When Andrée Seu wrote that Glenn Beck is a “new creation in Christ,” despite the fact that he is a “Mormon and all that,” conservative evangelicals responded in an uproar that led to hasty apologies and rebuttals from World Magazine.

I might leave well-enough alone, as I belligerently try to ignore Beck as much as I possibly can.  He’s either an idiot or a genius, but either way I am not masochist enough to watch him frequently.

(Am I sorry for offending both Mere-O readers that take the man seriously?  No.)

But as they so often have done, Patrol Magazine offered an insightful and contrarian take on the evangelical response to Seu’s piece, which I think merits a brief response.

We would have been heartened to see a robust reaction to Seu’s ongoing adulation of Beck on WORLD‘s website, or to Christians’ embrace of Beck in general, but this display instead demonstrated conservative evangelicals at their worst. Rather than articulate the most urgent reason Beck is a figure from whom Christians should keep their distance—his political demagoguery—these bloggers and writers engaged in a petty debate about Beck’s personal salvation. Their objection is not that Beck feeds citizen unrest with trumped-up, conspiratorial bedtime stories of socialism and liberation theology (and makes obscene profits doing so), but that he might have prayed the Mormon equivalent of the Sinner’s Prayer instead of their own.

Count me in agreement that we should reject the sordid aspects of Beck’s platform in addition to his errant theology.  But the notion that the repudiation of Beck’s Mormonism was “conservative evangelicals at their worst” is a surprisingly strong claim.

To start, their editorial responds to Kevin DeYoung and Justin Taylor, both of whom only occasionally write about politics. The demand that they approach Beck politically simply misunderstands what they are about as thinkers.  Even more surprisingly, it amounts to asking two trained theologians to weigh in on the merits of Beck’s political case, which Patrol (rightly?) claims amounts to ” cherry-picked historycarefully edited footage, incoherent philosophical synthesis, and dishonest attacks on the President.”  If DeYoung and Taylor can’t be excused for focusing their attention on the theological dimensions of Beck’s platform, and leave the political to those who are more qualified, then none of us should say much of anything at all.*

And yet it is precisely the theological that Patrol wants to push aside, as it amounts to nothing more than “a petty debate about Beck’s personal salvation” and a Christianism that is rife with “rigid certainty, dripping condescension, charts and graphs of who is in and who is out.”  There is something approaching the privatization of Christian belief here.  Justin Taylor’s post pointed to a number of resources about the public  nature of Christianity’s truth-claims, and didn’t mention Beck’s own personal beliefs until the end, and only then as an example of the different levels of belief.  In that sense, the debate isn’t about whether Glenn Beck himself is “in or out.”   Rather, the question is whether the church can draw any sort of line at all, and if so, where?

As Taylor points out later, and as David Sessions graciously mentions, the heart of the debate is the Americolatry that is at the heart of civil religion.  After all, it is civil religion precisely because it is a debased patriotism that confuses the reality of the state with the claims of Christ’s Lordship.

Rejecting civil religion is all the rage these days, and for lots of good reasons.  But once it’s gone, what do we replace it with?

Readers know my own preferred answer to the question.  (It’s a project, I think, that would keep the best elements of classical political liberalism.)  But Patrol will have none of that.  Not only do they reject civil religion, but they have simultaneously rejected “Christianism,” which I take to mean the desire to let Christianity govern our politics as much as our spirituality.

The end result of their rejection is precisely what their editorial points toward:  the marginalization of theology and its role in our public discourse, a marginalization that inevitably neuters the public witness of the church by  demanding that it conform to secular standards of discourse, standards which are overtly hostile to it.  The only thing that can match the power of the state is the church, but it’s precisely when the church wishes to be the church and offer a properly theological response to a public figure that Patrol demands they stay silent.

In that sense, evangelicals cannot win with Patrol.  Theirs is a political witness which must conform to secularism and the civil religion that is at the heart of it, without actually adopting civil religion.  David Sessions says in a later post, “Binding up U.S. politics with religion is bound to corrupt faith regardless of whether a Mormon or an evangelical Christian is doing it.”  Except that’s not quite right.  It’s precisely because evangelicals haven’t held on to the reality of the Gospel that they have fallen prey to civil religion, and drawing lines around the Gospel is at the heart of helping evangelicals avoid the secularization that seems to be implicit in Patrol’s critique.

I’ll close where Patrol does:  “Now more than ever, it is paramount that people of faith work to diffuse enmity, to meet fear with firm grace—especially in the public square. Glenn Beck’s words and actions exemplify the antithesis of that duty. And as ridiculous as it is for Christians to be debating his salvation on the internet, it is even more alarming that they are listening to him at all.

Patrol is unequivocally right that people of faith need to diffuse enmity.  But pointing out our theological differences with Mormonism is at the heart of reminding evangelicals of the reality and shape of the grace by which we do that.  Otherwise, grace is an empty concept that means nothing more than the secular, liberal niceties that are at the heart of making civil religion go round, rather than the public demonstration of the reality of God’s existence and character which he demonstrated to the world in his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

*By way of an aside, Patrol misses Taylor’s positive words for Al Mohler’s take-down of Beck’s idiosyncratic views about the “social gospel,” a point that suggests his problem with Beck runs deeper than simply his personal salvation.*

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

19 Comments

  1. This is an excellent summation of a complex discourse – thanks for the post!

    Reply

  2. >> As Taylor points out later, and as David Sessions graciously mentions, the heart of the debate is the Americolatry that is at the heart of civil religion. After all, it is civil religion precisely because it is a debased patriotism that confuses the reality of the state with the claims of Christ’s Lordship.

    I’m lost. Are you now in the civil religion is a cheap counterfeit and replacement for true religion, and out of the civil religion is the moral and spiritual foundation essential for any society camp now?

    And Ireland’s comment on “Americolatry” reveals more than he knows. “*This kind* of idolatry is very alluring and dangerous for Christians. Got that?

    “This kind” of idolatry is dangerous, more so than the run of the mill idolatry, yes sir. This is pretty comical in this day and age when no one has any heroes and few know much American history at all. People put their faith in politicians, but no more than in their professors, employers, judges, spouses, and other human or institutional actors in life. I think most often a good bit less. That also “confuses the Christ’s Lordship with fill_in_the_blank. But it is patriotism where people get so confused and it is more dangerous you see.

    For every one that confuses his nation for Christ’s Lordship (really?) there are at least hundreds that can’t wait to apologize for a right and proper patriotism. I’ll never forget when I went to a 9/11 memorial in 2002 and I was highly embarrassed by the condescending and preachy “we don’t worship our country” talk by the pastor and worship leader (Biola MAs all) that I thought would never end and then went right into an altar call. This was my church -I was shocked. It felt very cheap and wrong and I was was very thankful I didn’t take a non-Christian friend, as I almost did. I thought memorial services were to remember the dead -but they didn’t even do that. I swore I’d only go to military ceremonies for memorials of public events after that -they know how to do it right, and you don’t feel cheap and used after it’s over.

    The takeaway for me was that people that live out their patriotism by service and put their lives into it (and even risk their lives) know more about patriotism than those who don’t, and every day (and memorial service) since then only convinces me more.

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  3. “I’m lost. Are you now in the civil religion is a cheap counterfeit and replacement for true religion, and out of the civil religion is the moral and spiritual foundation essential for any society camp now?”

    I’m lost. Did I ever give the indication I affirmed civil religion?

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  4. I’m not really sure what you mean by “affirmed”, so let me back up and ask what you take civil religion to be?

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  5. Mark,

    Good question. As I said in my post, “a debased patriotism that confuses the reality of the state with the claims of Christ’s Lordship.”

    Best,

    Matt

    Reply

  6. Yeah not many people would affirm that. :) Satan and Stalin perhaps. I see it closer to the original meaning -as the moral and spiritual foundation essential for any society.

    I think without the concept of Common Grace that the term might be incoherent to a Christian. If Common Grace is a real thing, then I think there needs to be some term to identify the overlap between Common Grace and the grace present to God’t followers in a culture, sometimes called “special” or “saving” grace. What is the nature of the overlap that Common Grace presumes?

    If civil religion is corrupted religion for you, then what term would you use to describe the effects of Common Grace that may be present to a culture to the extent that it has the “salt” of Christians within it?

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  7. Mark,

    Christendom is the effect of Christian’s activity within a culture, not civil religion.

    Matt

    Reply

  8. >> Christendom is the effect of Christian’s activity within a culture, not civil religion.

    Really? Isn’t that an idiosyncratic view? You mean to say the overlap that common grace presumes by its very name is Christendom? That seems incoherent.

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  9. Yes, really. I encourage you to search “Christendom” and read the archives.

    Common grace is your language, not mine. I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly endorsed it, and am undecided on what role (if any) it plays in political theology. At a minimum, I’m convinced it’s not a static concept, but is something that is actively promoted and encouraged by the church. I may write something about this in the near future.

    Best,

    Matt

    Reply

  10. >> Common grace is your language

    No, it is a very old term with a long history. You don’t need to buy into it, but acting like it is my idea is ridiculous. But with no common language on what civil religion or common grace mean -or even the concepts they stand for (whether one endorses them or not) I don’t know what good blogging on the subject could possibly do except try to clarify it. Instead we have discussion *as if* there were a common language and framework when there isn’t.

    So what we have is what I said in the beginning -an environment (this blog) where the term civil religion has no clear meaning but people are arguing about it (it’s good! -no it’s bad!) anyway. So I’d recommend ditching the term and going with descriptions since the term has baggage that you are playing off of in a manner that can only confuse.

    And what’s with the “search the archives” stuff? You’re always advising me on how I misunderstand blogs, well take my advice -use links if you’ve already said something I should know. It isn’t that hard. ;-) That’s the way it’s normally done.

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  11. By a “long history” I am referring to the Reformation of course.

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  12. I think Andrew did an admirable job of describing a minimal understanding of what civil religion might be, but about no one else I’ve seen.

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  13. “No, it is a very old term with a long history.”

    Within the conversation, the language was yours. When you write, “…what term would you use to describe the effects of Common Grace that may be present to a culture to the extent that it has the “salt” of Christians within it?” I didn’t imply you made the language up. I am simply saying that your question seems to be implying a premise that I may or may not accept (namely, the existence of a particular notion of common grace).

    “So what we have is what I said in the beginning -an environment (this blog) where the term civil religion has no clear meaning but people are arguing about it (it’s good! -no it’s bad!) anyway.”

    I gave the term a clear meaning in my post. We can disagree over whether anyone affirms the meaning I gave it. We can disagree over whether that’s what civil religion actually is, or whether anyone actually affirms it, but I think the meaning I gave is pretty clear.

    “And what’s with the “search the archives” stuff? You’re always advising me on how I misunderstand blogs, well take my advice -use links if you’ve already said something I should know. It isn’t that hard. That’s the way it’s normally done.”

    I don’t know what to tell you. I DID link to my own post where I wrote, “Readers know my own preferred answer to the question.” Read what I linked. Beyond that, search the archives. That’s easy too. I don’t mean to be snarky. But that’s twice in this comment thread that you’ve asked me about things that have required me quoting myself…which doesn’t inspire confidence that you read it closely.

    Best,

    Matt

    Reply

  14. Ok, fair enough. You’re right you linked your post on Christendom. My bad. So I just went a searched the archives and read this https://mereorthodoxy.com/?p=2255 but it seems to me the statement “I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly endorsed it (common grace)” sounds pretty ad hoc. Not endorsing it is one thing, but from what you are saying now it seems like a strange omission from that review.

    Well I should move on shortly and stop bothering you. I can’t really accept such an ahistorical understanding of terms like this. I have trouble with using terms without any reference to their historical meanings. Using Christendom as an effect is idiosyncratic and a Churchill wouldh’t even recognize it. There isn’t a lot of common ground for me without history and the ability to communicate with the non-religious world on issues of culture. Though I know you don’t take yourself to be doing it, that’s what it looks like to me.

    Radical shifts in terms that are always in flux and defensive Al Goresque statements make me uncomfortable.

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  15. Mark,

    Thanks for pointing that out to me. I had actually forgotten (it happens, you know) that I had interacted with Belcher on that point. So let me say what I know think: I am undecided about how common grace fits in to our political theology. But I frankly don’t quite understand what it has to do with the above post (nor have you yet clarified), as my post is about civil religion–which on ANY account is a conceptually different thing than common grace. We might affirm, for instance, common grace with respect to epistemology and culture, but reject civil religion (which has its historic roots in Rousseau, BTW) politically. So frankly, your points about common grace in this context so confusing that I was trying to deflect them altogether.

    “Using Christendom as an effect is idiosyncratic and a Churchill wouldh’t even recognize it.”

    Heh. I’d encourage you to read Oliver O’Donovan’s *Desire of the Nations.* You can decide for yourself whether my use of the term is “idiosyncratic” or ahistorical. Or Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity, which strikes a similar theme.

    Best,

    Matt

    Reply

  16. >> I am undecided about how common grace fits in to our political theology. But I frankly don’t quite understand what it has to do with the above post (nor have you yet clarified), as my post is about civil religion–which on ANY account is a conceptually different thing than common grace. We might affirm, for instance, common grace with respect to epistemology and culture, but reject civil religion (which has its historic roots in Rousseau, BTW) politically. So frankly, your points about common grace in this context so confusing that I was trying to deflect them altogether.

    I understand. Well I agree that the two are conceptually distinct, but I think they are related and I suppose to some extent that what one thinks about one influences what one thinks about the other your accept/reject scenario notwithstanding-I’m doubtful one can separate the items you mention clearly at all. By way of example, I (and many) think one’s metaphysics affects one’s ethics and moral outlook, but these things are conceptually distinct.

    I suppose that Common Grace has a societal and governmental outworking, among others (no least because Common Grace has a religious realm in the broad sense to include those professing Christians that in fact aren’t that are known but to God). So I think it was wise (if I do say so) to find out what you think about CG and I’m puzzled that you find it puzzling that I’d want to know. In fact I think it helped a great deal to understand what you’ve said about your view on it, and I happen to think that we’ve gone as far as we can go in discussing it in light of that. I’m not claiming to understand your view of course, but if we can’t agree on such minimal claims as I’ve made about Common Grace I’m skeptical in the value of discussion on either CG, CW, or now I guess Christendom. No shame in that, but I’m just saying.

    I put it Desire of the Nations on hold in the library just now. I actually read books people recommend, and I don’t recommend books lightly in case others do too. I’ll read it but one book and you does not make a common understanding make.

    I was aware that Roussou coined the term civil religion, BTW.

    Reply

  17. “I was aware that Roussou coined the term civil religion, BTW.”

    I figured. But given how you’ve asserted that I’m tossing around terms ahistorically, I thought I should point out that I was aware of it too. : )

    But about the relationship between CR and CG, it’s odd to me that you think they can’t be separated when historically they come from two very different schools of thought with two very different motivations. I’d be curious to know what you make of Joe’s take on CR: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/09/under-which-god/joe-carter

    “I’ll read it but one book and you does not make a common understanding make.”

    I don’t understand the “and you” here.

    Matt

    Reply

  18. >> But about the relationship between CR and CG, it’s odd to me that you think they can’t be separated when historically they come from two very different schools of thought with two very different motivations.

    Common Grace was not conceived in the Reformation, any more the a church council created the Trinity, it was merely formalized. I would think without Common Grace religion would not be possible, let alone civil religion.

    >> I’d be curious to know what you make of Joe’s take on CR: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/09/under-which-god/joe-carter

    I think Carter’s article is an embarrassment. As I read it Carter’s argument amounts to this:

    Premise 1) He rejects a “generic God”.
    Premise 2) He claims “we” can’t claim this God is the Christian God “in part” because SCOTUS says we can’t, and never tells us what the other reasons might be.
    Premise 3) He claims “under God” can’t refer to the Christian God because of how it is perceived by the public.

    Conclusion: “There is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between America’s civil religion and Christianity” and “civil religion lets all beliefs submit themselves to one nondescript, fill-in-the-blank term for this deist entity. We are asked to leave Christ outside the public square and bow before the god of Ceremonial Deism at its center.”

    It’s an almost stupefyingly bad argument, and egregiously commits the genetic fallacy in constantly referring to Rousseau’s schemes.

    As an aside, he seems not to know that “under God” in the pledge of allegiance was inserted in 1954 at the suggestion of George Docherty in a sermon Eisenhower heard that the pledge needed a differentiator during the Cold War to make sure the pledge would be something a Soviet couldn’t utter, rather than part of any deeper plan to “restrict such sentiments” about God. I’m not committing the genetic fallacy by saying this is dispositive in any way, but he brought it up. See “The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism”. But I digress.

    Ok, so Carter says “What *we* don’t allow is the recognition of the Christian God. And that is what should give Christians pause.” and that “We can’t claim this *in part* (and he never mentions the other parts) because the Supreme Court has made it clear that it is the Christian conception of God that is being rejected in our national references.”

    1) Since when is SCOTUS = “we”? So “we” can’t claim something that SCOTUS does not recognize? Does SCOTUS legitimately speak for the citizens? These decisions were misguided, and are subject to change. And how can he claim to tell us much of anything useful on the relationship between civil and religious spheres when he confuses the two like that? Who is confusing authority here? Joe? Yep. This is neither how things are, nor how they should be, just how SCOTUS says they are at the moment.

    2) Carter again cites Rousseau his claim that this “division between religion and the state made all good polity impossible in Christian States; and men have never succeeded in finding out whether they were bound to obey the master or the priest.”

    Does Carter seriously think that “division between religion and the state” described by Rousseau was not always present in every culture that has ever existed? If he thinks that it is absurd. You don’t think it has to do with … oh I don’t know … maybe … sinful idolatry in man that has been present from the beginning and is in all nations? Just and idea I’m throwing out.

    Why did Christ say “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”? Because the Pharisees asked. Why did they ask? To try to trick him because the distinction and separation of the two realms of the civil and religious was a highly contentious issue -it always has been. It always will be. The same is true of false religion. See the Falun Gong in China. What claims does a state legitimately have on man, and what does it not?

    This question never will be resolved satisfactorily this side of heaven. What did the Rousseau add to this, or the Romans? Nothing. It is as it has ever been. There is nothing resembling a valid argument in Carter’s article. I think his complaint that public declarations of “God” generally are too generic is naive and silly.

    But you know what bothers me about all this generally? So we’ve blown past the following terms with little agreement if any on them as shared terms – Common Grace, civil religion, and Christendom. Well easy come, and easy go, right? Well not so fast. I’m amazed that term “religion” is still standing. In fact I’m not sure it is. If we can’t come to any minimal understanding on the first three, I’m doubtful there is any shared meaning of “religion” left. There are public and private aspects of that of course, and I am reminded in all this of the bitter denunciations of “religion” by many of the more stridently pietistic denominations. What a neat and easy solution that is! Religion? Oh we don’t have a religion, we have personal faith in Christ -religion is bad you see. We avoid all that messy stuff. Yeah right, as if that is possible. Likewise, we have those who think some thing they call “civil religion” is bad, and some who think that is naive and a dodge (that would be me). What is the difference between those who say “Civil religion is bad” and those who say “Religion is bad”? Aren’t they both some sort of Platonist third realm humbug that can’t handle the religious life on a sinful Earth and try to slice away the parts that make them uncomfortable in practice by theoretic constructs so as not to pollute their clean private conceptions of what religion should be?

    For the life of me I can see how one can waste perfectly serviceable terms like Common Grace, civil religion, Christendom and still talk about “religion” as if we’re all on the same page. We’re not. I’d love to assign some of you the task of writing a paper titled “What is religion” and then having each other grade it. I was given that assignment once. It’s tough.

    Reply

  19. Mark,

    “I would think without Common Grace religion would not be possible, let alone civil religion.”

    So now you’re using the term ahistorically, right? By pointing to the actual substance of the term, and not it’s historical development? Sorry, I’m just trying to keep how we’re using the terms straight, since you seem to be choosing rather arbitrarily when we have to point to its historical roots and when we can reject them and point to the substances to which they refer.

    If I’m reading you right, you think that Joe’s historical explanation of the term amounts to a “genetic fallacy,” but yet you critique everyone else for not using terms historically.

    1) “Since when is SCOTUS = “we”? So “we” can’t claim something that SCOTUS does not recognize? Does SCOTUS legitimately speak for the citizens?”

    Well, it’s odd that you would reject the government’s interpretation of its own symbols, despite the fact that the government represents you. Do you really think that “under God” refers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Talk about ahistorical claims…

    2) “Does Carter seriously think that “division between religion and the state” described by Rousseau was not always present in every culture that has ever existed? If he thinks that it is absurd. You don’t think it has to do with … oh I don’t know … maybe … sinful idolatry in man that has been present from the beginning and is in all nations? Just and idea I’m throwing out.”

    Well, no, I doubt he does think that the division between religion and the state existed in particularly the Roman empire (since that’s the example he mentions). And it’s hardly absurd. In fact, I think your claim that religion and the state have always been distinct is astonishingly ignorant (since you’ve upped the ante on the rhetoric). Look at the Old Testament, where they are inextricable. Look at the Roman Empire, where sacrifice served a political function. The point of Christianity (thanks, Augustine) is that religion and the state are, in fact, distinct.

    “This question never will be resolved satisfactorily this side of heaven. What did the Rousseau add to this, or the Romans? Nothing. It is as it has ever been. There is nothing resembling a valid argument in Carter’s article. I think his complaint that public declarations of “God” generally are too generic is naive and silly.”

    To say that Romans added nothing to “this [separation of church and state]” is befuddling.

    Again, Joe is pointing toward the historical roots of the term civil religion. Your point about the relationship between the two spheres is a non-sequitur. Just because Joe rejects one particular conception of how the two spheres intersect (namely, civil religion) doesn’t mean he’s naive about the problem (which seems to be your argument, such as it is). Rousseau’s point about the distinction can’t be separated from his abstract divinity that he sets up to make the state go.

    “There are public and private aspects of that of course, and I am reminded in all this of the bitter denunciations of “religion” by many of the more stridently pietistic denominations. What a neat and easy solution that is! Religion? Oh we don’t have a religion, we have personal faith in Christ -religion is bad you see. We avoid all that messy stuff. Yeah right, as if that is possible. Likewise, we have those who think some thing they call “civil religion” is bad, and some who think that is naive and a dodge (that would be me). What is the difference between those who say “Civil religion is bad” and those who say “Religion is bad”? Aren’t they both some sort of Platonist third realm humbug that can’t handle the religious life on a sinful Earth and try to slice away the parts that make them uncomfortable in practice by theoretic constructs so as not to pollute their clean private conceptions of what religion should be?”

    Who are you talking to here? Yourself? I mean the question seriously. Why would you presume I think anything like that? It’s fun to create artificial positions that you can then rant about how crazy they are, but if you want to do that, I suggest starting a blog and writing to yourself, for yourself. I don’t think I’ve imposed views on you and ranted against them, and I’d appreciate you not doing the same to me. Thanks.

    “For the life of me I can see how one can waste perfectly serviceable terms like Common Grace, civil religion, Christendom and still talk about “religion” as if we’re all on the same page. We’re not. I’d love to assign some of you the task of writing a paper titled “What is religion” and then having each other grade it. I was given that assignment once. It’s tough.

    I think it’s amusing that you think we’re wasting those terms when we disagree over what they refer to and how they fit with Christianity. Especially Christendom. I guess if I can write dozens of posts defending Christendom and be accused of wasting it, then I suppose I really am hopeless indeed.

    Best,

    Matt

    Reply

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