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“The G.O.P.’s Holy War”: Righteousness Is A Tricky Business, It Has A Way Of Coming Back To Bite You

In the final, furious days of campaigning here, it was sometimes hard to tell whether this state’s Republicans were poised to vote for a president or a preacher, a commander or a crusader.

The references to religion were expansive. The talk of it was excessive. A few candidates didn’t just profess the supposed purity of their own faith. They questioned rivals’ piety, with Ted Cruz inevitably leading the way.

A rally of his devolved into an inquisition of Donald Trump. Speakers mocked Trump’s occasional claims of devout Christianity. Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, pointedly recalled Trump’s admission last summer that he never really does penance.

Cruz, in contrast, “probably gets up every morning and asks God for forgiveness at least a couple of times, even before breakfast,” Perry told the audience.

The evangelist or the apostate: That’s how the choice was framed. And it underscored the extent to which the Iowa caucuses have turned into an unsettling holy war.

Religion routinely plays a prominent part in political campaigns, especially on the Republican side, and always has an outsize role in Iowa, where evangelical Christians make up an especially large fraction of the Republican electorate.

But there was a particular edge to the discussion this time around. It reflected Trump’s surprising strength among evangelicals and his adversaries’ obvious befuddlement and consternation about that.

Cruz’s whole strategy for capturing the presidency hinges on evangelicals’ support, as Robert Draper details in The Times Magazine.

He rails against abortion rights and same-sex marriage in speeches that sound like sermons, with references to Scripture and invocations of God.

He ended a question-and-answer session with Iowans that I attended in a typical fashion, asking them to use the waning hours until the caucuses to pray.

“Spend just a minute a day saying, ‘Father, God, please,’” he implored them. “Continue this awakening. Continue this spirit of revival. Awaken the body of Christ to pull this country back from the abyss.”

But righteousness is a tricky business. It has a way of coming back to bite you.

A super PAC supporting Mike Huckabee produced an ad for both radio and TV in which two women express doubts about Cruz’s commitment to Christian causes, saying that he speaks in one way to Iowans and in another to New Yorkers whose campaign donations he needs.

“I also heard that Cruz gives less than 1 percent to charity and church,” says one of the two women.

“He doesn’t tithe?” asks the other. “A millionaire that brags about his faith all the time?” They conclude that he’s a phony.

Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s impossible to know the genuineness of someone’s faith. That’s among the reasons we shouldn’t grant it center stage.

Religion was integral to our country’s founding. It’s central to our understanding of the liberty that each of us deserves. But so are the principles that we don’t enshrine any one creed or submit anyone — including those running for office — to religious litmus tests.

So why does a Republican race frequently resemble such an exam?

The winner of the Iowa caucuses in 2012 was Rick Santorum, who put his Catholicism at the forefront of his campaign. The winner in 2008 was Mike Huckabee, a former evangelical pastor who never let you forget that.

To emerge victorious in 2016, several candidates are leaning hard on religion, hoping it’s an advantage over Trump.

But just as God is said to work in mysterious ways, religion is working in unexpected ways in this campaign. According to some national polls, more evangelicals back Trump than they do any other candidate.

That’s true although he’s on his third marriage; although he’s boasted of sexual conquests; although he went to the evangelical stronghold of Liberty University in 2012 and, in a rambling speech, mentioned the importance of prenuptial agreements; although he returned to Liberty University just weeks ago and revealed his inexperience in talking about the Bible by citing “two Corinthians” when anyone with any biblical fluency would have pronounced it “Second Corinthians.”

Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., went so far as to endorse Trump, a development that clearly galled Trump’s rivals and bolstered their resolve to prove that they’re the better Christians.

Jeb Bush questioned Trump’s faith. Marco Rubio kept going out of his way to extol his own.

He released a television commercial here in which he speaks directly to the camera about what it means to be Christian. “Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our creator for all time,” he says. “The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan.”

During last week’s debate, he worked religion into an answer to a question that had nothing to do with it. The Fox News anchor Bret Baier had asked him about his electability, mentioning a Time magazine story that called Rubio “the Republican savior.”

“Let me be clear about one thing,” Rubio responded. “There’s only one savior and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ, who came down to Earth and died for our sins.”

And at a rally, Rubio visibly brightened when a voter brought up faith and gave him an opportunity to expound on it.

“I pray for wisdom,” he said. “The presidency of the United States is an extraordinary burden and you look at some of the greatest presidents in American history. They were very clear. They were on their knees all the time asking for God, asking God for the wisdom to solve, for the strength to persevere incredible tests.”

That same image came up at the Cruz event during which Perry denigrated Trump. One of the speakers expressed joy at the thought of “a president who’s willing to kneel down and ask God for guidance as he’s leading our country.”

Cruz had declared such willingness in Iowa in November at an evangelical conference where a right-wing pastor talked about the death penalty for gay people and the need for candidates to accept Jesus as the “king of the president of the United States.”

“Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander in chief of this country,” Cruz said then.

I’m less interested in whether a president kneels down than in whether he or she stands up for the important values that many religions teach — altruism, mercy, sacrifice — along with the religious pluralism that this country rightly cherishes. And while I agree that Trump is unfit for the Oval Office, Corinthians has nothing to do with it.

 

By: Frank Bruni, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, January 30, 2016

February 1, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Iowa Caucuses, Religious Beliefs | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Bernie Sanders And The God Factor”: Less A Matter Of Sanders’s Own Behavior Than That Of His Most Avid Supporters

The “S-word” — socialist — hangs over Bernie Sanders’s campaign like a spectral question mark. His self-identification as a “democratic socialist” is a matter of indifference to most supporters — especially the young — and even to many conservatives who assume all Democrats are socialist these days (remember the weird effort at the RNC a few years back to insist on labeling the opposition the “Democrat Socialist Party”?). But it’s certainly a new thing historically in a country where socialism never really caught on as a mainstream ideological tradition.

While Sanders is asked about the S-word regularly, another first he would represent has not really come into focus: his religious identity. He would definitely be the first Jewish president (or major-party presidential nominee), using the standard ethnic definition of that term. But he might also be the least religious president. Are either of these a real problem for his candidacy?

That question was posed in the Washington Post on Wednesday in an extensive article that quotes Sanders as confessing a rather vague belief in some sort of deity but no connection to organized religion. During his upbringing in Brooklyn by parents who immigrated from Poland, his Jewishness was “just as uncontested as saying you’re an American,” according to his older brother, who also recalls himself and Bernie listening to World Series games outside a synagogue where his father was attending Yom Kippur services. His first wife was from a similar background, while his second was raised Catholic.

According to public-opinion research, Sanders’s Jewish background shouldn’t be much of an issue. According to a Gallup survey in 2012, 91 percent of Americans (up from 46 percent when Gallup first asked this question in 1937) say they would vote for a Jewish president. Only 54 percent would vote for an atheist, however. So for Christians and Jews, at least (Muslims are another matter), having a religious affiliation is better than spurning God altogether.

That’s a good example of American exceptionalism. Just as center-left parties and leaders in Europe have no problem calling themselves “socialists,” the religious affiliation of politicians is not terribly significant. Last year Ed Miliband led the British Labour Party into a general election. That he was a professed atheist (like many if not most Labour politicians) from a Jewish background wasn’t an issue. In sharp contrast to American standards, Tony Blair’s religiosity was something of an oddity in the U.K.

So it could be that Sanders’s Jewish-socialist background and nonreligious identity represents a combo platter of associations that just don’t seem terribly American, at least to older swing voters (it is assumed that conservatives would reject Sanders on so many separate grounds that religion would hardly stand out).

Sanders is probably dealing with it as best he can by expressing sympathy with religious motives for political action, and most of all by not exhibiting that allergy to religion that besets a lot of highly secular people, including the kind of activists who are heavily represented in his base of support. That was probably the real value of his startling appearance at Liberty University last year. He didn’t make many conversions to his brand of politics. But he showed he did not consider himself as coming from a different moral universe from people with an entirely religious frame of reference. And interestingly, a new Pew survey shows that Sanders is perceived as more religious than the Republican candidate currently leading among conservative Evangelicals, Donald Trump, and roughly equal in this respect to the pious Methodist Hillary Clinton.

There may be a temptation in the Sanders camp to compare him to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who were great presidents not identified with any organized religious group (the former claim is a bit off since Jefferson, for all his heterodoxy, was an Anglican vestryman). But that could be a false analogy, since Jefferson was strongly interested in religious speculation and polemics (with his own highly expurgated version of the New Testament), while Lincoln’s rhetoric and thinking were saturated in a sort of nondenominational folk piety.

Perhaps the smartest tactic for Sanders is to remain authentic and more generally stress his distinctively American credentials. Every time he says with great frustration that he wants this country to “join the rest of the world” in providing health care as a right or in offering some other commonsense benefit, he simply reinforces the impression that his values are exotic and perhaps even suspect.

For the kind of Americans who administer religious litmus tests, there’s nothing Sanders can or should do. Many conservative Evangelicals and some traditionalist Catholics, after all, deny Barack Obama’s Christianity, and some deny fellowship with liberal Christians generally. It’s not an honest standard, as was made evident in 2004 when the occasional churchgoer George W. Bush inspired great passion among conservative Evangelicals via various verbal tics and dog whistles, while the very regular Mass-goer John Kerry was regarded as a bloodless, faithless liberal elitist.

But for people of faith who do want to find common ground with Bernie Sanders and the movement he represents, it’s important that he doesn’t view religious motivations for social action as cheap imitations of the real thing or silly superstitions that real grown-ups have overcome. This may be less a matter of Sanders’s own behavior than that of his most avid supporters, who sometimes strike others as a mite superior. While God may rightly have no formal place in Bernie Sanders’s world, he needs to find a place for God’s followers among his own.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, January 27, 2016

January 28, 2016 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Religious Beliefs | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Unwrapping Falwell’s Trump Endorsement”: Trump “Reminds Me So Much Of My Father”

On the surface, the political dynamic is baffling. Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of a legendary right-wing TV preacher and the head of one of the nation’s largest evangelical universities, threw his official political support behind Donald Trump – a secular, thrice-married casino owner who’s never really demonstrated any interest in, or knowledge of, matters of faith.

And yet, here we are. Falwell has not only offered a spirited (no pun intended) endorsement to the Republican frontrunner, he’s even gone so far as to say Trump “reminds me so much of my father.”

There’s a fair amount to a story like this one, but let’s start with a blast from the recent past.

In November 2007, another thrice-married New York Republican was running for president, who also had a secular track record of supporting abortion rights and gay rights. And yet, a high-profile televangelist – Christian Coalition president and Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson – nevertheless threw his support to that GOP candidate, Rudy Giuliani.

Social conservative activists and leading religious right groups howled, for reasons that are probably obvious. Giuliani was the antithesis of everything evangelicals were looking for in a Republican presidential candidate, and yet, Robertson ignored his allies and threw in his lot with the secular, Catholic adulterer.

Why? Because Robertson’s priorities weren’t (and aren’t) at all similar to those of many other evangelical leaders: the “700 Club” host saw a Republican leading in the polls; he wanted a seat at the table with a man he perceived as a future president; and so Robertson followed the prevailing political winds.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know this was a poor bet – Giuliani failed spectacularly as a candidate, earning exactly zero delegates – but it was a reminder that Robertson is a partisan first and a culture-war ideologue second, while other prominent social conservatives reverse the two.

And Robertson isn’t the only social conservative who thinks this way.

In the current GOP race, prominent political evangelical leaders effectively limited their top choices to five Republican presidential hopefuls: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson. Trump was an afterthought.

Cruz emerged as the religious right movement’s standard bearer, but like Robertson eight years ago, that didn’t stop Jerry Falwell Jr. from going his own way.

Of course, there’s also the larger question of why Falwell’s fellow evangelicals would even consider Trump in the first place. We can’t say with certainty whether the Liberty University president has partisan or electoral motivations, but that’s a separate question from what other social conservatives are thinking as they, too, rally behind Trump.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent published a good piece on this last week.

Instead, Trump’s success among evangelical voters may be rooted in the fact that, more than any other GOP candidate, Trump is able to speak to their sense of being under siege. Trump somehow conveys that he understands on a gut level that both Christianity and the country at large are under siege, and what’s more, he is not constrained by politically correct niceties from saying so and proposing drastic measures to reverse this slide into chaos and godlessness.

I recently talked to Robert Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, who has been studying evangelical opinion for many years. His research has led him to believe that Trump is very good at speaking to evangelicals’ sense of a lost, mythical golden age in America that predates the political and cultural turmoil of the 1960s.

In other words, we’re talking about a group of voters – largely white, older, social conservatives – who hear Trump vowing to “make America great again,” and believe him, without much regard for his ignorance about religion, his messy personal life, or his previous policy positions.

If a secular, thrice-married casino owner who uses phrases like “Two Corinthians” is eager to champion a vision of a bygone era, these evangelicals appear to care more about the message than the messenger.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 26, 2016

January 27, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Evangelicals, Jerry Falwell Jr | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Episcopals Now Second Class Christians”: Anglicans Demote Episcopalians As Global Christianity Gets More Polarized

The Anglican Communion effectively banished its American branch, the Episcopal Church, for three years last week because of disputes about same-sex marriage. That rift is just the surface of a much deeper division, reflecting the polarization of Christian life in the 21st century.

The Anglican Communion, which began as the Church of England under Henry VIII, is now a global network spanning 165 countries. There are about 85 million Anglicans in the world, including about 2 million Episcopalians mostly in the U.S. As of this week, however, those Episcopalians are second-class Anglicans: Members cannot vote in any Anglican Communion decisions on church doctrine and cannot represent the communion in any interfaith bodies. Essentially, for three years, Episcopalians are Anglicans without any standing in their own church.

The suspension took place at a meeting of “Primates,” the archbishops and other leaders representing the 44 constituent Churches of the Anglican Communion. The reason for suspension came last June when the Episcopal Church removed doctrinal language defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and authorized marriage rites for same-sex couples. While it’s still up to individual churches whether to solemnize same-sex unions, but the vote formally allowed them to do so.

According to the Primates, these actions were improper because the Episcopal Church acted on its own. “Such unilateral actions,” the Primates said in their official statement, are “a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.”

According to some Episcopal leaders, that is bunk. National church bodies routinely make doctrinal decisions on their own. (Some Anglican Churches still do not ordain women, for example.) What this is really about is homosexuality—and what that is really about is what kind of church the Anglican Communion is today.

The answer, for decades now, is a divided one.

Until the 19th century, the Anglican Church was—as the name implies—basically British, and headed officially by the British monarch. With the spread of the British Empire, however, came the spread of Anglicanism to all corners of the world. By the end of the century, the contemporary Anglican Communion came into being, including not only the Churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland, but also the Episcopal Church and churches in “provinces” across the world.

Two major developments created the schism facing the church today: the liberalization of the Episcopal Church, and the growth in power and numbers of African, Asian, and South American ones.

George Washington was an Episcopalian. So were Madison, Monroe, FDR, and seven other presidents—11 in total. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Episcopal Church was perhaps the leading Christian denomination in America.

During this time, Episcopalianism embodied American propriety and upper-class values—conservative but reasonable. J.P. Morgan, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush. Prim church services, without the Catholic “smells and bells” but with the decorum and hierarchy. V-neck sweaters, pearls, and country clubs.

That began to change in the civil rights era. African American parishes had been around since the 1850s, but often separate but (un-)equal. In 1958, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention passed a resolution affirming “the natural dignity and value of every man, of whatever color or race, as created in the image of God.” Over the objections of Southern leaders, the church began to take sides in the civil rights struggles of the time.

The change was gradual and uneven, but by the end of 1970s, liberals had the upper hand, and conservatives had mostly left, often to join the newly minted Christian Right, made up largely of evangelicals, Baptists and Catholics. Women were ordained as priests in 1976, and as bishops in 1989. Prim church services started to loosen up. By the 1990s, the Episcopal Church had changed from the starchy denomination of Rockefeller Republicans to a smaller denomination of (mostly) liberals.

At the same time, the rest of the Anglican Communion was changing radically, with adherents in the Global South coming to outnumber those in Europe and North America. The churches in British Commonwealth countries emerged in different social contexts, with different values, and different (often hostile) relationships to liberalism. Moreover, they found themselves competing with evangelical inroads, conservative (until two years ago) Catholicism, and Islam, with the most pious-seeming religious tradition often “winning.” For all these reasons and more, the emergent Anglicanism of the Global South was a far more conservative Anglicanism even than the old Episcopalianism, let alone the new one.

The watershed moment came at an important Anglican conference in 1998, when theological conservatives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America defeated the liberals on a key vote: homosexuality.

Arguably, the split we saw last week is just a later stage of the process begun 18 years ago. Homosexuality is the catalyst but not the only contentious issue. To liberals, the Episcopal Church is moving into the 21st century, setting aside Biblical fundamentalism and responding to how people actually live their lives. But to Anglican conservatives, the Episcopal Church has lost its way, moving toward a mushy universalism that downplays Christian exclusivity in favor of pluralism, and takes liberal positions on abortion, LGBT equality, and other hot-button issues.

Perhaps the great open question in American religion is whether liberal denominations like Episcopalianism have a future or not. (As Jack Jenkins at ThinkProgress noted, Presbyterianism—Donald Trump’s denomination—is even more liberal than the Episcopal Church, and Presbyterian leaders have frequently criticized Trump’s positions on immigration and Islam.) American Christianity in general is in a period of steep decline, and mainline Protestant denominations—plus white, non-Hispanic Catholics—are declining the most.

We are moving toward a religiously polarized America. Thirty percent of Americans between the ages of 18-29 profess “none” as their religious affiliation, while at the other extreme, around 35 percent of Americans subscribe to a resurgent ultra-fundamentalist evangelicalism. (77 percent of those evangelicals believe we’re living in the End Times.) Mainline Protestants, once the dominant religious group in America, are now just 18 percent of the population. Episcopalians are less than 1 percent.

To the extent religion continues to provide a source of inspiration, community, purpose, and ethical motivation in people’s lives, liberal Christianity should have a lot to offer, seeing as it provides those things without preposterous beliefs, divisive social mores, or fire-breathing sermons. And it does, to many. But even though 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God, they seem uninterested in expressing that belief in moderate, reasonable churches.

The American religious landscape, then, resembles the Anglican Communion as a whole. On one end, a shrinking number of religious liberals, and at the other, a fierce religious conservatism. In coming apart at the seams, the Anglican Church looks a lot like us.

 

By: Jay Michaelson, The Daily Beast, January 17, 2016

January 19, 2016 Posted by | American Communion, Marriage Equality, The Episcopal Church | , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“A Task That Cannot Be Avoided”: The Necessary Task Of Integrating Islam Within The West

In what is both a reflection and an amplification of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in this country, Donald Trump has called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Trump’s xenophobic statement and the popular fears it reflects have to be addressed intelligently and forcefully. We should begin addressing them by admitting that there are unique challenges with integrating Muslims and Islam itself into polities shaped by Western liberalism. But it is a task that has to be done. It cannot be avoided even by the most extreme restrictions on immigration or travel, because Muslims are our already our neighbors. And in an age of decentralized authority and instant digital communication, Islam will remain a way of life available to anyone in the West.

A particularly intense example of America’s Trumpian Islamophobia was captured at a town meeting in Virginia over plans to build a mosque. A man erupted at a Muslim who was speaking, “Every Muslim is a terrorist, period.” Others at the meeting applauded the erupting man for saying that he didn’t want Islam’s “death cult” in his town.

That is ignorant and wrong. But if you will, consider a more thoughtful and advanced version of this argument: The Prophet Muhammad was a military leader and conqueror, a militant posture that shapes Islam to this day. The Grand Ayatollah was telling the truth when he said “Islam is politics or it is nothing.” Osama bin Laden’s fatwa against America was totally consistent with the texts and spirit of early Islam. Today’s millions upon millions of non-violent Muslims could reasonably be described as lax Muslims.

It’s easy enough to dismiss that argument as bigoted, too, and to note that it fails to recognize the very real variety within Islam. At the same time, we should recognize that our culture entertains similarly structured arguments against more familiar religions.

People argue that Christianity is inherently sexist. Or that Catholicism’s view of authority makes it resistant to civil law. We see and sometimes nurture the same preening, vandal spirit of the “Draw Muhammad day” when we call a condom-portrait of Pope Benedict art. Some of the right-wing criticisms of Islam or the customs of immigrants from Islamic countries can have a distinctively secularist flavor, for instance, their fear about the spread of female genital mutilation. It’s possible that the discomfort some progressives have with criticizing Islam itself forcefully would disappear if Muslims seemed like a less vulnerable minority than they are. How do we get there?

Some say that today’s anxiety around Muslim immigration is as irrational as previous fears about integrating immigrant Catholics in American life. That’s too glib. While even the highest authorities in Catholicism of the 19th century did occasionally declare itself hostile to liberal society, the truth is that liberalism itself was shaped by its Christian inheritance. Islam’s tensions with the West run much deeper than Catholicism’s tensions with America ever did. Islam differs in important ways from Judaism and Christianity. There is Islam’s emphasis on jurisprudence over theology. And Islam’s form of triumphalism, which has more difficulty reconciling itself to a world in which Islamic ideas are marginal.

But Western Christians or secular people should not presume to tell Muslims that true Islam is violent. It is easy to find quietist strains of Islam that impress with their piety and devotion to the texts that are at the heart of Islam. A number of scholars and Islamic commentators, from Muhammad Abduh to Fazlur Rahman, have preached an Islam that is in creative tension with the West, rather than outright conflict.

Besides, America’s liberal bargain, more than Europe’s, is capacious and could accommodate a variety of expressions of Islam, just as it accommodates a variety of other religions, some of which build communities that strike us as illiberal. The challenges this represents may be truly awkward, but they are nonetheless necessary.

Consider the community of Samtar Hasidic Jews at Kiryas Joel in Monroe, New York, which has historically fallen within my own Congressional district. This community of Jews sees huge increases of its population because of its incredible fertility rate and welcome attitude to its own co-religionists. Nearly 90 percent of the community speaks Yiddish at home. Nearly half cannot speak English competently. It is widely reported that religious authorities in Kiryas Joel can swing the vote of the town and with their vote, the divided Congressional district in which it sits. Kiryas Joel’s residents have an awkward and sometimes legally combative relationship with their Monroe neighbors over planning and development.

There in Kiryas Joel is much of what people claim to fear about Islamic integration, a separate, “unmeltable” group, one that keeps to its own language and folkways. And yet Kiryas Joel’s peaceful existence with its neighbors is a testament not only to that community’s genius, but the genius of America as well. There is simply no pressing reason for New York to tear up its very generous legal settlement to assimilate Kiryas Joel on its own terms.

Similarly, there is no inherent reason for America to tear up its legal settlement in response to Islam itself. There may be good reasons to limit immigration from Muslim nations. I believe there are. But they are not substantively very different from reasons to limit immigration from any or all nations.

And finally, if the anti-Muslim chauvinists really cannot handle any of the above arguments, the final argument for finding a way to better integrate Muslims should be to prove the superiority of the West itself. Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities have existed within Islamic civilization for over a millennia, not without incident, and not without awkward or painful compromises. If the West is better and stronger than Islamic civilization, it should be able to tolerate religious minorities better than Islamic civilization, too.

 

By: Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Week, December 10, 2015

December 12, 2015 Posted by | Islam, Muslims, Western Civilization | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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