West Baptist Church – Convergence Theory, Conformity And Charismatic Groups

Since June of 1991, located in Kansas, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has been conducting religious demonstrations. A movement founded on Old School Baptist principles, the church has been condemned by the Baptist Church and other Christian organizations alike. Identified as an alt-right conservative movement, followers of this church are commonly viewed as homophobic, transphobic, anti-American and anti-Semitic. They have been known to demonstrate at funerals of veterans and HIV/ AIDS victims. Westboro Baptist Church is frequently identified as a “new religious movement,” or “cult.”

Convergence theory is the examination of collective behaviour in which individuals with similar wants, attitudes, objectives, or personalities gather together to create mobs, social movements, and other kinds of mass action. Marc Galanter theorizes similarly to study religious movements and cults determining “charismatic groups develop uniformity among members through similar belief systems, social cohesion, behavioural standards, 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 as “old school Baptists,” arguing that while people typically (more aptly) refer to them as  “hyper-Calvinistic,” they aren’t. They follow John Calvin, a French theologian and believe God elects a few select people to heaven while the rest of humankind is destined to spend forever in hell. Foundationally, their beliefs are formed that humanity is doomed because of Adam eating the apple while in Eden, humanity’s first sin. In this respect, they are defined as radical because in contradiction to most Christian churches and organizations, WBC believe membership to their Church (not any other) can be the only avoidance to Hell because God doesn’t pardon sinners and their sins.

Westboro Baptist Church’s core conviction is that God is punishing America for embracing homosexuality so readily. Evident in their famed “God hates fags” slogan, which is the URL to their website, features heavily in sermons, pasted on signs at demonstrations including rallies at funerals for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and war veterans. Furthermore, followers blame homosexuality as the cause of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing deaths of American soldiers in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that only the fittest survive. Most major faiths in the modern day have adapted to accept people of the LGBTQIA+ community or quietly present disapproval, but extremist ideals go against this. Individuals that share similar ideals may believe WBC is the only place that provides them a safe space from perceived religious persecution. Since these convictions are so severe, followers may feel comfort and conformity in sharing these beliefs with others like them. Exacerbated by widespread public opposition to the WBC (Barrett-Fox, 2016). Establishing division between “us” (WBC) and “them” (non-followers), increasing group compliance and conformity in collective group behaviours and beliefs.

Because these ideals are so diametrically opposed to other Christian doctrines, followers of WBC are coming together to raise their collective voice. Rallies of theirs are intended to warn Americans of their impending doom, and they think that by fostering a strong feeling of togetherness and cohesiveness, they may foster more acceptance in society.

If these members did not gather, the WBC’s radical demonstrations would be unlikely to occur. The radicalized, extreme and uncommon nature of these beliefs mean WBC acts with a high level of social cohesion. Members in discussions with media speak similarly as if quoting a doctrine, promoting their radicalized views with no remorse or disdain.

Appearing to share the ideals of founder Fred Phelps, during their demonstrations showing a unified front while displaying and spouting hate speech. No member is isolated on a belief or action. As Darley et al outlines, “When people are a part of a group, they tend to extend this to having the group generate their feelings and emotions that a part of that cult’s identity. The bigger the group, the greater the facility of changing mindsets and swaying emotions” (Darley, John M., and Bibb Latane. 1968. “Bystander Intervention In Emergencies: Diffusion Of Responsibility.”)

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

Social cohesion like this increases the expectation for conformity to the beliefs, practices and teachings of WBC. As individuals, they seek validation from the collective, not wanting to feel isolated in their views.

The WBC’s behavioural norms are quite visible, in opposition to the behavioural norms of other “new religious movements,” which less is known about as they are more private and ritualistic. Any ritualistic behaviour, on the other hand, may be regarded a behavioural norm 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 creation in 1991, WBC has claimed to have conducted 69,000 protests, often having multiple protests daily. Actions like this mimic ritualistic behaviour known of cults. Cialdini et al, describe compliance as a “social influence process that involves modifying behavior in response to a direct request, “ in this case modifying one’s behaviour to respond to the call for protest (Cialdini, Robert B., and Noah J. Goldstein. 2004. “Social Influence: Compliance And Conformity”). Non-attendance at one of the group’s protests would allow for expulsion from the church.

The group claims to have protested more than 40,000 times since 1991 – and regularly schedule multiple protests per day. This sort of behaviour, when carried out this frequently, mimics the ritualistic activities of many known cults. Every member of the Church attends these protests, as refusing to do so would result in expulsion from the group. The group claims to have protested more than 40,000 times since 1991 – and regularly schedule multiple protests per day. 

Hateful demonstrations against homosexuality have established a behavioural standard within the WBC. Rigorous individuals’ adherence to these daily rituals fosters uniformity within the group, while dismissing non-compliant members ensures that these behavioural norms are strictly followed.

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

Lack of new recruits stems from the foundational belief that offences are unforgivable and that no amount of repentance would spare you from eternal damnation. As a result, the members born into WBC living “sin-free lives”,  can escape Hell, becoming the select few to enter paradise. Child bearing is the only reason the church has continued to grow since its inception.

This isn’t to suggest that Phelps didn’t have charisma. Nine of his thirteen children remained devout Church members, while the other four became alienated. These alienated children have contacted the other family members, alerting them about their distorted religious views. Mainly they were unsuccessful in persuading family members, implying that Phelps and the other family elders have sufficient persuasion and charisma to maintain a following. This suggests that charisma is a necessary skill to instill in obedient members.

To foster conformity among its members, the WBC employs its members’ shared anti-gay convictions, its vile script and coordinated acts, ritualised demonstrations, and the charisma of its founder. The Westboro Baptist Church is well-known as a hate organisation, but when compared to Galanter’s definition of cults and convergence theory, it appears that the Church can be classified as a cult.


“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: University Press of Kansas

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

Nationalism, and the Religious Right. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas

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

Bouwsma, William. 1989. “Explaining John Calvin”. The 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: Compliance And Conformity”. Annual Review 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.

Galanter, Marc. 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.


Leave a Reply