Central Authority In a Single, Charismatic LeaderThe 83-year-old Fred Phelps is the absolute leader of the WBC, and his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, is being primed as his successor. He is unquestionable, although he is not seen as a prophet or divine incarnation as many cult leaders are.
Control Over Life and Death
So far, no one has killed or died in the name of the WBC. The mission of the WBC appears primarily evangelical in nature, not violent.
Defectors who grew up inside the WBC have reported having their lives threatened when they were disobedient, and they report physical abuse. Members of the WBC deny such charges.
Commission of FeloniesFred Phelps is a lawyer and is highly versed in laws addressing religious practices, civil protests, and other topics relevant to his group's activities. As such, they take meticulous care to not break the law. Many accuse them of attempting to incite others to break the law in order to allow the WBC to sue them.
Strict Control Over Lives of MembersMembers of the WBC are held to very strict standards about all aspects of life, including things like personal appearance. Ear piercing and professional hairstyling are forbidden, for example, as is a variety of cultural activities such as attending secular musical performances.
Separation From Contacts Outside the Group
The WBC is primarily composed of members of the extended Phelps family, and they limit contact with outsiders. Defectors report not being able to socialize with other children growing up.
Those who leave the WBC are completely cut off, unable to retain any sort of relationship with family members that still operated within the WBC.
Polarized WorldviewThe WBC has an incredibly highly polarized worldview, believing the vast majority of people are condemned to hell, including absolutely everyone who disagrees with them, including family members who have defected. They see themselves as representatives of God waging spiritual war on a culture that freely embraces sin.
Living in Communal IsolationThe WBC does not operate a commune.
Large Required DonationsThe WBC is funded through the donations of members. However, expenditures remain focused on the core concepts of the church such as traveling to protest locations, rather than enriching the leader, as sometimes happens in cults. Still, defectors tell of having almost nothing to their name at the time of their leaving.
Conformity: Subjection of Individual Desires and ThoughtsThe war against sin requires constant vigilance in forwarding the goals of the church, which must take precedence over individual wants, which are comparatively selfish. Dissension in the ranks is not acceptable.
Punishment for Defection or CriticismDefectors are absolutely shunned. In addition, members have been raised with the expectation of terrible things happening to them should they leave the path of the righteous, including condemnation to hell. This message was repeated so often that when Fred's son Mark defected, he expected to wake up the next day in hell.
Group Is SmallThe WBC only has 40-50 people in it, and, because most are related, a great any of them have been raised within the WBC their entire lives. This makes it easier for a leader to assume complete control over such a small number of people who have been under his leadership since they were impressionable children.
The WBC lacks some of the most dramatic elements of dangerous cults. No member has turned up dead, for example, nor are they stockpiling weapons or preaching preparation for an actual, physical war. Furthermore, they are not engaging in illegal activity.
However, the amount of extreme subjugation and conformity expected of members, along with how such conformity is enforced, makes the description of "cult" not unreasonable here. It's important to remember that considering this a cult should have more to do with the dynamics of the group than the hate preaching that has made them infamous.