THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LIBERAL AND CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANITY — PART 1

There are two problems defining the difference between Liberal (or Progressive) and Conservative Christianity.

  • Being objective.
  • Appearing objective.

When we google Liberal Christianity consider the articles that pop up at the top of Google.

  • Liberal Christianity (en.wikipedia.org): This article says that Liberal Christianity and Liberal theology are equivalent terms. Liberal Christianity is about theology, not politics.

    Liberal Christianity, broadly speaking, is a method of biblical hermeneutics, an undogmatic method of understanding God through the use of scripture by applying the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings, symbols and scriptures. (from here)

    Undogmatic? The alternative is dogmatic? What is undogmatic and why is “undogmatism” needed?

  • The Gospel Coalition (ca.thegospelcoalition.org) has a couple of articles up front, “Conservative” And “Liberal” Christianity and Seven Characteristics of Liberal Theology: These have a Conservative bent. Here is what the first says about Liberal Christianity.

    The words “conservative” and “liberal”, when applied to churches, are indicators of a profound difference, which has no connection to how the words “conservative” and “liberal” are usually used. In the Protestant world, a “liberal” Christian is one who is redefining the Christian faith so that it is shaped by one or more contemporary philosophies and/or ideologies. In other words, the philosophies or ideologies change the “Christian” faith so that the “faith” is aligned with, and does not contradict, the philosophy or ideology in question. Fifty years ago, the liberal Christian faith was changed to fit with Marxism and/or the sexual revolution and/or Rogerian therapy and/or philosophical naturalism. Today it might be postmodernism and/or feminism and/or queer theory and /or transgenderism and/or native spirituality. (from here)

    Is that what Liberal Christians mean by applying modern hermeneutics to the Bible? If it is, that is obviously a dubious undertaking.

  • A Review of ‘Reinventing Liberal Christianity’ (commonwealmagazine.org): This is a book review, Reinventing Liberal Christianity by Theo Hobson. Hobson explains that there are two traditions of liberal Christianity.

    Bad liberal Christianity is rationalistic, humanistic, and prejudiced against the ritual practices of the church. Intertwined from its conception with liberal humanism, this tradition began with Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who taught that toleration is natural to the rational state, which exists to protect the natural rights of citizens. Once in place, this bad tradition swiftly produced varieties of deism and Christian rationalism holding a merely pragmatic conception of liberty and developed radical forms of biblical criticism.

    Hobson observes that Liberal Christianity is now dying and needs reinvention.

  • Liberal Christianity: Ten things to know about this ‘middle way’ (vancouversun.com): Here we get a newspaper’s view.

    When North American media look at religion, they home in on people who cite Jesus to condemn homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia, reject female clergy and organize Tea Party protests against taxation. This polarized portrait is amplified when famous atheists attack such views as backward.

    Liberal Christianity offers an alternative. But few know about the option, which Columbia University history professor Gary Dorrien, the foremost expert on the subject, calls “a progressive, credible integrative way between orthodox over-belief and secular unbelief.” (from here)

Googling Conservative Christianity produces a similar set of contending views.

  • Wikipedia produces two hits: Christian right and Conservative Christianity. Here is an extract from the first article. Wikipedia sees “Conservative Christianity” primarily as a political movement.

    The Christian right or the religious right are conservative Christian political factions that are characterized by their strong support of socially conservative policies. Christian conservatives principally seek to apply their understanding of the teachings of Christianity to politics and to public policy by proclaiming the value of those teachings or by seeking to use those teachings to influence law and public policy.

    The second hit provides a list of expressions that “Conservative Christianity” may refer to. The first is: “Christian fundamentalism, a movement within Protestantism upholding a literal reading of the Bible.” Apparently, Conservative Christianity can also involve biblical hermeneutics.

  • Conservative Christianity (conservapedia.com): Conservapedia is supposedly a Conservative Encyclopedia. Here is how they define Conservative Christianity.

    Conservative Christianity is a term used to describe identified Christians who tend to follow conservative values, and which stands in contrast to liberal Christianity. Some members of the clergy identify themselves as conservative Christians.

    Conservative Christianity may refer to theologically conservative movements, which take many forms in modern Christianity. For example, Traditionalist Catholics who reject some of the Vatican II reforms may identify themselves as conservative Christians. Likewise, Anglicans who object to the ordination of women or homosexuals may consider themselves conservative Christians. Different forms of Conservative Protestantism exist, including Evangelicalism and Christian Fundamentalism. No comprehensive technical definition is provided for these terms, however, Christian researcher and author George Barna defines “Evangelicals” as a subset of those who meet the basic criteria defining born again Christians, but who also meet seven other doctrinal conditions.

    Here is how Conservapedia defines Liberal Christianity. It is worth considering whether Conservapedia’s definitions are more objective than Wikipedia’s.

  • The Truth about Conservative Christians (press.uchicago.edu): This is the introduction of the subject book. Curious statistical claims.
  • “Conservative” And “Liberal” Christianity (ca.thegospelcoalition.org), which we have seen before, provides the next intelligible hit.
  • The sad, twisted truth about conservative Christianity’s effect on the mind (salon.com): This article equates Conservative Christianity with a psychological disorder. You can read it if you wish. I didn’t.

So what’s the point? If we want to determine the difference be Liberal and Conservative Christianity, we have to figure out that difference for ourselves. How should we go about it? Well, how we interpret the Bible seems to have much to do with our values. So an article like this suggest which churches are Liberal and which are Conservative, Where Christian churches, other religions stand on gay marriage (pewresearch.org). That article includes Where Major Religions Stand on Same-Sex Marriage. What can we do with that list? That’s Part 2.

 

32 thoughts on “THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LIBERAL AND CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANITY — PART 1

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  1. Insightful writing. Personally I feel like the Old Testament and the need to categorize Christianity’s timeline as “Judeo-Christian” is a problem. That’s like calling yourself a vegan but eating meat. Examining Jesus’s work is the focal point of Christianity and understanding Christ as your savior. Any connection to Abraham rituals and covenants with God we absolved. Hence why Jesus was Killed…

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    1. @William H. Clark III

      Thank you for your kind compliment.

      Your complaint about the Old Testament and the need to categorize Christianity’s timeline as “Judeo-Christian” is not unusual. I think it arises from a common misunderstanding. We forget that Jesus was a Jew. We forget Jesus affirmed the Old Testament, and he obeyed the commands in the Old Testament perfectly. We overlook the fact that Jesus chose Jews to be His apostles. He chose Jews to spread His Gospel to the Gentiles. Thus, Jesus Himself established the connection between the Old and New Testaments.

      The entire Bible is about Jesus. Jesus is the focus of both the Old Testament and the New. The Bible is the story of our redemption by Jesus Christ.

      The Old and New Testaments tell us about different parts of the same story. The Old Testament explains how we became estranged from God and in need of a Savior. It contains the prophecies of a Savior. The New Testament tells us about the First Coming of the Savior, and it explains how Jesus fulfilled prophecies in the Old Testament. In addition, the New Testament points towards the Second Coming. Therefore, we know the story of of salvation of Mankind is not yet over.

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    1. @tsalmon

      John Steinbeck? Fire and brimstone?

      It is curious thing. I have yet to paint a fire and brimstone picture of Hell. Always struck me as pointless. Yet you insist upon hearing what you want, I suppose.

      Jesus spoke more of Hell and damnation than anyone else. The message that comes through is that in Hell we get what we have chosen, separation from God.

      I would imagine God, since logic is His doing, is logical. What fool would want to spend eternity with someone who doesn’t want to be with them? God? Doubt it. God is not a fool.

      Why would we choose to separate ourselves from God? Pride. We cannot give up worshipping ourselves long enough to marvel at — to adore — the One who made all things. Instead of surrendering our hearts to God, we would be God. It is the original sin.

      When the time comes, will our Lord allow either of us into Heaven, to be with Him? Or will He ask us to depart, stating emphatically that “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). I think the answer will depend upon God, how much love, grace, and mercy He showed us.

      Did we pray to know Him? Did we put our trust in Him instead of our self. Did we finally find He had given us the humility to admit that He is the only One who matters, that we matter only because we matter to Him. It is one thing to say such a thing. To believe it? To live it?

      To pray for such humility is not something many of us do. I hope Hell won’t be more populated with Human beings than not, but what reason is there to believe otherwise? Only the love, the grace, and the mercy of our Creator.

      Anyway, I suppose Steinbeck was okay as a writer, but the Bible is beyond compare. Why don’t you read the better book?

      Like

      1. Tom,

        I think that you have read far too much criticism of yourself and far too little about the subject in general into my invocation of Steinbeck’s story. It’s not always about you big brother!

        Have you ever noticed that your default reaction to anything that I write here is a bit self defensive, even to the point of showing a humorless boorish side that your otherwise natural good nature seems to reserve only for me. Being brothers from a tumultuous Irish family in constant controversy debate, I suppose this is inevitable. If I’m honest, I confess I’m guilty of often being just such a jerk too, else why would I visit here so often to argue with you.

        If you get off your theological high horse for a minute, however, you might realize that I have also been studying and learning my religion for a very long time. And I learn constantly, often from you. I don’t study the Bible or anything else with the idea of always having my preconceptions affirmed. In fact, I love to have them shattered by epiphany. This leaves me constantly changing, and I hope growing. I also know that I don’t invent the message of the Bible simply by reading it. There are thousands of people over thousands of years smarter than me about everything, including religion, including scripture. That said, I applaud your style of study, and ask that you try to appreciate that there is more than one way to skin this cat. We both stand on the shoulders of geniuses.

        Steinbeck was just such a genius, not just as a writer, but as an observer. It’s amazing how current Steinbeck’s impressions of the nation are in “Travels with Charlie”, as if Steinbeck saw the direction of the country long before those currents swept us here. Steinbeck could have written the book yesterday. What Steinbeck said in the passage provided says something prescient, about evolution of Christian camps, especially if we can read it with a sense of humor. It doesn’t say everything. Such is the nature of narrative (especially in the Bible) that the medium often conveys more profound meaning to us than can be given ir explained in any other way. I can only suppose that’s why God uses it.

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        1. @tsalmon

          I am not especially interested in a discussion about me. You say I misunderstood you purpose? ☺ Okay! I gain nothing by debating the matter. There is no win.

          You say you been studying the Bible? I hope so. I appreciate your saying you have learned from me. However, if you can find a serious Bible study group, I hope you join it. I have found that when we have the understanding of others to compare with our own, that help to prevent us from generating wild theories.

          You like Steinbeck? I was not impressed by the mockery in that piece of literature. Instead making fun of people, I think it is better to stand for something better.

          Keep this in mind. None of us stand for the Gospel of Christ perfectly. Still the devil tries to destroy Christians. Because he has nothing better to offer, all the devil can do is lie. The devil happily praises the virtues of sin and condemns Hell as a myth.

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          1. That’s progress. It’s not about us or our pride; instead it’s about who wins. 😉

            If you actually read the Steinbeck section without your ego involved, you’ll find that it was actually an early satire on the political correctness of the feel good liberal scene of his time. I think his admiration of the little church and it’s preacher showed good humor that was very sympathetic, not derisive. Oddly, I thought you would enjoy the excerpt as satirical ammunition for the conservative side of the debate.

            I don’t personally have a dog in this fight as I don’t find that your arbitrarily dividing us into tribes reflect human complexity or genuinely describes the unifying (rather than parochial) message of scripture, but I enjoy the exposition of the concept. It’s good for Christians to debate such things. As you know, even the earliest Christians in the Bible didn’t agree on everything. Faith is the mysterious atonement between God’s grace and man’s need that requires a voluntarily appropriation that man must voluntarily asked for and freely afforded by God, rather than it being faked or coerced. There leaves room for a good deal of civil Christian debate around the edges of that.

            “Travels with Charlie” was written in the early sixties by a soon to be Nobel Prize winning author, a former WWII corespondent who by then was a brilliant but dying middle aged author on a last discovery of the country with his dog.You’re trying to place him in tribal camps that had not really been invented as they are today yet, although his keen observation perhaps foresaw them coming.

            With just “The Grapes of Wrath” “Cannery Row”, and “Of Mice and Men” among many others, I think that pervading Steinbeck’s work is a deep spirituality and that he stood for more in any one of his books than I or you perhaps could hope to stand for in many lifetimes, so I wouldn’t be to quick to judge him. He actually ACCOMPLISHED something beyond just the bloviating about compassion and love that we are prone to.

            I also think that Steinbeck had some faith in Hell. He was a regular church goer and, although perhaps agnostic about much religious dogma, his genuine love for humanity and empathy for human suffering could hardly be seen as irreligious. I couldn’t damn or praise his soul either way, but he is one of the authors I admire most. I don’t think God was done speaking through certain artists, writers and saints once the Bible was written. Don’t you admire “Pilgrim’s Progress”?

            Like

          2. @tsalmon

            I had to study Steinbeck in high school. I was a bookworm. I did not enjoy what he wrote.

            You say Steinbeck was mocking the politically correct? Shrug! You say so. Perhaps that excerpt was too abbreviated to get the point across. Perhaps the problem is that that is not the sort of humor I generally have much use for. Perhaps I was just too lazy to figure out who Steinbeck ridiculed.

            Steinbeck was not The Judge, but we all tend to think of our self as The Judge. Perhaps I just find it annoying to see my own flaws reflected back to me, to see a writer standing aloof, rendering his judgments. I just know I don’t care to read Steinbeck.

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        2. I think that you have read far too much criticism of yourself and far too little about the subject in general into my invocation of Steinbeck’s story. It’s not always about you big brother!

          It might’ve been because you invoked a fire and brimstone reference and then likened it to this discussion.
          At any rate, I too thoroughly enjoyed the book Travels With Charley (read it years ago).
          The chapter (which I only remember vaguely now) about the family who lived in what we would call a “trailer” struck home for me.
          At one time (the time of Steinbeck’s insightful writing) the trailer seemed to be the solution to poverty. Didn’t quite pan out like that though….why?
          Answer: The culture of the trailer park. Culture (community values, level of trust in society, et al) shape the environment. That’s why God’s laws matter. CS Lewis mentioned this long ago…there was a “spiritual but not religious” movement then, too. “The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?”

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Just to add (to make sure the point isn’t lost), when I say “culture shapes the environment” I’m not referring just to the indigent. This applies to everything. We’re speaking of the foundation here. The last place I lived, I was surrounded by good Christian people. They were so good it made me feel guilty and I wanted to be half as good as they were (a tall order). I gave of my time, I invested a great deal in the community. When one is surrounded by selfish people who don’t care about their community, everything is different. I’ve lived in lots of different environments in my 22 moves in 25 years and have seen this first hand. It’s no accident Europe is largely atheist now. Humans are social animals, and people are their habits.
            Remember the prodigal son. He didn’t just come home the arrogant person who had left. He’d suffered sufficiently and was a completely different, contrite and better person. THEN he was forgiven.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Damn Liz! That’s all very insightful, especially the part about the rise of mushy religion which Steinbeck was actually lampooning.

            I listened to the section about the rise of the mobile home society just the other day, and was struck by it in a very similar way too.

            Right before I retired recently, as we fixed up and sold our house, I parked our Airstream in a KOA in Kent, WA right across from the Amazon distribution center, and lived there almost a year. It eerily reminded me of “The Grapes of Wrath”, but in some new modern way. The winter was full of whole families living in tents and beat up rigs because it was affordable in a place where there was work that could not pay for any enough normal housing in that land of skyrocketing rents. In the Spring the KOA raised prices so people had to move and many were just evicted and their rigs towed to the impound. In Summer the place filled with $250,000 snowbird palaces on wheels. I’ve been lost in pondering this whole world ever since, and Steinbeck foreboded it all.

            As we have camped around the country, the scene repeats itself in different places and ways over and over. Something has happened to the whole concept of community that maybe we can never get back.

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          3. @tsalmon
            We both owe Liz a thank you. Great comment!

            Something has happened to the whole concept of community that maybe we can never get back.

            Since “we” did not create this concept of community, we have no way of getting it back. The Christian values that the people who colonized America brought with them from Europe were a gift of God.

            When we trust in God, He gives us a new heart. When we seek salvation for our souls, invite Jesus into our lives, we learn how to care for each other. As a side benefit, we gain a bit of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.

            All we can do is teach our children to trust in the salvation offered by Jesus. All any of us can do is set a good example for our neighbors by trying to live as Christ taught. The rest is up to God.

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          4. “We both owe Liz a thank you. Great comment!”

            I couldn’t agree more.

            I’ll give the rest some thought. I don’t have any easy solutions.

            I recently read David Brooks’ latest book, “The Second Mountain”. It deals very much with this whole subject of disconnectedness and the lack of real meaning that, as you say, can only be found in God. I’m still digesting it, but Brooks’ proactive approach is not anything that different from what you are suggesting.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. One wonders what Jesus thinks about the whole concept of dividing His Body of Christ into ideological or political or even denominational camps, no matter how well meaning those camps may be?

    Interesting topic Tom. Jesus was definitely revolutionary. But we think too highly of ourselves, our temporal politics and our determinative ideologies of the moment when we fail to realize that His eternal revolution of love actually transcends all our divisiveness.

    There is no such thing as conservative or liberal Christianity. There is only one Christ. Christ’s message is so simple to understand that the most oppressed and ignorant slave gets it. Christ’s call is so hard to carry out that the powerful and the intellectually gifted have the worst time accepting its call to action.

    We who are actually the most materially and intellectually free fear most because we have too much to lose, so we rationalize, we quibble and we point fingers elsewhere. All our petty divisiveness just repeats Adam’s first sin of pride over and over through the ages don’t you think?

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    1. @tsalmon

      Pleased you find the topic interesting.

      There is no such thing as conservative or liberal Christianity. There is only one Christ.

      There is only one Christ, but there are many different perceptions of who Christ is. Human nature is what it is.

      When we argue for our own perception of Christ, that it is the most correct, then we we may as well be prepared to defend our assertions. For others will assert their own point of view and reject our assertions.

      Like

      1. True. But this only matters if we make the trivialities that we choose to disagree upon more important than the profound truths that we indisputably agree upon. In fact, it seems that history weeps with our attempts to, not only avoid, but actually negate, those profound truths while we divide and fight and kill each other over doctrinal trivialities.

        Nietzsche called Christianity the religion of slaves. He meant this derisively, but there is another truth to what he said.

        Christianity spread rapidly among oppressed people and slaves. The paradox of Christianity is that to selfishly save ourselves we have to unselfishly lose ourselves. A slave who has nothing else to lose has an advantage over we prosperous and intellectually free Americans of this age. How much of our squabbles about our “perceptions” of Jesus really mask a desire to gain or hang onto our own political power, our material things, our tribal hatreds and our comfortable ideological solutions, or worse, our parochial religions at the expense of dividing the Body of Christ?

        Perhaps the best answer to the question of why so many people in modern democratic industrialized nations are turning away from the Good News of Jesus Christ might be found in (1) that our own freedom and prosperity is more attractive to us, and (2) that we do turn everyone off by anachronistically fighting and hating each other, that people say “if that is the best of Christian religion, you can keep it to yourself”.

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        1. @tsalmon

          What is the best answer to the question of why so many people in modern democratic industrialized nations are turning away from the Good News of Jesus Christ? I think it is the most obvious. Most people have not heard or read the good news. There are people who call themselves Christians who don’t believe anything the Bible says. Yet the represent themselves as Christians.

          The Bible tells the story of our redemption. In the modern world, we have a plethora of voices and messages competing for our attention. This is world the Bible talks about. These voices speak from the pride of man and actively undermine and oppose the Gospel.

          If we want to hear or read the message of the Gospel, we must make the effort to understand the Bible. Once we do that we can strive to obey the commands of Christ. Otherwise, we will have difficulty because we don’t know what He wants us to do.

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          1. I disagree to some extent Tom. An illiterate slave can understand the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ once it is proclaimed to her. Indeed, as I said, it’s is the oppressed and enslaved who find it most attractive because they have the least to lose by voluntarily giving away the one thing they may have left, their love. Whereas it is the philosopher, the theologian, and the myriad denominational parochial preachers and priests who so often complicate and distort the that Good News so as to make it unrecognizable from what Jesus proclaimed. I’m all for everyone studying the Bible. Words notify us of the Word made flesh and blood, but practice, not intellectualism, makes us Christian. Besides, as my Bible Study friend noted, “The Devil knows the Bible too”.

            To spread the Good News, we need shepards who smell like and love the sheep rather than scholars, intellectuals and con men. The odd thing is that I think that the world is drowning in the sugar of materialism and intellectualism, but is starving for the real nourishment of meaning in simplest truths set out in scripture.

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          2. Who said that? But even if some jealous government did burn all the Bible’s, don’t you think that the Word would still get out? Don’t you think the Body of Christ would still live and love in the world.

            The Word is flesh and bone, mind and spirit, a living, breathing, presence of God in the world, not just words on a piece of paper. The Bible didn’t create God. God existed for eternity before the Bible, and man knew something of God and what He wanted the moment God made us sentient of Him. This was eons before the Bible was written. The Bible is mostly the wonderful story of God making His will known to us and that story climaxes in Christ.

            That said, we don’t worship the Bible – we worship a living God. True the Bible is a “how to” book on God’s Will, but it is not itself God’s Will. To think that way would be like being an architect spending his whole life studying the ultimate book on architecture, but never constructing a single humble abode, much less a building that people live or work in. In that case the simplest craftsman who practices his humble trade every day is far more wise than the scholarly architect don’t you think. I’ll take the Saint as my model over the stuffy Bible scholar any day, wouldn’t you?

            Like

          3. @tsalmon

            Words are suppose to convey concepts. That does include our feelings. Still, we should not confuse our feelings with facts.

            The Bible is the Word of God, not you or me or even the Apostles when they lived. We are merely disciples, we are only recognized as such when we strive to live by God’s Word and not our own.

            What would happened if all our Bibles were destroyed? I don’t know, but I doubt God would allow that to happen. There is Biblical text that suggests as much.

            Should we worship the Bible? No. The Bible commands respect because it is God’s Word. That is kind of obvious, is it not?

            The people who wrote the Bible were men of various sorts. What they had in common is that they were all men of God.

            Many of these men died in the service of our Lord. But before they did they wrote down what God wants those who worship Him to know.

            If we want to know about God, it is incumbent upon us to read His book.

            Like

  3. Interesting post, Tom.

    For me, I simply object to any and all words used as adjectives before the word Christian. So I can’t be a conservative Christian or a liberal Christian or even a “Presbyterian Christian.” It’s His name above all names kind of thing, or a case of having no other Gods before me.

    While I think there is some value in a tiny bit of tribalism, a big part of our problem in the modern world seems to have to do with all these poorly defined labels that detract us from what is important.

    Like

    1. @IB

      I sympathize. Still, like birds of a feather we will flock together.

      We use words to describe our beliefs. To the extent we can, we have to use words, even those labels, to resolve our differences. Sometimes to have a productive discussion we have to define our terms, terms like those poorly defined labels.

      Like

  4. Interesting points and you make important distinctions here. People do tend to get confused and conflate meanings with what we mean by liberal or conservative. It really depends on which particular area you’re talking about (theological, political, cultural, traditional, modern vs. classical, etc.)

    Liked by 2 people

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