Tampa where he got a job as a creative director at the Home Shopping Network.
According to his daughter Lauren, Drain talked a lot about making a documentary to expose an extremist antigay church he'd become familiar with while living in Kansas. He went to Washington, D.C., to watch the group picket the Millennium March. He would title the movie Hatemongers.
From the Pitch
Drain expected Phelps to be a "Barnumesque snake-oil salesman." Instead, he came to view him as "the most misunderstood man alive."
"There was this humble, little old man who had spent his life laboring in that Word, in that vineyard, telling people just what the Bible says," Drain says. "He's not an aggressive self-promoter that people put him out as. He's a man who every day spends several hours a day poring through the Scripture. He's doing this out of a heartfelt fear that if he doesn't do it, then the Lord is going to deal with him."
After the first meeting, Drain called his wife, Luci.
"This guy is right," he told her.
From the Pitch
Steve and Luci Drain say it was their eldest daughter, Lauren, who made them realize that they needed to move. At 14, she began to show interest in what the couple call "heathen boys." This didn't fit with their newfound religion. As turmoil increased in their home, Luci warmed to the idea of moving. Steve and Luci were starting to think that they had been raising Lauren and Taylor wrong.
Drain instituted a "godly standard" in his house. His family stopped celebrating holidays — no Christmas, no Halloween, no Thanksgiving. No more rock bands. (He had played in a band called Boneyard while at KU and he once helped Lauren start one.) No more long hair for Steve. No more haircuts for Luci and the girls. (Women aren't supposed to take blades to their hair, goes one reading of the Bible.) Steve banned Luci's mother, a Catholic whom he calls a "big-time false religionist," from talking about religion with their children. No more chocolate bunnies or "What would Jesus do?" bracelets from Grandma.
From Daily Beast
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.
From a Westboro Baptist video in which Drain explains the ways to tell if your church is a "stronghold … for his majesty the devil himself":
"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."
From Westboro's website, which denies that Drain has taken charge since the March 19 death of Phelps, who some say was pushed aside by Drain in recent years:
It's like every journalist in the world simultaneously set aside what little journalistic integrity they have, so that they could wait breathlessly for a rumor to publish: in-fighting, succession plans, and power struggles, oh my! How shameful! You're like a bunch of little girls on the playground waiting for some gossip!
Listen carefully; there are no power struggles in the Westboro Baptist Church, and there is no human intercessor — we serve no man, and no hierarchy, only the Lord Jesus Christ. No red shoes, no goofy hat, and no white smoke for us; thank you very much.
No board, no separate decision making body, just humble servants of God — qualified according to the scriptures, and chosen by the church — privileged to feed the sheep for a time.