Monday 22 January 2018

Programme of the week: Louis Theroux: America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis

Sunday, BBC2, 9pm

Paul Whitington

Despite his slightly diffident manner and deceptively easygoing charm, Louis Theroux is surely one of the bravest broadcasters going the roads.

Since rising to prominence in the late 1990s, he has embedded himself in the most bizarre and dangerous situations around the world, and emerged unscathed.

One of the more fascinating of his documentaries was 'The Most Hated Family in America', first broadcast on BBC2 back in 2007. In it, Theroux went to Topeka, Kansas, to meet the family at the core of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church.

Led by a bizarre Bible-thumper called Fred Phelps, the church is so virulently anti-homosexual that it believes God is punishing the US for tolerating it. Phelps and his acolytes have become famous for attending the funerals of US soldiers killed overseas carrying banners saying 'God hates fags' and 'thank God for dead soldiers', the idea being that the good lord is killing them.

In fairness to Phelps and his 80 or so followers, they don't just restrict themselves to hating homosexuals. Also on their long list of undesirables are Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Canadians, Swedes and the Irish. Not surprisingly, their antics have earned them the unenviable reputation as the most hated group in America.

In this new film, Louis returns to the Westboro Baptists to see how they're getting on, and there are signs of disarray in the Phelps clan. A series of defections of family members has shaken up the church, they've been at the centre of a landmark Supreme Court case, and their beliefs have become increasingly bizarre.

In 'America's Most Hated Family In Crisis', Louis is once again granted a behind-the-scenes look at the group as it gears up for what it sees as the final showdown with doomed America. Louis explores their strange new belief that Obama is the 'Beast' spoken of in the 'Book Of Revelation', and their conviction that we will shortly be treated to the second coming of Christ.

But the church members have seen Theroux's original documentary and, as a result, they now revile him as one of the most evil men in all human history, alleging that he is on a par with Pontius Pilate for his supposed mockery of true Christianity. But the church members also see the spreading of their message as a necessary part of the church's out-reach, even if it means spending time with an unbeliever.

During the show, Louis also tracks down two of the departed members -- young women, both of whom he had interviewed in the first film. He probes the parents of the apostates, who have 'cut off' their renegade daughters, and now affect a strange and chilling indifference to the separation.

Louis gets under the skin of the church members, showing the human cost of living as part of an extreme religious group, the secret pain of parents who have turned their back on their children and the forbidden yearnings of the younger female devotees.

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