Friday night on The Rosie Show, host Rosie O’Donnell welcomed some unusual guests: Randy Roberts Potts, the out gay grandson of notorious television evangelist Oral Roberts, and Nate Phelps, the son of Fred Phelps, who is the patriarch of that vile "church" you see picketing funerals with homophobic signs.
Cameron’s comments were blinkered and sad, but hardly out of character for him, and hardly unexpected given his known fringe-right views. For example, were you aware that atheists are definitely wrong because bananas?
(By the way, deity-designed wild bananas don’t look much like the bananas in the demo. That’s because the seedless, easy-open bananas we eat have been heavily cultivated by – whoopsie! – humans.)
After responding in a visceral way to Cameron’s comments (I appreciate Rosie’s heart on this and understand that she seemed to be speaking off the top of her head, but we really do need to be sure to get our sharpest speakers out front for incidents like this), she moved on to funny and moving footage of coming out stories from her staff members. It was a nice way of sharing coming out stories for viewers who could empathize with them, and a smart way to humanize what it means to be LGBT for her viewers who may be less familiar with it.
The clips are available on The Rosie Show’s website if you’re interested.
And then we were on to Randy Roberts Potts. His grandfather, Oral Roberts, was known for preaching that being rich was next to godliness and claiming not only faith healings but to have raised the dead. He also claimed that Supreme Being was essentially holding him for ransom in 1987, saying that if he didn’t raise enough millions by a March 31 deadline, “God will call me home.”
Potts grew up on the fenced-in Roberts compound and talked about what it was like to "play ninja" and try to dodge the surveillance cameras that were all over his childhood home. He also spent his childhood staring at and worrying about a signal flame that would go out if its keeper got Raptured, letting everyone else know that they were sinners who had been left behind.
Potts also grew up hearing about how awful homosexuals were from his own parents and, as you can imagine, tried as hard as he could to be straight. He married and had kids, and tried for years to fight who he was. He told Rosie about the relief and fears he felt when he finally came out.
While his relationship with his kids is good, Potts shared the sad news that his parents still won’t accept him. "They’ve never said a good thing about a homosexual person in their lives," he explains. His ex-wife told his parents that he was gay during their divorce, and then Potts didn’t see his parents until his grandmother died. He says he still only sees them at funerals, and that his own mother told an audience of 4,000 at a funeral that gays are going to hell.
Potts also mentioned how much his parents’ prejudice affects his kids. He talked about a heartbreaking moment when he heard his kids tell their friends that their "grandparents don’t love them," and had to explain that the distance wasn’t about them: "It’s complicated, but it’s not against you guys."
While Potts says his parents are not "horrible people at all," explaining that they themselves were raised to believe that gay people are almost demonic, he also doesn’t seem to be shielding them. Potts had an uncle who committed suicide because he was gay, and recounted a conversation in which he confronted his mother about how preaching against a group of people does real damage:
"This is why your brother killed himself. This is why your two sons aren’t close to you… There are kids out there… Your message is killing them."
Rosie’s next guest was Nathan Phelps, who left the infamous Phelps clan. The Phelpses are the descendants (and the vast majority of the flock) of the Westboro Baptist Church (or, rather, "church,"), the people you see carrying vile signs at funerals and public events.
Nathan Phelps left at 18, saying he only waited that long because a sister who left at 17 was dragged back, locked in a room, and beaten for months. Nathan said that he grew up being beaten with a barber strap and watching his father beat his mother – and thus grew up thinking that fear and abuse were normal.
Nate Phelps was born into the Westboro Baptist Church, known for their extreme views against homosexuality. Eventually, he realized that he did not share those beliefs and decided to break free from the church. Nate talks about the steps he took toward mental healing after his departure.
Because of his own abuse, Nathan was terrified of being a father himself. He said he was afraid that God would kill the child during his wife’s first pregnancy, and even though his children are grown now, he is always worried about carrying his dad’s ideas with him and accidentally passing them on.
Nathan and Rosie’s discussion of his childhood, his need to apologize for his family, and his ongoing struggle led to a wrenching little exchange:
"Are you able to love yourself now, Nate?"
The members of the Phelps clan who are still in the church are not fans of Nathan. O’Donnell explained that her show’s legal department said the other siblings had to be allowed a rebuttal, and so we were treated to an interview with some of the most unsettling people you’ll ever see, with a longer version available online.
If you don’t want to watch it at all, no one could blame you. But if you’re fascinated with watching the way a group adjusts its story to please and protect each other, or with the micro expressions that cross people’s faces when they seem to think one thing before saying something else, or just with the phenomenon of seeing that something is wrong just by looking into another person’s eyes, the clip will be interesting.
Unpleasant, but interesting.
"This video contains additional material from our interview of members of the Westboro Baptist Church. Fred Phelps’ family members were asked to respond to the allegations made by their brother Nate Phelps. This video contains some offensive language."
So it’s a church that condones "scriptural” physical punishment and says that any deviation from the leader’s rules means you’re going straight to Hell. At what point does the media stop calling it a church and start calling it a cult?
I also think it’s fascinating and sad to see how many times one sibling agrees that they were hit, and another jumps in and says that they were only "spanked." And the way the family pretends to not even know what a barber strap is instead of just saying that they weren’t hit.
Perhaps in a way, it’s a good lesson. As scary and overtly hateful as the Phelps clan are, when you see them, it’s important to remember that they were literally raised with no other ideas. According to Nathan, they were essentially prisoners in an abusive situation. And you don’t need to watch much of that clip to see that they have been warped.
It doesn’t make what they do excusable, but when you see them out trying to spread hate, it might make it a little easier to pity or ignore them instead of hating back.