Piety and politics: The American way

By David Wilson

TV evangelist and religious right leader Rev. Jerry Falwell preaches at Lynchburg, Va.'s Thomas Road Baptist Church during the 1980s. Falwell and the religious right were a factor in the 1980 U.S. presidential election. Photo by Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Getty Images


Editor's note: Last week, former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and American businessman Donald Trump kicked off their campaigns for U.S. president. Pundits anticipate a heated rivalry between Clinton, who is a moderate, centrist Democrat and Trump, who is backed largely by right-wing Republican voters — especially evangelicals — according to the Pew Research Center. The Observer commemorates the historic contest by republishing this story from October 1988.


You can’t accuse Dayton, Tennessee of dwelling on the past. More than 60 years after the Scopes Monkey Trial brought this sleepy hill town to world attention, signs of its brief fling with celebrity are few and far between.
On the edge of town a weathered billboard invites visitors to the Scopes Museum in the Rhea County Courthouse. It was there lawyer Clarence Darrow and politician William Jennings Bryan clashed over a Tennessee law banning evolution from the state’s classrooms. Outside the courthouse a plaque explains that teacher John T. Scopes was tried for “teaching man was descended from a lower order of animals.” It concludes simply, “Scopes was convicted,” not mentioning that the verdict was later reversed.

Apart from that, it’s hard to distinguish Dayton from thousands of other American towns bypassed and left for dead by the Interstate freeway system. But stay here a while and you begin to feel history mingling with the present — not in museums or monuments, but in a fervent and conservative Christianity that permeates life today much as it did when Scopes challenged its enshrinement in the Tennessee school system.

The evidence is everywhere. At almost every crossroads is a stack of signs directing travellers to backwoods churches with names like Church of Christ Pillar of Truth, Foursquare Gospel Church and Locust Hill Independent Assembly. Crudely constructed billboards advertising summer Bible schools and upcoming revivals are as common as speed limit signs. And with a frequency bordering on obsession, larger, flashier billboards decry the sin of pornography.

On the two-car ferry that takes you across the Hiwassee River into Dayton, a young attendant talks about the weather, the fishing, then religion. “Folks around here are real religious,” he says. “But you should see them in Kentucky.” Outside the Dayton Q-Room, a downtown pool hall, two men discuss a local softball tournament. A check of the Dayton Herald News for details reveals the standings in play thus far: Mixed Religions and Grace Bible tied for first, with Calvary Baptist and Graysville Church of God not far behind.

But nothing is more evocative than what happens early each Sunday morning at the Quik Stop convenience store on the Soddy-Daisy road. It’s there 76-year old Rev. Amos Cozart, the pastor of nearby Mount Mamer Zion Church, squares off in a savage weekly debate with 74-year-old J.M. Wright of Spring City, a hamlet as Wright puts it, “nearly to Rockwood.”

The issue is religion but the style is pure cockfight. “You’re hell-bound,” declares the wiry, neatly dressed Cozart. “No I ain’t,” retorts Wright, unshaven and shabbily clothed. “I choked the devil out 30 years ago. I don’t feel the devil in my heart whatsoever.”

To an unsuspecting Canadian buying orange juice, this is startling stuff. But the locals who drift in and watch take it in stride. They keep an informal tally of points with their amens.

The argument ranges all over the map. Cozart belittles Wright’s notion that true baptism is by immersion. “You go in a dry devil and come out a wet one.” Wright disparages Cozart’s status as ordained clergy: “If they stopped paying you $275, $300 a week, you’d disappear.” Cozart attacks Wright’s interpretation of the Bible: “You come to my church and you’ll hear the Gospel with no sugar-coating.” Wright declines: “Them ni---rs would never let me out alive.” Cozart loses his temper: “You need to go home and pray ‘til the roof raises up.” Responds Wright: “I pray it wouldn’t.”

“They’re just like this every week,” says the woman behind the counter. After more than an hour the debate becomes a contest on who knows the Bible best. Cozart takes the offensive, claiming to know how many letters are in the Bible (3,566,480) and how many times specific words appear — for example, “father” (1,500), “mother” (325), “boy” (three), “girl” (twice) and “eternity” (once). “If you don’t believe me, count ‘em,” he challenges.

Beaten, Wright stares out the window towards the gas pumps, tapping his finger on the top of the soda-pop cooler.

Out in the parking lot before the first of his three Sunday services, Cozart explains why he turns up for these battles. “He’s the biggest bigot in the county, and I pray that one of these Sundays I can reveal the true Gospel to him.

“Besides, it warms me up for preaching.”




In the Great Smoky Mountains near Murphy, North Carolina, the Tennessee-based Church of God Prophecy has transformed a hillside into a huge sloping tablet bearing the Ten Commandments. Ascending an opposite hillside are 29 markers explaining biblical injunctions against everything from remarrying to wearing jewelry to belonging to a lodge. The site is an apt symbol of the integration of conservative Christianity into the social and cultural landscape of the southern Bible Belt.

To make sense of the Christian-based political movements that are born in the Bible Belt and fan out across America, you first have to appreciate how pervasive and powerful a force Christianity is here. It’s much, much more than church on Sundays. It’s a way of life, handed down from generation to generation.

Rev. Eugene Owens, pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, was a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. He understands Canadians might not fully appreciate the paramount importance of religion in the Bible Belt. Owen explains: “In the South, religion is an assumed, vibrant reality. It permeates all aspects of life. It’s more than institutional — it’s cultural. It’s in the air – you breathe it. It is very difficult to be a southerner and not a Christian.”

The numbers are staggering. Take, for example, the Southern Baptist convention, with which Owens is affiliated. The largest Protestant denomination in the United States, it has 14.7 million members – more than half the total population of Canada. In 1987, Southern Baptist churches raised more than $4 billion (U.S.).

To the Baptists, add the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, the bulk of whose 11,400 member-churches are located in the Bible Belt, mainline churches such as Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, various black churches and innumerable independent churches. Lynchburg, Virginia, a typical small Bible Belt city, has no fewer than 121 churches to serve a population of 85,000. Charlotte has about the same number of Protestant churches as Toronto — with a third of the population.

With such a Christian presence in the culture, it is understandable that religious issues can become political issues, and political issues can acquire a religious dimension. A Canadian parallel is language. Our cultural make-up is largely determined by the presence of two founding tongues, French and English. Because of this, Canadians take it for granted that language issues will figure prominently in our political life. In the same way, Bible Belt Americans find it natural for religion to enter into politics; indeed many question the legal separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution.

Not all Bible Belt Christians are political. But in the last 30 years sufficient numbers have become politically active to constitute a major force in American politics. The first wave was the civil rights and voter-registration movements in the 1960s, led largely by the black churches and such liberal clergy as Rev. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The second wave, again liberal, was in the mid-1970s, when Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian and a southerner was elected to the White House with the overwhelming support of southern evangelicals. The third wave, this time conservative, mostly white and Protestant, began in the late 1970s with the founding of the fundamentalist Moral Majority and other political action groups. It crested with the election of Ronald Reagan to two terms as president, and began to falter this year with televangelist Pat Robertson’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

The new Christian Right, as this most recent wave is often called, may be down, but it’s a long way from being out. It’s unlikely to have as much influence on next month’s elections as it did in 1984 when exit polls showed 80 percent of born-again Christians cast their ballots for Reagan, the Christian right’s anointed candidate. But the election is only one measure of the Christian right’s strength, because it is active at so many levels. It remains the dominant religious force in American politics today.

“The Christian right is the John Birch Society baptized.” The speaker is not a firebrand leftist but a Southern Baptist minister and former Republican member of Congress. Today, Rev. John Buchanan is chairperson of People For the American Way, a civil liberties watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. If Buchanan has problems with the Christian right, it’s not because its supporters tend to be religious, but because its leaders tend to use Christianity to advance an extreme right-wing ideology.

The John Birch Society which Buchanan alludes to is an organization formed in the 1950s, notorious for its fierce anti-communism and authoritarian views on domestic matters. It is the secular cousin of one of the oldest groups in the organized Christian right, the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, begun in 1953 as a Midwestern evangelical movement and now headquartered in a seedy part of Long Beach, California. Talking to its chairman, Rev. James Colbert, is like passing through a time warp into the iciest days of the Cold War.

“Communism poses an unprecedented danger, not only to churches but to the entire Christian civilization,” declares Colbert. “They believe they can create a series of crises around the world. With each crisis they will make a demand for a concession. With every demand, a threat of nuclear war. They believe the American people, the Congress and the president will look at the threat and give in, little by little.”

Call Colbert and his organizations the old Christian right. Today’s Christian right — represented by groups such as Moral Majority, Christian Voice, American Coalition for Traditional Values, Concerned Women for America, Eagle Forum and the Free Congress Foundation – is more sophisticated, fabulously rich and less inclined to see the world in such strict monolithic terms. Yet at the core there remains a basic ideological conservatism.

Since the 1970s, these and other groups have worked to convince Christians that far-right issues are their issues. They’ve done it by giving traditional Christian issues (school prayer, abortion, sexual morality) a place alongside traditional right-wing issues (anti-communism, capital punishment, law and order, less welfare, more military). The agenda of the Christian right now ranges from opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools to support for the Strategic Defence Initiative, or Star Wars, program.

Richard Nixon proved you don’t need to be a Christian to be a conservative, and Jimmy Carter showed you don’t need to be conservative to be a Christian. Billy Graham has shown you can be conservative and Christian without being militant. But increasingly the Christian right has ignored the distinction: what used to be the conservative versus liberal position on issues is now seen as the Christian versus un-Christian position.

Rev. Joseph Chambers of Paw Creek Church of God in Charlotte personifies the blurring of Christian beliefs and conservative ideology. “I didn’t set out to become a conservative,” says Chambers, “but the sins of our liberal secular humanist society fired me to change the system.” Now Chambers describes himself as a “conservative Bible-believing American,” and has formed a political action group called Concerned Charlotteans to “bring together the conservative diversity.”

“Some conservatives are social and moral conservatives, some are economic conservatives and some are defence conservatives,” Chambers writes in the group’s bi-monthly newsletter. “The truth is, together we make up at least 80 percent of America and can redirect the course of this great nation.” Chambers call for a “broad conservative effort to regain the high ground of a republic…where individual liberties are celebrated without licence, and where all men have the privilege of worshipping the Creator without censorship.” Chambers’ group has been credited with influencing last year’s civic elections in Charlotte, school board elections this year, and with defeating a Muslim running for county commissioner.

The Christian right looks for support mainly from among the estimated 80 million evangelical and born-again Christians in the United States, people like Don Beehler of San Bernadino, California. Beehler, who works at the resort-like headquarters of Campus Crusade for Christ International, left his previous job with the Amway home-products company after being born again several years ago. He says he now builds his life on “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Although Beehler generally approves of Ronald Reagan, heartily disapproves of the government in Nicaragua and deplores the moral permissiveness of the post-sixties, he doesn’t like to call himself a conservative. He maintains his views are more religious than political. “I just try to take this issue…and look at it and see, from what I understand the Bible to teach, what would be the proper response.” He pauses to reflect the qualities he would like to see in political leaders.  Beehler’s ideal American president would have  “a strong moral character, with a strong desire to see our nation, which was founded on Christian principles, maintain a strong moral base.” This president sounds an awful lot like a conservative, but Beehler sees it differently. “We need a president who is a godly man.”

'We need a true conservative Christian renaissance in America . . . to bring about a society free of pornography, fornication, violence, drugs and everything else that happens when society starts acting like dogs.'


The Blue Ridge Mountain city of Lynchburg, Virginia is a living monument to the growth of the Christian right in the 1980s. For decades its only claim to fame was as the birthplace of the term lynch-mob. But now this city of 85,000 is known the world over as the home of Rev. Jerry Falwell, perhaps the most enduring of the televangelists and the leading luminary of the Christian political right.

Scattered all over town are parts of Fallwell’s $100-million-a-year empire. To the west is the 2,145 hectare campus of Fallwell’s Liberty University, said to be the fastest-growing university in the United States; it’s certainly the only university anywhere to confer an honorary degree on Iran-contra mastermind Oliver North.

Across town is Falwell’s Liberty Godparent Home for unwed mothers, his School of Lifelong Learning, the headquarters of Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour TV network and the Liberty Federation, a relative of the Moral Majority, which Falwell co-founded in 1979. The cover of May’s Liberty Report, available in hotels and restaurants throughout Lynchburg, showed a bust of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger alongside a bust of Adolph Hitler. Underneath a headline read “Legacy of Death.”

“He started out with 35 parishioners in the old Donald Duck soda pop plant here,” reminisces Bill Garth, who lives in the nearby village of Amherst. “But he went and knocked on every door in Lynchburg to get people to come to his church. He’s a dynamic personality, a super-salesman.” What does Lynchburg think of Jerry Falwell now? “He probably has more enemies here than anywhere in the world — because he’s so successful.”

A Sunday morning service at Falwell’s 20,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church begins with a Christian education lesson on the Rapture — the idea that true believers will be transported to heaven in the instant the world ends. “Someday God is going to declare war, all-out war, on the Earth,” warns one of Falwell’s assistants. Then as a joke he suggests it’s safer to fly on communist airlines because in the Rapture Christian pilots will vanish from their cockpits.

When the regular service begins, Falwell enters with a flourish, waving to parishioners and slapping his associates on the back. The sanctuary is dominated by a huge American flag, unfurled for a “God and Country” musical pageant later that evening.

Taking the pulpit, Falwell dashes reports he’s toning down his political side. A sermon on avoiding burn-out becomes a diatribe against communism, socialism and Nazism (linked together) and a benediction on the virtues of unlimited free enterprise. As proof, Falwell cites his own example, Donald Duck soda pop and all.

John Buchanan of People for the American Way had an encounter with the Christian right in the late ‘70s that was co-sponsored by Jerry Falwell. An eight-term Republican member of Congress from Alabama, Buchanan was a key advocate of public education. “One day,” he recalls, “a group of 20 or 30 people marched into my office and announced themselves by saying, “We are the Christians and we are here to inform you of the Christian position on education’.” The group wanted the newly formed Department of Education dismantled, claiming it was a bastion of liberalism and secular humanism. “They said they were part of a new national political movement and it was their purpose to elect those who support the Christians and to remove from public office those who oppose them.”

By the 1980 Republican primaries, Buchanan, himself a Southern Baptist minister, was targeted for defeat by two groups, Moral Majority and Christian Voice. The latter issued a so-called biblical scorecard on Buchanan’s voting record; he scored a failing 29 out of 100. Moral Majority fielded their Alabama executive director, a former member of the John Birch, to oppose Buchanan.

“Those folks spread out and covered the district like a blanket,” he recalls. “They registered 8,000 new voters, quietly through the churches and going door-to-door, three or four times.” Ten days before the primary Jerry Falwell flew down from Lynchburg and endorsed Buchanan’s opponent. “He portrayed him as God’s candidate, while I was portrayed as being from the other side.”

Buchanan, who in the last primary had prevailed over his rival by a two-to-one margin, lost this one by 5,000 votes. Eight years later, Buchanan won’t buy the notion that the Christian right is a spent political force. Its strength lies not in grand Pat Robertson-style runs for presidency, but exactly where he was beaten, at the grassroots — local and state party caucuses, state legislative committees, school boards, the courts. “It’s an unfortunate reality in American politics that most people are apathetic. This sets the stage for well-organized extremist groups to move in and take over, which is what they’ve done and continue to do.

Joe Chambers of Paw Creek Church of God wouldn’t mind if the take-over were widespread. “We need a true conservative Christian renaissance in America,” he declares, “to bring about a society free of pornography, fornication, violence, drugs and everything else that happens when society starts acting like dogs.”

Disgraced PTL founder Jim Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye, are greeted by well-wishers in Gatlinburg, Tenn. on June 30, 1987. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Perhaps Chambers envisions a society modeled after Heritage, U.S.A., the huge Christian theme park built by Jim and Tammy Bakker near Charlotte before their PTL empire crumbled in a sex scandal. The 850-hectare site is billed as a “21st Century Christian Retreat,” but it’s really a hermetically sealed fantasyland purged of the secular and pluralistic forces that shape modern American society.

It’s a pristine realm where vices are forbidden and social ills shut out. Everything has a Christian slant; the more activities you can afford, the more Christian your experience will be.

The centerpiece is the 500-room Heritage Grand Hotel, a lavish structure where you can sip tea in a restaurant and watch fellow guests be baptized in the lobby pool. Attached to the hotel is Main Street U.S.A., an outdoor street built indoors. Lined with flag-draped shops selling everything from chocolate to religious curios, it’s a small-town American never-never land. Antique cars, trolleys, red fire hydrants, park benches and plastic shade trees fill an imaginary boulevard. Above, a high curved ceiling is bathed in a gentle simulated twilight that never wanes.

There’s no crime here, no unemployment, no poverty and apparently no minorities. Nothing but people buying, people selling and storefronts with gingerbread facades.

Elsewhere on the site you’ll find the Praise Hollow Campgrounds, the Jerusalem Shoppe, condominium projects, tennis courts, swimming pools, even Billy Graham’s boyhood home bought intact and moved from its original location in Charlotte. Once in a while you’ll see one of the Bakkers greeting loyal supporters outside the PTL television studios as they pursue their efforts to get their empire back. (The former “Bakkery” has changed its name, and at Heritage Bookstore, Jim and Tammy items are reduced to clear.)

The crowds aren’t as big as before, but the buses and camper vans still arrive. Rev. Alman Birt, a Pentecostal minister from Greensburg, Pennsylvania is leading a group of 25 on a four-day package visit – his 13th such trip. Prior to a taping of the PTL Club, a woman from Maryland explains why she brings her twin daughters here twice a year: “It’s a place where they can have a Christian holiday — it’s a healthy environment for them.” The 11-year olds beam in agreement.

The desire of the Christian right to fashion a new America is matched by the readiness of politically liberal Christians to face the problems of the here and now. Rev. Jessie Jackson’s electrifying speech to the Democratic National Convention in July expressed it simply and powerfully: not “I condemn,” but “I understand, I understand.”

Born and raised in South Carolina, Jackson is the liberal face of Bible-Belt Christianity. His very presence at the convention recalled a progressive populist tradition that peaked with the civil rights movement a quarter century ago. His speech, his entire campaign really, was the closest Christian liberals have come to a public declaration of their cause after nearly a decade in the Reagan wilderness.

A fragmented but seemingly tireless minority, they must have smiled as they listened to Jackson outline a program which embraced issues liberals have been working on for years: better housing; more social programs; less military; fairer immigration; national health insurance; higher taxes for the rich, lower taxes for the poor. There are, Jackson seemed to say, alternatives to Jerry Falwell.

'We have a clause in the Constitution that says governments shall establish no religion. But the reality is that this government has taken upon itself to say what religion is and what it is not.'


If you don’t hear much about Christian liberals in American politics, it’s because they lack the organization, the wealth and the media bombast of the Christian right. As individuals they seem more reserved about their religious motivation. Even though many come from the Bible-Belt milieu that supports the Christian right, liberals are not as inclined to publicly affirm the divinity of their cause.

“Yes, I would say my motivation is Christian,” says Marien Franz, “but I’m just trying to hold up a different standard, plain morality.” Franz is a Christian at the heart of the American political process, a lobbyist who works in the corridors and committee rooms of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Her cause is peace, her goal a law that would allow people of conscience to earmark the military portion of their taxes for non-military purposes. Her method is quiet Christian diplomacy. Over lunch in the bustling House of Representatives dining room, Franz, a Mennonite originally from rural Kansas, explains how she differs from the legions of other lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

“I like to talk about what in the world conscience is and how it can have such a demanding claim on your life that you have no choice but to follow it. It’s probably the most important thing I do and probably the most difficult thing I do.”

“It’s not unusual to go into an office, have an aide say I can only have 10 minutes, then find myself still there an hour and a half later. You see it in the body language — a little loosening of the tie perhaps – which says I’ll think I’ll allow myself the luxury of a little introspective time’.”

Franz’s pacifist roots run back to her childhood during the Second World War. She has been fighting “this evil called war” ever since, and has no illusions about what she’s up against. “Sometimes I feel like I’m being squeezed between the military and the industrial and it gives me a complex.”

Nor does she seek instant or dramatic success. “This bill for a peace tax has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1971. To put it in perspective, you have to understand that the bill to give women the right to vote was introduced in 41 different Congresses before it passed in 1920. That’s 82 years — we’re just teenagers.”

Rev. Jim Oines of Phoenix, Arizona, is a liberal Christian whose convictions lead him outside the political process just as surely as Franz’s lead into it. Oines, a Lutheran, can’t stomach the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, policies vigorously supported by the Christian right. He defies the law by harboring refugees from the war-torn region who’ve entered the United States illegally.

Oines and members of his parish in Phoenix’s poor Hispanic barrios are part of the Sanctuary movement, a loose-knit network of churches, synagogues, college groups and private citizens which ads Central Americans fleeing death squads and civil war in their own countries. “I prefer to talk about doing sanctuary rather than describe it as an organization,” says Oines in his small, cluttered office. “It’s people responding to a need . . . something that moves back and forth between acting, reflecting and organizing.”

The Reagan administration hasn’t taken Sanctuary lightly. During the early 1980s the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) harassed, bugged, vandalized and spied on Sanctuary workers and parishes in an effort to bring the movement to its knees. “They even sent paid informers to infiltrate our Bible study group here,” recalls Oines.

“They argued this wasn’t a Bible study group, that it was a political rally. The fact we talk about political things, like the Bible does, seemed to them to mean there was no way this could be religious.” Oines and others have since filed suit against INS. “We have a clause in the Constitution that says governments shall establish no religion. But the reality is that this government has taken upon itself to say what religion is and what it is not.

Oines excuses himself for a minute. “I’d like you to meet someone.” He goes down to the church basement and comes back with a shy 21-year-old who calls himself Anival. Quietly, with Oines interpreting from Spanish, the young man describes the torture and murder of his father and brother by extremist forces in El Salvador.

In a cramped office down the hall, Oines’ Sanctuary colleague Anna Marie Broxterman is on the telephone making arrangements for Anival. She pauses between calls to answer a question about her religious motivation. “Spirituality and social justice,” she replies. “You can’t have one without the other.”

But it’s tough to find a Christian liberal in America these days who’ll come out swinging against the Christian right. Criticize, yes; but rebuke as they are often rebuked, no. Says Marien Franz: “I don’t see myself as working against them, only for my own position.” Adds Oines: “I don’t think they all have bad intentions, but I think they get used.”

Rev. David Eaton pastors All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. He has been pilloried time and time again for his activist ministry. “To some people on the religious right I’m a militant. If you’re black you’re a militant, if you’re white you’re a radical.”

But labels don’t bother him. Eaton tells a story which is a parable for Christian liberals living in a conservative time. “About eight or nine years ago when one of the abortion counseling centers here was being picketed by the religious right, several of the ladies came up to give me hell — my church supporting abortion.

“I received them very graciously and listened very intently, and assured them I would have nothing to do with any type of program where persons don’t receive counseling or which tried to persuade a person to have an abortion.

“About four years later, the youngest of these women called me because she was being ostracized out of her very conservative church. She had become pregnant out of wedlock and didn’t know where to turn. She came all the way from Tennessee and said, ‘I remember the hostility we came at you with, and I remember how loving you were to us’.

“I sent her to the very place she had picketed, she got the counseling, decided to have the child and is now married and living in Pennsylvania.”

Eaton pauses to reflect. “You can’t allow yourself to become bitter. I think this is the type of contribution the liberal church can make — not so much the positions we take, but how we take the positions. Because the persons on the right are so bitter, and so angry, and so hateful that they are almost pleading to be ministered to.

“I really feel that persons who understand the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and who happen to be identified as liberals, who understand walking that second mile, turning the other cheek, have a much more vital ministry to perform than the persons on the right. Though we may be perceived as being small in numbers, we can be disproportionately influential.”



Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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