Across the country, celebrations spilled into the streets — at the gates of the White House, at Ground Zero, on college campuses. President Barack Obama had just announced that U.S. Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden.
Steve Drain watched the revelry on the 60-inch flat-screen TV hanging on his living-room wall. Drain, a devout member of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church, says CNN showed him nothing but hypocrites. The Americans celebrating bin Laden's death were the same people who condemn Westboro members for picketing at the funerals of U.S. soldiers.
"These people call us hypocrites and vile and everything, and they're out there last night whooping and hollering and drinking and having a big-time party about the prospect of Osama bin Laden being in hell," Drain says. "Well, he is in hell. He's dead and in hell, and we thank God for that judgment. But we thank God for all of his judgments."
And so Drain also thanks God for dead soldiers. And the victims of 9/11. And the 200-plus people killed by tornadoes in Alabama. And pretty much anyone who doesn't worship with Westboro.
"They're all in hell," Drain says.
Drain and the other members of the Westboro Baptist Church believe that they are the only people living in accordance with God's standard. They've gained international infamy for waving "God hates" signs at the funerals of U.S. soldiers. They claim that God is punishing America for its acceptance of homosexuality, abortion and divorce. Drain has already designed an "Osama in hell" sign, featuring the terrorist leader's face and flames, which he'll hold high a few days from now at a soldier's funeral in Manning, Iowa — a state where Drain says the people are "batshit crazy."
The sign is visible on a computer screen in Drain's home office, where he edits video and lays out picket graphics as part of his service to the church. Drain's 19-year-old daughter, Taylor, a soft-spoken, olive-skinned girl with long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, is here with him, doing homework.
Drain reclines on the black-leather sofa in his living room, where a handful of religious books (Elijah, Hebrews, The Flood) share space with Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, a Wii and some PlayStation 3 games. He doesn't really look like one of "God's elect." His red beard is scruffy, but his strawberry-blond hair is styled and short. He favors blue jeans and often wears a black fleece vest over a T-shirt. His Oakley sunglasses rest on the cushion next to him, along with two cell phones, which ring repeatedly with calls from other church members and reporters. He takes a break to rail on Charlie Daniels. He sarcastically calls the singer, known for "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," a "great theologian" while talking to a reporter from Branson.
A decade ago, Drain was a 35-year-old aspiring filmmaker from Florida who wanted to shoot a documentary showing that Fred Phelps and his church were, he says, "full of crap." He became a believer. Now he and his wife and one of their daughters are the only members of the church not related to Phelps by blood or marriage.
The fags were marching on Washington," Shirley Phelps-Roper, Fred Phelps' daughter, says of the first time she met Drain. The word fag comes out of her mouth easily and often in conversation.
Westboro was in the nation's capital in April 2000 to picket the Equality Rocks concert, where Garth Brooks, George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys headlined.
Drain's documentary, which he would later call Hatemongers, led him to Washington, D.C., to film the protest. He first had the idea as a grad student in philosophy at the University of Kansas in the 1990s, after stumbling across a Westboro picket at Lawrence's City Hall. He wanted to know more. Several years later, Drain contacted Phelps-Roper, who told him: "We're always willing to talk to anyone."