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How can the church overcome its bad reputation? A “radical acceptance of other people.”

BadChristian podcast co-host Matt Carter tells us why relationships beat dogma.

Donald Trump Visits Church In Las Vegas
Worshippers pray during a service at the International Church of Las Vegas before the arrival of then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in October 2016.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“Christians are known for being, maybe not as intolerant as you can get, but they seem to be pretty intolerant is the reputation. And that’s an earned reputation,” Matt Carter says about halfway through my discussion with him on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting.

Carter is the co-host of BadChristian, a terrific podcast where three Christian guys (Carter, Toby Morrell, and Joey Svendsen) navigate the world of the modern American church, which has come to stand in for a whole bunch of movements — especially political ones — that have turned it into yet another cudgel in the culture wars between the right and left.

Carter and his friends find that evolution distressing, and their podcast grapples with questions of how to separate what they love about being Christians from everything else the church is increasingly seen to represent. That’s why I wanted to have Carter on the podcast as we kick off the holiday season, which culminates in a major Christian holiday that has also been weaponized in the culture wars.

As someone who’s recently gotten more involved in his local church, I wanted to talk with Carter about how Christians can get away from the kinds of behavior that have given them such a bad reputation.

For Carter, it’s all about relationships before dogma. He explains:

The only way past that is ... total acceptance. You could use the word grace from the Christian tradition, but I’m going to translate it as acceptance — like a radical acceptance of other people. I mean that on a big level, but really just on an individual level.

I would parallel that to my relationship with my wife. When I was dating my wife, she didn’t have the same faith that I did, and that bothered me. I wanted to be involved with her, and I wanted to get married to her, and I wanted to move forward with her, but I wasn’t willing to do that until she cleaned up her act or started thinking the right way or gotten right, in my view. And that was horrible and abusive and bad and ineffective and counterproductive and wrong.

It took years and years of nonsense that I thought was her fault, but it was always my fault, looking back on it. ... She comes from a family that’s less stable and some trauma in her background, and she always felt fundamentally unaccepted as a person. So you can only imagine how some asshole like me treating her that way would further the problem and cause other reactions.

It was only in spite of me when I understood the damage that I’d done — which is actually a spiritual communication to me that helped my eyes to be opened to what I was actually doing in that relationship —- that I could accept her without an agenda. And then it was, like, “Whoa. That just worked.” When I accepted her for who she was, she felt the security of that acceptance from me, and everything else fell into place.

That could apply to anything, even to groups. If you want to talk about LGBT people in church, or any time a Christian gets around somebody and they start trying to befriend a “sinner,” it stinks, it smells. You know there’s an agenda behind it. You know it’s a temporary acceptance until you can eventually “get right.” The agenda is there, and everybody knows it, and everybody smells it. It doesn’t work.

Real grace, I think the way the gospel really is or the way Jesus would really be, you wouldn’t feel or smell that agenda, where I’ll invite my “sinner” neighbors over tonight and show them that I “love” them, but they know they only have a certain amount of time before they have to convert and that will end. They know that they’re a project for you. That stinks. That smells, and everybody’s wise.

Real relationships have to be without agenda.

For much more with Carter on everything from his favorite chord progressions to his favorite gift he’s ever received, listen to the full podcast.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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