Postcards from the Protestant decline in America

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There has been a lot of talk over the years about what’s responsible for the decline of Christianity in the US, with much handwringing by Christians over the rise of secularist thought. Personally I place the blame for the decline of Christianity in the US squarely on Christians themselves. In general they’ve preached an unbelievable Christianity, and practiced a hateful religion. They’re reaping what they sowed.

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Some facts might be helpful here.

First, it is generally agreed that the mainline denominations such as Episcopalian, UCC, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. are experiencing the greatest decline. There is evidence of a decline in evangelical church affiliation as well (see the article we are discussing, among many others), but the mainstream churches are the hardest hit.

Second, these mainstream churches, unlike most fundamentalist churches, most pentecostal churches, and many if not most evangelical churches, have in many cases bent over backwards to avoid preaching “an unbelievable Christianity” and practicing “a hateful religion”. They often go out of their way to attack creationism and defend evolution, they liberalize their theology in all kinds of ways, they “pick and choose” which parts of the Bible are still to be obeyed or believed, they often institute formal or informal “affirmative action” policies make sure they have clergy, seminary professors, and denominational bigwigs who are people of color, female, homosexual, etc. Traditional sermons on theological subjects such as predestination or grace or sin have frequently been abandoned for sermons on saving the whales, the dangers of global warming, socialism, “being inclusive”, " etc. Many of the churches, if not nationally, at least in some dioceses, presbyteries, etc., have adopted same-sex blessings or even give full membership to same-sex couples; many of them have pastors who utter expressions such as “Godself” (to avoid saying “himself” in reference to God – naughty sexism!), and many are modifying their liturgical practices to be more “inclusive” (and less “hateful”). The Episcopal Church in the USA supports openly homosexual Bishops. Etc.

Third, precisely these mainstream churches which have bent over backwards to “modernize” themselves, to become more “inclusive”, to become less “hateful”, are the churches whose numbers have experienced near-freefall over the past 50 years or so. The more “conservative” churches (fundamentalist, conservative evangelical, pentecostal) which have tended to resist doctrinal and moral changes are doing relatively better.

So the analysis given by J. Burke above does not seem to square with the facts. The facts seem to indicate that a church has the best chance of keeping its numbers, or at least of losing them less swiftly, by holding fast to traditional doctrines and liturgies and moral demands (many of which are called “hateful” by liberals). The only churches that have grown over the past 50 years have been fundamentalist, pentecostal, and conservative evangelical churches; and the mainline church attendance seems to plunge regardless of whether the mainline church formally keeps up the old liturgy and theology and ethics, or tries to become modern, swinging and liberal. So the recipe for success seems to be to run a non-mainline church which has the traditional theology and ethics that the mainline churches used to uphold 100-150 years ago. But that traditional theology and ethics included much that was “unbelievable” to the modern mind (Fall, Incarnation, sacrificial atonement for the sins of all by the death of Jesus, miracles, divinely inspired books), and much that is “hateful” by the standards of modern people (e.g., condemnations of homosexual behavior).

So the analysis of J. Burke above seems to miss the mark. Perhaps things are different in Australia or Taiwan than in North America, but his remarks don’t seem applicable here.

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And not a single referenced fact was cited that day. I’ll also add that I referred to the decline of Christianity in the US, and you changed the subject to the decline in numbers of specific Christian groups.

I live here in North America, and have all my life. So perhaps what seems obvious to anyone familiar with North American church life requires documentation before someone 12,000 miles away will believe it. But those who have spent large parts of their life in and around churches and para-church life are aware that the facts on the ground, regarding mainline Protestant decline, are exactly as I have stated them. If J. Burke doesn’t accept these facts from someone who lives in the midst of them, I’m not interested in disputing his armchair theorizing from afar.

In any case, the very article we are discussing, which J. Burke appears not to have read, contains a number of referenced facts which support my description.

The fact is that the churches which have tried to do the most to make themselves acceptable to modern sensibilities are the ones that are dying the fastest. At least, when they have changed regarding theology and ethics. A case could be made that regarding liturgy, the conservative evangelical churches have kept up their numbers partly by making their music more youthful in style, stressing youth groups, etc. But all of that liturgical novelty takes place inside a theology and ethics which are essentially very conservative and, from the point of view of the modern intelligentsia, in many respects “unbelievable” and “hateful.”

J. Burke’s own position continues to be difficult to understand. As a Christadelphian, he is part of a sectarian group not known either for (a) its liberal, modern attitudes; (b) its numerical growth. I would conjecture that many if not most Christadelphians in the USA vote for politicians that J. Burke would find abhorrent. And certainly most modern people (the sort of people who think that Cornell and Harvard represent the pinnacle of intelligent, right-minded thinking) don’t find the Christadelphian version of Christianity any less “unbelievable” than the Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. So it’s unclear to me what J. Burke is trying to persuade people to do. Is he advocating that Christianity is true, but only “believable” and “non-hateful” kinds of Christianity? And if so, is he saying that the Christadelphians have the most “believable” and “non-hateful” expression of Christian doctrine, faith, and life? Or if not the Christadelphians, who? I’m left scratching my head.

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You appear to have made an assumption that the decline in church membership is primarily down to the actions of the particular churches. That is not the only possible hypothesis. Another hypothesis is that the hateful actions of certain churches leads the hateful Christians to double down, and the non-hateful Christians to abandon the faith, i.e. that it’s the evangelicals that are causing mainstream protestants to deconvert, rather than the mainstream churches. (For a parallel case, I have read that the actions of Islamic State have led to a rise of atheism in Syria and Iraq, but I expect that the deconverts didn’t come from the ranks of Salafists.)

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Robert:

Hello! I don’t know that we have interacted before. Are you new to these origins sites?

I can’t follow your scenario. The set of motivations you describe is one I don’t recognize. Perhaps it would help if you provide an example or two of “hateful actions of certain churches” and “hateful Christians doubling down.”

Just to clarify: I think that church membership was heading down regardless of anything the churches might have done. My point was not so much that the Protestant mainline churches had caused the problem (the problem goes back to the Enlightenment), as that their attempted remedy (liberalize the theology, liberalize the sexual morality, drop the familiar liturgies for newfangled experiments, major on “inclusiveness”, wallow in political correctness, talk about social justice instead of God, and so on) made matters even worse for them, because it alienated their core of traditional Christian believers in hopes of bringing in a larger group of marginally Christian people who might groove on ecological sermons and leftist politics more than on sermons about Jesus or God. The result was a disaster.

The misdiagnosis of the problem (the conclusion that membership was falling because people wanted more liberal, trendier, more “socially relevant” religion, rather than that membership was falling because the clergy were feeding the laity bland, routine weekly pap with no intellectual or spiritual substance rooted in Christian tradition) led to a bad prescription, and the patient, rather than recovering, died.

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Seems rather simple to me. Mainstream believers see what kind of hate and nonsense their religion inspires in others, become disillusioned with it, and so eventually lose faith as they come to believe it is not the source of goodness and inspiration they used to think. It becomes a source of cognitive dissonance that this thing they used to think is a force for a lot of good in the world, also inspires so much bad.

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I think we are using terms differently. I’m not sure what you mean by “mainstream believers”, but I will say that I was talking about the old “mainline” Protestant denominations, i.e., the Presbyterians, UCC, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, and one or two others. Back in the 1940s and 1950s and early 1960s, the Christianity of those churches, though it still upheld basic Christian doctrines such as Fall, sin, Incarnation, Atonement, repentance, forgiveness, etc., was not thereby extremist; in its social expression it was largely moderate, not filled with hatred. No one raised in a typical mainline church in the 50s or 60s came out of a service filled with hatred (maybe irritation at the minister if the sermon was too long…).

People in these churches held bake sales to raise money for worthy causes, etc. They enjoyed their Christmas carol services and their strawberry socials. They were typically generous givers to various charities, and often active members of service clubs. They were not running around grabbing people on the street and telling them they were all damned if they didn’t convert. They were not opposing science or higher education. Their members were often scientists and scholars. They weren’t opposing evolution. (Well, maybe the Missouri Synod Lutherans were, but not all Lutherans, and maybe some of the Presbyterians, but not all of them. In fact, unlike the fundamentalist churches, the mainline denominations tended to be indifferent to quarrels over origins.)

The problem with these churches was that, while they were at worst socially benign and at best socially constructive, they tended to operate on autopilot, out of custom or habit rather than conviction (which is where they differed from smaller and more sectarian churches where there was often a high degree of personal theological commitment). And over time, many people started drifting away out of boredom, most notably the young, at about age 13 or so, after they were confirmed. The leaders in the mainline churches noticed the falling numbers, and the falling church revenues – hard to manage a $10,000 organ repair if your congregation is shrinking – and realized that they should take steps to deal with it. But they took the wrong steps.

Instead of sending their pastors back to university and seminary to refresh themselves intellectually and spiritually, so they could then challenge their congregations with a living, vital Christianity, they decided that the old religion was too morally strict, too much oriented to doctrines, too formal, etc. So they tried to liberalize. But it didn’t work. For every family that was motivated to stay because the minister talked less about theology than about social justice, at least one other family bolted for a more conservative church, or just stopped going to church altogether. (After all, if Jesus’s death and resurrection are just “symbols”, if he didn’t really die for our sins – as more and more mainstream clergy were starting to believe, and sometimes actively preaching – why was it necessary to receive sacraments, or be a church member at all? Why couldn’t one just try to be “a good person” – whatever that meant – and leave it at that?)

Of course, if one is thinking about Southern Baptists or any of a number of Gospel or Baptist-like groups, or some Pietist-Holiness groups, etc., or fundamentalists, or various sectarians (JWs, Adventists, etc.), one is talking about a different religious culture entirely. I was talking the mainline Protestant denominations, which used to be a bulwark of American social and cultural life. Those churches let their religion weaken, and then, when they saw people were drifting away, took exactly the wrong steps to retain them.

In the meantime, the fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals took a different approach. They had in the early and mid 20th century for the most part been suspicious of higher education and culture generally, but now, in order to combat attacks on the faith, they started sending their kids to universities to get more education. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and up to the present, more and more fundamentalists and conservative Christians (who typically go to churches with names not like St. Mark’s or St. John’s, but like Calvary or Redeemer or Bible Chapel or Christian Fellowship or whatever) started studying. Many of them went to big secular universities to get Ph.D.s, not only in the natural sciences but even in religion departments, where they learned modern critical tools of Bible study and so on. And while the seminaries of mainstream Protestant denominations progressively lowered the academic requirements at their seminaries (I know of one United seminary that requires not even a year of Biblical Greek to become a minister), the fundamentalists and conservatives were often upping their requirements (most requiring at least two full years of Greek, with Hebrew becoming an increasingly common elective).

The results are interesting. In my middle-class town filled with mainline churches, I never heard a really theologically deep sermon except in a Gospel-type church where the pastor was big into Biblical theology. He could have wiped the floor in theological debate with any Episcopal, United, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Methodist preacher in town. The mainline churches have become theologically and intellectually slack, whereas the conservative churches (not all of them, but many of them) have been slowly but surely catching up with and surpassing their mainline clergy counterparts in knowledge of Biblical languages, Biblical studies, etc.

Of course there are still doltish and anti-educational fundamentalists. But the number of very bright and well-educated fundamentalists and conservatives increases annually. And the number of Episcopal and UCC clergy who know even basic Christian doctrine, and believe it all, shrinks almost exponentially every year. So when thoughtful, religiously earnest young people are raised in a UCC or Episcopal or Methodist church, and hear sermons from wimpy liberal pastors who can barely conceal their disbelief in a whole swath of Biblical passages and Christian doctrines, and therefore wonder why they should even bother to be Christians, and then are invited by a more conservative friend to a church where the pastor, the elders and all the congregation really believe in the doctrines, try to defend them intellectually, and try to live them out morally and socially (even at the cost of some social ridicule), a lot of them are inclined to jump ship to a religion that is truly vital and living and thoughtful and courageous, as opposed to a dead shell of a religion whose leaders are basically secular humanists with a thin Christian veneer.

The churches where the leaders and the congregation believe that their religion is true, and take it seriously, and have strong lay education programs, and strong social pressures on moral issues, are the churches that have done the best over the past 40-50 years of declining religiosity. The mainline churches have done the worst. And it all has to do with lack of fundamental conviction in the truth of what one supposedly believes. When the leaders transparently don’t believe in the tradition they are supposed to be selling, the flock is going to shrink. It’s that simple.

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It is demographics. Baby Boomers (b 1946 to 1964) have screwed up the country and are now dying off. It is a race to see how much damage the baby bomber can do before they are gone.

Canada. Not even the country under discussion. So you’re an armchair commentator observing at a distance. You’ve spun a narrative which you haven’t substantiated with any third party data or reliable sources, a narrative which is predicated entirely on your own personal theological position; a fundamentalist Christian who rails against modernity, and feels uncomfortable with English Bible translations written after 1910.

I note again that I referred to the decline of Christianity in the US, and you changed the subject to the decline in numbers of specific Christian groups. You never once addressed the issue I raised.

Christadelphians don’t vote. We’re known for it.

Another claim made without any evidence whatsoever.

That wasn’t my point, no. My point is very clear and you didn’t address it at all. You changed the subject. Now you’re trying to change the subject again.

Here are the facts. Note how actual research is used to substantiate a case.

  1. Christianity is on the decline in the US. You provided no evidence to contradict this.

  2. Contrary to your enthusiastic support for evangelicals and your claim that their theological approach ensures more stable numbers, evangelicals are in decline.

After dominating much of American politics for the past 40 years, white evangelical Protestants are now facing a sharp decline.

Only 8 percent of young people identify as white evangelical Protestant, while 26 percent of senior citizens do.

As a result, the white evangelical Protestant population in the U.S. has fallen over the past decade, dropping from 23 percent in 2006 to 17 percent in 2016. But equally troubling for those concerned about the vitality of evangelical Christianity, white evangelical Protestants are aging. Today, 62 percent of white evangelical Protestants are at least 50 years old. In 1987, fewer than half (46 percent) were. The median age of white evangelical Protestants today is 55(Are White Evangelicals Sacrificing The Future In Search Of The Past? | FiveThirtyEight).

  1. One of the reasons for this is that evangelicals have a very poor retention rate. A large percentage of white evangelicals themselves don’t find evangelical theology believable.

Nearly one-third of white Americans raised in evangelical Christian households leave their childhood faith. 2 About 60 percent of those who leave end up joining another faith tradition, while 40 percent give up on religion altogether. The rates of disaffiliation are even higher among young adults: 39 percent of those raised evangelical Christian no longer identify as such in adulthood. And while there is always a good deal of churn in the religious marketplace — people both entering and leaving faith traditions — recent findings suggest that membership losses among white evangelical Protestants are not being offset by gains.

  1. The kind of attitudes promoted by evangelicals are cited as one of the factors for people losing their faith.

Twenty-nine percent of Americans who have left their formative religion explicitly mention negative teachings about gay and lesbian people as a proximate cause for their disaffiliation.

  1. Young evangelicals wish their denomination to make theological changes, indicating their churches have failed to convince them that their doctrinal position is valid; they don’t find it believable.

Nearly half (48 percent) of white evangelical Protestants under 30 say that their church should adjust traditional beliefs and practices or adopt modern beliefs and practices.

  1. The systemic moral corruption within the evangelical community has been repeatedly called out not only by secular opponents but also by other Christian groups. Consequently it is unsurprising to read articles such as these.

This message has also come from within evangelical ranks, particularly in the form of Gregory Boyd’s 2017 book Myth of A Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church.

We have become intoxicated with the Constantinian, nationalistic, violent mindset of imperialistic Christendom.

When we suggest that this nation was once Christian, we participate in the racist and demonic deceit that Douglass poignantly exposes.

More than a few have noticed the comic irony in the fact that the group most vocal about “the sanctity of marriage,” namely evangelical Christians, happens to be the group with the highest number of divorces in the United States, which itself has the highest divorce rate in the world! Outsiders legitimately wonder… “why don’t they stop worrying about laws to regulate OTHERS’ behavior and spend their time and energy sanctifying their OWN marriages?”

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Your attempt to make out that I “changed the topic” is hopeless. “The topic” was an article posted by Patrick that was specifically about “the Protestant decline in America”, not about “the decline of Christianity in the US”. (Last I heard, “Christianity” included more than Protestantism.) My comments picked up on the distinction made in the article between mainline and evangelical Protestantism, and focused particularly on the behavior of mainline Protestant denominations over the past 50 years, behavior which they thought would stop the bleeding of membership, but failed to do so.

Instead of commenting on my analysis – whether it was correct or incorrect – you chose to focus on whether or not I had documented my comments.

I await your evidence that my characterization of the mainline Protestant churches over the past 50 years in North America is inaccurate.

As for your numerous statements about evangelical churches, they weren’t the focus of my discussion, and so, though I don’t necessarily disagree with them, I won’t comment on them. But note that “evangelical” is a very vague term, used by different people to cover a wide range of different things. I was contrasting mainline Protestant churches primarily with those non-mainline Protestant churches who still hold firmly to a number of traditional doctrinal and ethical positions. So I was including not just “evangelical” but also “Pentacostal” and “fundamentalist” groups. The point is that between about 1970 (or earlier) and the present, all the mainline Protestant churches have shown steady decreases in membership, whereas at least some of the evangelical, Pentacostal, and fundamentalist groups have shown spurts of impressive growth. And even though evangelical numbers, too, are now dropping, they aren’t dropping as fast as mainline church numbers, as the cited article indicates. I was offering a plausible (albeit only partial) explanation for this: churches that don’t believe in very much earn the contempt of their membership, and the membership drifts away, whereas churches that firmly believe in something earn the respect of their membership, and while they may lose some dissenters, they hang on to most of their core. The mainline Protestant denominations have been steadily losing even their core.

That’s simply a fact, and it doesn’t take high-powered “research” to observe the fact. All one has to do is look at what is happening about one, over the past 50 years: church parking lots that are nearly vacant; multiple Sunday services (needed to accommodate all those wanting to come) compressed into one, with the pews not full even then; an undending stream of closures of Episcopalian, United, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. churches that are deemed no longer viable congregations, because of their shrinking numbers and financial resources; an oversupply of graduating divinity students because there are not enough churches for them to go to; all of this is well-known to anyone who knows anything about mainstream Protestant church life anywhere in North America, whether they are members of churches, or journalistic or sociological observers. If you are not aware of these facts, you shouldn’t be offering opinions on the subject.

I’m not a fundamentalist, as I have many times explicitly stated. I have also many times criticized the apotheosis of modern fundamentalism, Ken Ham.

I do rail against modernity, but not from a fundamentalist point of view. My critique of modernity stems from the pre-fundamentalist Classical-Christian tradition (Plato, the Greek Fathers, Augustine, Medieval thought, More, Erasmus, Swift, Lewis, Sayers, Chesterton, etc.) That is, my intellectual locus is not American, but European. You have never grasped this. To you, it seems, anyone who expresses even the slightest intellectual reserve toward things you agree with (Darwin, anthropogenic global warming, etc.) is automatically motivated by fundamentalism. This blind spot of yours suggests to me a narrow acquaintance with the historical varieties of Christian thought.

I’m not “uncomfortable” with Bible translations after 1910. But as someone who is well-trained in Greek and Hebrew (having taught both at the seminary/university level), who has done graduate level study on methodological questions in the area of Hebrew Bible, who has published articles and books with translations of Bible passages, and who has spent a great deal of time comparing translations, is well aware of the ideological motivations (e.g., feminist motivations) governing more recent translations, and is well aware of the predominance of theological liberalism among the scholars who are assigned to supervise these translations, I naturally am critical of unwarranted adjustments to traditional translations. That doesn’t mean that all recent translations are bad, but there is no guarantee that a translation will be better merely because it is more recent. The worship of the most recent scholarly view is one of the features of modernity that I am most critical of. As Lewis long ago pointed out, the received wisdom of every era – including our own – has its blind spots, and it is generally helpful to take the recent “consensus” of scholars or scientists – or Bible translators – with a grain of salt.

My post. You’ve completely forgotten that you were responding directly to my post. You quoted it and then launched a tirade against it.

I pointed out that you hadn’t provided any evidence to substantiate your claims. I then provided plenty of evidence contradicting your claims, and substantiating my post. You didn’t respond to any of it. Then you claim I didn’t comment on it. I don’t think you even read my post.

You like to think you’re not a fundamentalist, so you try to create artificial distinctions between yourself and other fundamentalists, whilst ignoring all the commonalities.

No. There are people here who disagree with me on these points, and I don’t regard them as fundamentalists.

This would be more convincing if there was any evidence for it.

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You wouldn’t ask me for evidence that Columbus sailed in 1492, and you wouldn’t ask me for evidence that McDonald’s restaurants were very popular in America, and you wouldn’t ask me for evidence that The Beatles enjoyed worldwide fame and high record sales in the 1960s. You wouldn’t ask me to document such things, because they are generally conceded by everyone (including yourself) to be true. The points I made about the decay of mainline Protestantism in America are also things that are generally conceded to be true: steadily falling memberships and attendance over the past 50 years, churches closing, etc. I’m not going to waste time looking up data to try to convince you what everyone who knows the situation here already knows to be true. And I suspect that you know that my description of the collapse of mainline Protestantism is accurate, and that your insistence on documentation is mere pedantry on your part.

Where my claims are contestable would be in the area of interpretation. For example, one could contest my claim that the liberalization of the churches was done in order to hold onto members, or attract new ones. One could argue that the leaders of the churches liberalized purely for theological reasons (i.e., they changed their minds about theology and exegesis) with no concern whatsoever with whether or not that would help or hurt their numbers problem. I would find such a claim implausible, but I’m willing to entertain it. The main factual claims I made, however, stand impervious to assault:

A – over the past 50 years, mainline denominations have experienced massive defection.

B – whatever their motivation for liberalizing their theology, ethics, liturgy, etc., the changes have done nothing to stop the bleeding.

C – the more conservative churches have not experienced as much bleeding.

These are facts. You are welcome to provide an explanation of them that is better than mine. I’ll stick to mine until you have done so.

Look at the words I quoted from you. They concern your personal claims about your allegedly internationally recognized scholarly career. That’s what I was referring to, not your comments on the decline of mainline Protestantism.

I note you’ve now abandoned any attempt to address my overwhelmingly substantiated post.

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A Google image search for “Fred Phelps signs” should give you everything you need. Reading up on the exploits of the Westboro Baptist Church should lead you to more examples.

Bringing irrelevant politics into theology may be another item that is pushing people away. If you define “true Christians” based on their opinion of how we should pay for health care then you may have lost sight of what it is to be a Christian.

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Here is what you originally wrote (see fourth post from the top):

“And not a single referenced fact was cited that day.”

This was your response to my previous post (third from the top). In that post, I said nothing at all about my scholarly career. You were challenging my statements about US mainline Protestantism, by saying that I had not substantiated them. You were not challenging my statements about my scholarly career.

I already indicated that I did not necessarily disagree with many points in your post, but that they did not contradict my own analysis of the decline of mainline Protestant denominations. You offered your comments as if they were a refutation of my own argument, when they were not. My statements about mainline Protestantism remain true, even if your criticism of “evangelical” Protestantism is also true.

Thanks for offering Robert your help, but since Robert made the statement, he should be able to provide his own examples. I can’t be sure that Robert means what you have in mind, until he speaks.

If Robert thinks this is a problem, he can give examples of the “irrelevant politics” and examples of where it has pushed people away. Again, I await his answer.

I don’t.

I hope that I haven’t.

It’s what I think.

I gave examples of what I think are irrelevant politics. Any comment?

I’m glad to hear that.

So what should a christian do when it comes to US politics? You seem to think liberal politics shouldn’t have a place in the Church, and seem to endorse conservative politics. Is it possible that Christian theology isn’t defined by our current political divides? Is it possible to support equal secular rights and be a Christian? Can a Christian say that homosexuals should not be discriminated against while also believing they are sinners?

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