9 Lies the Media Likes to Tell About Evangelical Christians

I realize that “the media” is not a monolith. So I’m using the word generally here.

However, I keep seeing the following narrative played out in scores of interviews, commentaries, and pundit discussions across the TV news networks, magazines, and the Internet.

So while there are certainly exceptions, I’ve identified nine common lies perpetuated by people in the media. Granted, there are enough vocal evangelicals to bolster each of these stereotypes, so the media isn’t completely responsible. But nuance is necessary here. Thus this post.

Lie 1. Evangelical Christians are intolerant. “Intolerance” is the new clay word that is used to strong-arm an entire group of people who dissent from the conventional wisdom. Thus if a person believes that Jesus is the only way to receive eternal life (as most evangelicals do), they are deemed “intolerant” because the conventional wisdom is to believe that eternal life doesn’t exist. Or if it does, Jesus is but one way among many ways to obtain it. In short, “intolerance” has been redefined by many in our time to put pressure on those who dissent from the status quo. Granted, some evangelicals are (unfortunately) intolerant of anyone’s beliefs but their own. But many are not.

Lie 2. Evangelical Christians hate gays and lesbians. Unfortunately, some Christians despise those in the LGBT community. However, there are many Christians who understand marriage in the traditional way (exclusively between a man and a woman) yet genuinely care for LGBT people. Interestingly, President Obama was against same-sex marriage not too long ago. I don’t recall anyone saying that he hated gays or lesbians at the time.

“What I believe is that marriage is between a man and a woman . . . What I believe, in my faith, is that a man and a woman, when they get married, are performing something before God, and it’s not simply the two persons who are meeting.” Obama in an Interview with WTTW Chicago public television in October 2004.

 “I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage . . .” Obama in an October 2010 interview with Joe Sudbay while expressing a struggle over the issue and evolving attitudes.

There are evangelical Christians who break with the traditional view of marriage and homosexuality. But the suggestion that all people who affirm the traditional view of marriage hate gay people is patently false.

Lie 3. Evangelical Christians vote Republican. Some do, however, many vote Democrat, Libertarian, Independent, and some don’t vote at all, thinking that voting is to pick up the sword and affirm the Empire (see Yoder and Hauerwas on that score).

Lie 4. Evangelicals are a monolith. This is hardly the truth. As I argued in Beyond Evangelical, the evangelical coalition is incredibly diverse on all fronts and it’s fracturing. So much so that the word “evangelical” must be redefined today. On its own, the word is practically meaningless.

Lie 5. Evangelicals are mostly concerned about outlawing abortion, having limited government, getting prayer back in schools, standing against gay rights, gun control, and evolution being taught in the public schools. While some evangelicals believe all of these things, many do not. And among those who would agree in principle with the ideas, they are not priorities. On the contrary, many evangelicals are supremely concerned with the environment and the plight of the poor.

Lie 6. Evangelicals are warmongers. Some evangelicals support war in certain cases, others do not. In fact, many evangelicals are vocally opposed to it.

Lie 7. Evangelicals are hypocrites. The original meaning of the word hypocrite is someone who pretends or puts on a show. Thus a person who speaks out against the use of handguns, but owns and uses handguns themselves would fit the definition. Hypocrisy doesn’t mean imperfection or the ability to make mistakes. All Christians are imperfect and all have made mistakes in their lives. The rare exception being Jesus of Nazareth. So while hypocrisy is present in the evangelical community, it’s also present in every people-group and movement on the planet.

Lie 8. Evangelicals hate President Obama. It’s unthinkable that a genuine Christian would hate anyone. “Hateful Christian” is an oxymoron. Nevertheless, many evangelicals love Obama yet disagree with many of his policies. Other evangelicals support Obama and affirm many of his policies. If an evangelical Christian hates anyone, they are violating one of the central commands of the Bible – something which all evangelicals claim to believe in.

Lie 9. Evangelicals set homosexuality above every other kind of sin. Some certainly do, unfortunately. But many view it as no greater a sin than gossip, slander, outbursts of anger, and lying (pointing to Paul’s “works of the flesh” lists where he puts slander and outbursts of anger on the same par as gross sexual sins). And as previously stated, some evangelicals do not believe that homosexuality is a sin. (That’s another conversation for another time.)

In summary, don’t be swept away by these lies even though someone with a bigger megaphone than yours happens to be heralding them.

Looking for More? My book, Beyond Evangelical, was written to and for evangelical Christians. It discusses the changing shape of evangelical Christianity and provides evidence that there is a growing trend among Christians who do not fit the Progressive Left or the Christian Right. These are evangelicals who have moved beyond the traditional ideological categories on either side.

About Frank Viola

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  • Deb

    Why was I going to post that same comment???

  • Kev Lane

    I also struggled with the issue of same sex marriage as a Christian as I am sure that President Obama did. However, when a Christian honestly looks at this issue and then places the Government and religion in their proper places it is very clear. I see same sex marriage and homosexuality, in my walk of faith, wrong. However, I will NOT discriminate against someone else and tell them who they may or may not marry and I will love them all the same. Christ NEVER compelled us to force anyone to live a certain way. Christ wants everyone to come to him by free will, not forced will.

    Where does mandating morality and mandating spirituality cross paths? What happens when another religion is bigger than Christianity and they want to pass laws based upon their beliefs? I see this attempt by Christians, along with all the other issue’s that they pay lobbyists to promote, as a Christians lazy way to change the world. Christ called us to evangelize and change the hearts of men, not force the hearts of men. Christ never set the example of mingling in Government as many self righteous Christians have done. This self righteous certainty may be the very thing that causes us to lose our own souls. When was the last time you witnessed to someone? Talking about you’re positions or Church doesn’t count.

  • Frank Viola

    Thanks for sharing your opinion in a civil way (the Blog Manager just let me know that someone started calling some of the folks on this blog names and so the post was deleted. I didn’t see it, but I’d say that’s an example of intolerance . . . if a person doesn’t agree, then cast aspersions upon them).

    Certainly there are some evangelicals who have no tolerance for other people’s views except their own. And that includes the views of FELLOW EVANGELICALS. The word “intolerance” is an interesting one and I plan to explore it in a future post.

    But again, the problem you’re describing works within the evangelical community itself. Some evangelicals attack other evangelicals and misrepresent them over doctrinal or political differences. Did you read my post, “Warning: The World is Watching How Christians Treat One Another” . . . if not, you should as it goes into this.

    Your point about evangelical moderates not publicly rebuking pastors who level killings, etc. isn’t accurate. Tony Campolo, Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, Mark Roberts, Rick Warren, Adrian Warnock and many others have done this very thing publicly. BUT . . . much of the media didn’t/doesn’t give them airplay, hence why you could make this statement that there’s a lack.

    I’m in touch with thousands of evangelicals, both on the right, the left and in the middle, and I cannot name a single one who calls for the death or imprisonment of gays or the death of disobedient children.

    The only group or person I’ve heard of that fits that bill is a fringe church that’s known for calling for outrageous things like this. But many evangelicals have denounced their activity. So it’s a stereotype that’s not rooted in reality. It’s a kin to saying that all Muslims (or most of them) are terrorists.

    I think it can be said that *most evangelicals* believe that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman — the belief that Pres. Obama held for many years until very recently. That would be a fair and accurate statement.

  • Joe A

    Intolerance, Mr. Viola, is Evangelical Christians’ lack of respect for other beliefs in a pluralistic society, a lack of respect which can easily be seen in countries like Indonesia or Iran, where converting to Christianity or demeaning Islam (any way the government chooses to see it) will earn you a death sentence from the government.

    Many Evangelicals seek that type of government for the United States, so YES, Mr. Viola, the majority of Evangelicals ARE intolerant simply by their lack of respect for other religious beliefs. A lack of respect, I might add, I have not seen in any other religion in the US in many decades, from Catholicism to Hinduism to Protestant to Muslims – only from Evangelicals.

    As for gays and lesbians, what bothers me most is the lack of criticism from Evangelical moderates when I hear pastors calling for things like death or imprisonment of gays or killing disobedient children. Such a lack of speaking out reminds me most of the Christians in WWII Germany who knew the concentration camps were heinously immoral but didn’t speak up for the Jews.

  • Frank Viola

    I beg your pardon, but it’s keenly relevant and your argument doesn’t follow. Let me try again. First, you’re defining marriage as a “fundamental human right.” You cannot prove that and it goes against common sense. If you are right, it would mean that children are denied “fundamental human rights” because there is an age limit to marriage. It would also mean that an adult male who wishes to marry a 7-year old girl is being denied “fundamental human rights.” That’s where your logical leads. The point here is that marriage has limits. The question then becomes, what should those limits be exactly?

    Second, and I repeat, this DOES come down to how one defines marriage. If marriage is open for any and all, then children and adults can marry each other at any age. (It would also mean that children or adults could marry their pets if they so wished.) But the question of “what is marriage and who can marry” is outside the scope of this post.

    The points of the post (that you are replying to) is that it’s incorrect to say that people like Pres. Obama — who was against same-sex marriage VERY recently — hate, despise, or “oppress” gays by virtue of their belief in what marriage means and constitutes.

    But then again, perhaps you believe that Obama is a gay hater (or was recently) and everyone else who agrees with his long-standing position is as well. If so, I simply think you’re wrong about that. :-)

    Note that many Christians, especially those of the Anabaptist persuasion, have their personal views about marriage. But they don’t get involved in politics and believe that this is matter for the State to decide. That’s rarely brought into the conversation. Just saying . . .

  • Bloke

    No. It doesnt come down to that at all. That is a staggeringly irrelevant point. If (and that is a huge IF) someone chooses to be a homosexual, then that is still not a reason to deny them basic fundamental rights.

  • Kendall

    This was really a quality post. Fantastic blog, Thanks for sharing. Keep posting like this.

  • rvs

    Thanks for this. I would like to see more dialogues at orthodox/conservative evangelical universities between professors and key figures in the local or regional gay communities. Such dialogues could model intelligent, rigorous Christian engagement. As it stands, too many evangelicals–in my experience–are afraid to talk to gay people. Sadly, too, I think that many gay leaders have too quickly written off the possibility of useful dialogue with sincere conservative evangelicals.

  • Frank Viola

    Hi Lisa. Thx. for taking the time to engage the conversation and comment.

    How did you find this blog post? I’m curious (I just joined Patheos).

    You may find this of interest – it’s a message to Christians from a Christian: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/warning/

  • Lisa

    You’re wrong. We hate that you want to legislate your beliefs and force us to live by them. Believe what you want, live how you want, have your TV preachers, radio shows, and street preachers. Warn us all you want. We don’t care as long as you aren’t FORCING US to live by your beliefs. BTW – The republican party has done your side no favors. They make you people look like smug, arrogant, greedy, pompous, hypocritical brutes. The fact that statistically most of you support them no matter how outrageous the behavior further reduces your credibility. And no neither I nor any one in my family is gay. We have no divorces, and several of the children including two of my own are in the military.

  • Frank Viola

    The Blog Manager asked me to post the following note.

    “Some comments haven’t been approved for this post because they violated the rules of moderation for this blog. When a comment isn’t approved, Frank doesn’t even see it. If you wish to post a comment, be sure to read the rules for moderation first at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/rules/
    Thank you.
    The Blog Manager”

    Be sure to check out the other posts on this blog as we cover different, but related ground. Thx.

  • Frank Viola

    Thank you for the remark, but it completely missing the nuance and the distinction.

    The narrative I’ve outlined here *dominates* the media, even though there are a few exceptions here and there. I’ve only seen a handful of media personalities point out that evangelicals do not fit the stereotypes listed.

    By contrast, these stereotypes do not dominate the evangelical community. In fact, there are highly visible and very influential evangelicals who break them and so do the large numbers of evangelicals they influence.

  • LianneKaos

    There’s an interesting parallel between the initial disclaimer (“I realize that “the media” is not a monolith. So I’m using the word generally here”) and the fourth lie (evangelicals are a monolith.)

    So I wonder if it’s fair for me to speak of evangelicals in the same sense that the author speaks of the media – in general, with awareness that they are not a monolith.

  • http://poder5.blogspot.com Michael Castro

    Many times I’ve had to tell my atheist friends that not all Christians are alike. We are not all fanatics with a single minded directed attitude towards social issues. I hope some atheist read this and open their minds like they ask us to do with ours.

  • http://piercedtotheheart.org Randy Heffner

    Jon – I appreciate your perspectives (here and above). I cringe when I hear those of a Christian belief system use “my God says so” in public policy arguments. Similarly, I cringe, for example, when those of an atheistic belief system oppose a policy because it accords with Christian beliefs. I like your language “laws that conform to moral obligations” and that it takes many years to work this out in a pluralistic society. While working it out, “tolerance” and “love” ought to mean that, though we radically disagree, we will work hand-in-hand to find a way forward that gives mutual respect to our differences.

    Let’s work with the example you highlight. Your contention that one set of beliefs shouldn’t “get to decide for everyone” casts a shadow, in my view, on your contention that one “can’t believe in equal rights and personal autonomy and be against gay marriage.” I fully respect and allow that this is true for you; were we to discuss the matter in detail, I would truly want to understand how you connect these dots. Will you allow that this belief of yours does not decide the matter for others? What proposal might address and respect deep concerns on both sides? If indeed it takes a “few hundred years” to work out the law and reason of it, we’d better get started on real conversation now, for overturning the past thousands of years of society’s understanding of marriage should not be done lightly or hastily. My point is decidedly *not* to speak against gay marriage, but rather it is a longing for true love and respect on both sides of this and many other questions of public policy.

  • Frank Viola

    Yes, “Beyond Evangelical” deals with all of this. This post is kind of a curtain raiser, if you please. My book offers practical solutions. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/beyond/

  • http://piercedtotheheart.org Randy Heffner

    Frank – From the discussion after the post, I gather that you don’t intend to stir evangelicals’ typically victim-ish reaction of indignant agreement, yet I find that the post tends to go that direction. Jeremy K makes the most needed point in saying, “If evangelicals want to be known as loving and tolerant and generous people, they can enter the public square with more humility, less political bluster, and a generous spirit.” In this vein, methinks a better post would have been “Let’s Give the Lie to Media Stereotypes about Evangelicals.”

    Perhaps your book does that, and perhaps the title was crafted specifically to draw interest from evangelicals that most need to be softened by the likes of Jeremy’s point. If so, fair enough. Still, beyond merely stating that the stereotypes are indeed stereotypes, there’s a crying need to help evangelicals see how they feed these stereotypes and, in practice, fail to speak and act with love and grace. Such unloving ways are all too common in media megaphones wielded by high-profile evangelicals, in blog post comments by everyday evangelicals, and more.

    We as the community of evangelicals have a long way to go in learning how to act with love in a pluralistic society. We need more voices that teach us to be, like Jesus was, strongly oriented to righteousness and justice yet able to operate in winsome and loving ways that draw all manner of people into relationship.

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  • Frank Viola

    Jose: Take a deep breathe and relax. Re-read the post. Regarding your concern, I said (and I quote): “That’s another conversation for another time.”

    An entire book can be written for each point, let alone a series of blog posts.

    This is a single post, not a book.

    All things in their due course. I appreciate the compliment at the end, and I don’t see anything ‘shaky’ about the post. I made the points I wanted to make at this time.

    Exhale now. ;-)

    blessings,

    fv

    Psalm 115:1

  • Frank Viola

    Thx. You may be right. The comment said “in reply to Frank Viola” … so I assumed he was talking to me.

    “You talkin’ to me?” ~ Robert Di Nero

  • Jack

    I believe he was referring to Lauren’s original post, not to your response.

  • Jose

    Frank
    this is an inexcusable cop-out, you MUST have a stand. If you don’t you are denying what our faith and the bible teaches. Co-habitation in a loose sense can equate to marraige, so if adultery in the technical sense is not involved, then it is marraige, in any other sense it is frowned upon.
    God calls sodomy an abomination in His eyes, if you don’t believe that, then I am concerned. The bible records the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, for the excessive evils of that place , highlighting this particular reason as one of the major reasons. But before anyone embarks on a GAY bashing spree, Jesus said under a similar circumstance “he who has no sin let him cast the first stone…” and no stones were cast then, and I strongly believe, can be cast now.
    Despite the above, I believe God loves gays, just as he loves heterosexuals, because in my learning and not so humble opinion(I hope in this case only) there is no “degree of sin”. So “all have sinned and have fallen short…”

    And Jon Moles as you have the right to your opinions, so do we “judgemental” types, you may think it is an assault on your right to have your freedom impaired by my thinking or someone else’s thinking, but by that same measure it is an assault on my right for you to think that you can define for ME what freedom is. And let’s both be real, the fact that I read your post and if you actually read this, we have affected each other. The beauty of belonging to the human race (which in MY opinion God created this way) and having oral and written language.

    And since I’m full of opinions (and judgements :-) ) Frank I think you stepped into this one with this (in humble opinion this time) shaky post. But I laud you for the courage to stirr the debate.

  • Frank Viola

    I guess the nuance in our dialogue is that I’m involved with discussions with the evangelical community and this is a big issue. The fracturing of the evangelical coalition and the rendering of the word today versus what it meant 30 years ago. I suppose the main point here is that it’s not a monolith. And it’s often used as if it were — by *some* in the media. Saying “evangelicals vote Republican” is like saying “Women vote Republican” or “plants are tall.” I hope that helps.

  • Jeremy K

    My last comment was in reference to evangelicals who wish to be known in a different way, but blame the media for public image. I said evangelical was a general term with limited application. If the word is so useless, and we can’t make any groupings or draw any conclusions, then why is it there in the title?

    Using media as a general term is just as helpful as using evangelical as a general term — just like you do in the post. Generally speaking, we “know” certain things about the traditions and habits of media in general; we know it can foster hype & sensationalism a la Postman, we know journalists chase down leeds and often land where there’s the best story, we know that currently popular media is stretched by tight budgets and a shrinking audience (or is that evangelicals?). There are some facts and stats to back this up, and plenty of anecdotes. It’s abundantly wrong in some cases, and dead on in others. Media is the far broader term of the two, and yet you’ve decided it’s helpful enough and the meaning apparent enough to say the media “lies.”

    General terms are our starting point. The patient readers will help us fill in the nuance.

  • Frank Viola

    There are many parents who have homosexual children who love their children *the same* as they love their heterosexual children. But they simply believe that “marriage” is between a man and a woman — *just as* Pres. Obama believed not long ago. They are for civil rights and unions, but not “marriage” as they define and understand it, just as Pres. Obama believed not long ago. In such cases there is neither hatred nor oppression. A lot of this boils down to the question of the nature of homosexuality. Is it normal/natural (like a person’s skin color or race) or is it something else. A completely different subject that goes beyond this post and a complex one at that.

  • Frank Viola

    There’s nothing in the post that says anything about cohabitation or my personal views on homosexuality. The issue is what evangelicals believe and they are divided on the latter as I stated.

  • Frank Viola

    There’s a pretty strong consensus from those in the coalition that the word is “clay” which means it’s molded and shaped to mean different things. Even Noll and Bebbington’s 4-note definition is so general in scope now (with the evolution of terms) that it’s not very useful anymore. Your last comment assumes evangelicals are a monolith, something I refuted in the post. The truth is, SOME evangelicals have and are coming to the public square with love and generosity and others aren’t. Trafficking in stereotypes is never a service to anyone. I hope this post helps to dismantle some of those stereotypes. Thx. for the comment.

  • Jeremy K

    Sure Frank, every grouping has outliers, and categories always have exceptions, but ‘evangelical’ as a general term remains a pretty useful handle. General terms, as a rule, can’t be applied, and should’t be applied in every case, but they give us something to work with.

    Often enough the media is remarkably ignorant about religion in general, but in the case of evangelicals, there’s been at least a generation of “bad press” generated by a host of voices. Big name evangelicals who have the megaphone and the bluster and the will to mix it up in politics, money, and media. If there are other voices in evangelicalism, they are for the most part drowned out. There’s a roster of evangelical media hounds, and they’re the talking heads who help perpetuate the image.

    If evangelicals want to be known as loving and tolerant and generous people, they can enter the public square with more humility, less political bluster, and a generous spirit. Maybe they can quit blaming the media, and start keeping house.

  • Jon Moles

    It might not be hate, but is a form of discrimination and oppression. You can’t believe in equal rights and personal autonomy and be against gay marriage. It seems like a sort of equivocation fallacy to say that being against gay marriage doesn’t equate to hatred; while that may be true it does mean they hate gays, anyone who is against gay marriage has devalued gay people as less deserving of the same rights and privileges as everyone else. It might not be hate, but it’s not acceptance and it’s certainly not love.

  • Jon Moles

    I don’t hate Evangelicals or other Christians, but I oppose people who think they have a monopoly on truth as you seem to. Homosexuality is wrong TO YOU, cohabitating before marriage is wrong TO YOU; you don’t get to decide for everyone. I don’t oppose you because you are ruining my fun, I oppose you because what you claim as moral doesn’t fit the description of ethical obligation in a society that values freedom and equality. Believe what you want, but you don’t get to dictate another’s conscience beyond the requirement that everyone obey those laws that conform to moral obligations. And by moral obligations, I don’t mean what God says, I mean what has been enshrined in law and derived from reason over the past few hundred years.

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  • Frank Viola

    Not sure what a “religionist” is, but many in the media who put all evangelicals into the same camp (a la, they are Republicans, etc.) are evangelicals themselves. The idea of the media being diverse was my opening statement. So I agree with you there. :-)

  • Frank Viola

    It’s written to them as well. But the voices who dissent are pretty loud; it would be good, therefore, for all people in the media to recognize them also.

  • Stickler

    The word “media” is the plural of “medium.” The media are diverse, just like evangelicals. They tend to be critical of religionists, who tend to be critical of rationalism.

  • Frank Viola

    I look forward to seeing you write that post. ;-)

  • Craig

    I suggest doing two more things: provide some documentation and/or create a similar list of lies that evangelical Christians like to tell about the media.

  • Frank Viola

    Politicians change their positions all the time for politics’ sake. And sometimes their ideas genuinely evolve. But that wasn’t the point made in the post. The point was that Obama didn’t hate gays and lesbians while he was against same-sex marriage. The same can be said for many other people. The narrative that equates the two is patently false.

  • Dave

    “Interestingly, President Obama was against same-sex marriage not too long ago. I don’t recall anyone saying that he hated gays or lesbians at the time.”

    Why not put this down to politics the way Romney seems to be changing all his positions lately? Obama publicly stated his support for same-sex marriage in the 1990s.

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  • Frank Viola

    That’s certainly true in some cases. Darkness hates the light, as Jesus said in John.

    But in other cases, evangelicals can be mean-spirited, nasty, judgmental, putting some sins above others (or being angry with those who sin differently than they do, as Peterson said), and worse, falsely attacking and misrepresenting people in their own camp. All of this repels people from Jesus Christ and it’s causing major upheavels in the evangelical coalition.

    See my post “Warning: The World is Watching How We Christians Treat One Another” for that side of it. So both are true. It just depends on the particular person who doesn’t like evangelicals and why.

  • Lauren

    I think people (the world) hates Evangelicals (and other Christians) because they don’t like hearing the truth. They don’t like hearing that homosexuality is wrong, and that you shouldn’t cohabit before marriage, and the like.
    Sometimes, it reminds me of a child who wants to go swimming in the ocean. The adult or whoever’s watching him tells him that they can’t swim, because there’s a sign warning of rip currents. Because he can’t get he wants, the child throws a fit, and calls his babysitter many mean, rude names. But the babysitter still won’t let him go, because she knows that he would drown.

    I think it’s that way with a lot of grown-ups, too. If you warn them not to do something, or that something they’re doing is bad, they think you’re just attacking them. The world doesn’t like to hear about consequences, and they’ll bully anyone who contradicts what their viewpoint.

  • Summer Smith

    I am not hearing this in the media, but experiencing it first hand in the church I went to. It seems, since I’m almost the opposite on every lie stated here (almost, some things I’m still uncertain about)… I get a lot of refute for it in my evangelical community. So much so, I’ve almost given up sharing my heart on these topics.

  • http://sevensentences.com Geoff Talbot

    Interesting article. I hope you sell some books Frank. Would it not do more good to write this post and direct it towards the “Christians” that reinforce these stereotypes?


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