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Analysis: Fred Phelps’ hateful legacy may be the opposite of all he intended

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On Thursday, Stetzer called for people to do "the opposite of Fred Phelps and love the people that we don’t like — and tell them (or better yet, show them) God loves them, too."

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, a retired Episcopal priest and an editor and writer at Episcopal Cafe website, recalled that delegates to her church’s General Conventions "would have to walk through a gantlet of his people on the way to our meetings. And yet, he did more to move Episcopalians towards gay rights and rites than many. People were sure they did not want to be Freds."

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When the Episcopal Church voted in 2003 to accept its first openly gay bishop, she said, "no one wanted to be seen as agreeing with his views. People who were on the fence about marriage equality and gay priests realized they had to make a decision and many moved on the spectrum toward support."

When openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson was formally installed, Phelps’ band of picketers came out in force, and Robinson wore a bulletproof vest beneath his vestments.

The Rev. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a leading evangelical voice, said, "Phelps was so engaged in denouncing sin that the good news, the grace and mercy of God in Christ, was never made clear in his message."

By making religion appear hateful and intolerant, Phelps served as "an effective agent for the normalization of homosexuality," Mohler said. In fact, LifeWay Research found that Americans who called homosexual behavior "sinful" slid from 48 percent in 2008 to 37 percent by 2012.

"He made it easy for people to point to him and say theological opposition to homosexual behavior was rooted in nothing more than animus and hatred," Mohler said. "He will be held accountable for a massive misrepresentation of the Christian faith, the Christian church and the gospel of Christ. He single-handedly committed incalculable damage by presenting an enormous obstacle to the faithful teaching of the gospel."

Predicting the future for the Phelps franchise is complicated, said University of Kansas religious studies professor Tim Miller, who has tracked Westboro through the years.

"They have one terrible problem in succession," Miller said. "The one very capable, smart, educated, technologically adept person to take over is a woman. Shirley Phelps-Roper is a very effective and capable leader but she told me their theology teaches that women can’t be ministers."

Earlier this year, Phelps-Roper, who represented the church along with her sister, Margie, in the Supreme Court arguments, was reportedly exiled from a leadership role by current Westboro church elders. A church spokesman, Steve Drain, told The Topeka Capital-Journal, "We don’t discuss our internal church dealings with anybody."

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