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The blog of Frederick Clarkson

Archive for December, 2004

Theocracy vs. Democracy in America

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You can’t listen to Christian Right leaders, and more than a few GOP elected officials these days without hearing the phrase “America was founded as a Christian Nation.” What about separation of church and state, you may ask? What about the establishment clause of the First Amendment? Well, the Christian Right has it’s own version of history, it’s own historians, colleges, universities and even law schools. So what about `em? There is a war on for control of America, its institutions and its history. This essay is about one element of the struggle.

A crucial part of the war for the future of America is the battle to define the past. It is in this past that we find key understandings of the Constitution. It is also in this past that modern politicians, judges, and conservative evangelical religious leaders justify their contemporary actions and public policy views. The mythology of America as the once and future Christian Nation, is a powerfully animating factor for the Christian Right. The myth of Christian America is highly debatable. Well, let the debates begin.

Here in the age of “framing the message,” the Christian Right has done a good job with Christian Nationalism — so much so, for example, David Barton, one of the leading figures in the Christian Nationalist movement, works full time spreading the message of Christian historical revisionism. (The Republican National Committee put him to work this year touring churches. He is also the vice- chair of the Texas GOP.) There is no analogous figure fighting for a non-revisionist version of history (although Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has done a terrific job of debunking Barton over the years.) The idea that America was founded as a Christian Nation is prevalent and widely broadcast, by Christian Rightists like Rev. D. James Kennedy, and is largely unrefuted in public life.

Christian Rightists are able to compile a lot of information to support their thesis. They can quote from the Mayflower Compact, from the preambles of constitutions of state legislatures, to various religious statements by various “Founding Fathers.” Absent a grounding in American history and the development of the constitution, this stuff can be hard to refute. Do you have to be a constitutional lawyer or have an advanced degree in history to refute Christian Nationalism? Hopefully not. The political battles in our schools and in electoral contests are not usually going to be waged by folks like that. Somehow, the rest of us need to have useable renderings of our history, so we can go toe-to- toe at the school board, on the op-ed page, and in candidate debates.

I found a helpful place to begin, where the information and the implications are unambiguous. And that’s in Article Six of the Constitution.

For over 150 years of the colonial era, there were established churches, just as there had been in Europe for centuries before. In different colonies, there were different established churches. In Massachusetts it was the Congregational Church. In Virginia, it was the Anglican Church. As a general rule during this period, you had to be a member in good standing of the established church to vote and hold public office. What’s more, one had to swear a Christian oath, of one sort or another. Details varied and changed over time. But the framers of the Constitution had some knotty problems to resolve. They were well aware of the history of religious warfare in Europe, and indeed, of the religious persecution and bigotry in the colonies. One of the formative experiences of the young James Madison was witnessing the beating and jailing of a Baptist minister who dared preach the gospel as he understood it in violation of Virginia law at the time. In the previous century not only witches, but Quakers were executed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Jesuit missionaries, if any had shown up, would also have been executed.

How could the Framers of the Constitution stitch together a nation out of 13 separate colonies, each with its own established churches? How could they inoculate the new nation against the ugliness of religious bigotry and persecution, and the risk of religious warfare? They started to answer these questions in Article Six.

Article Six, Clause 3 states: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

What this meant was that for the first time in the history of the world, religious orientation would not be a consideration as to one’s qualifications for office. This clause, effectively disestablished the churches, by making religious equality the law of the land. It was a radical idea, and it passed overwhelmingly and with little debate. The Christian Right of the 18th Century didn’t like article six and unsuccessfully fought ratification in the state legislatures. The Christian Right spent much of the 19th Century unsuccessfully trying to amend the Constitution to acknowledge God or Christianity in some way. In the latter part of the 20th Century (through the present) the Christian right has tried to revise history to say that the U.S. really was a Christian Nation after all.

But its hard to get around the simple fact that there is no mention of God or Christianity anywhere in the Constitution. This was not because the Framers were irreligious. It was because they believed in religious freedom and did not want the government to interfere in religious affairs. Nor did they want the abuses of power that come from commingling state power with the power of the clergy. Its true that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution or any of the amendments. But the meaning has been unambiguously there from the beginning.

The Christian Nationalists have a tremendous problem in Article Six, so they either ignore it, or attempt bizarre interpretations. Still, growing numbers of people are getting steeped in the mythology, in Christian Schools, home schools, and events with the likes of David Barton.

But one prolific theocratic writer, Gary North, a longtime Christian right strategic thinker, is honest about Article Six. North, who holds a legitimate Phd in colonial history, writes that Article Six erected an explicit “legal barrier to Christian theocracy” and that the ratification of the Constitution was a “break with Christian America.”

Indeed, the colonies had been little Christian nations. But they were overthrown by the ratification of the Constitution by the 13 state legislatures. Each state in turn, gradually brought their state constitutions into conformity with the national charter. Acheiving religious equality did not happen overnight. Arguably, we could say that we have not acheived it yet. But we have come a vast distance in the past 200 years. And I believe that being able to describe that difference in a clear, factual and persuasive manner is one of the great tasks and challenges for all who are concerned about the Christian Right’s vision for America.

Christian Nationalism is an ideology that ought to be easy to demolish, from a powerful factual and moral high ground. Christian Nationalism presumes second-class citizenship at best for the religiously incorrect. The nostalgia for more theocratic times by the likes of Rev. D. James Kennedy and David Barton is offensive. The early colonies were hotbeds of legalized religious bigotry and persecution. That’s one of the reasons why the churches were disestablished. We don’t want to go back to that era. Teasing effective “messages” out of the facts and the history is not that hard, but our knowledge and our arguments are sorely in need of being updated.

We have allowed the Christian Right to own the phrase “religious freedom.” Its time to take it back. On the matter of religious equality and religious freedom, we are the political descendants of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the Framers of the Constitution. Let’s act like it.

[This essay is partly adapted from my book Eternal Hostility. I recently posted an earlier version at The Daily Kos, where an interesting discussion ensued. -- FC]

Written by fred

December 31st, 2004 at 1:54 pm

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On The Radio

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If you like what you’ve been reading on this blog, you can hear my voice talking about some of these things on the weekly radio show, Writer’s Voice.

Francesca Rheannon’s interview with me will air on WMUA 91.1 FM, 5:30 to 6:30 PM on Tuesday, December 28. WMUA is the radio station sponsored by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Past guests have included such authors as Patricia Lee Lewis, Martin Espada, Jim Hightower and Robert Reich.

If you don’t live in the WMUA broadcast area, it is possible to hear the show on streaming audio. You should probably test it beforehand, in case you encounter technical difficulties.

The interview will be edited, so I am not sure what elements will finally be in there. Our discussion of my book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, included some of the challenges of writing about the Christian Right. We also talked about the contemporary Christian Right; the history of theocracy in the original 13 colonies; how the Constitution was intended to overturn the colonial theocracies; how I struggled with the Christian Right’s assertion that America was founded as a Christian Nation, how I needed to find a comprehensive answer to that assertion, and why it was important to me that I did. We also talk a bit about the strengths and weaknesses of the Christian Right; what can be done to counter it; the politics of abortion; and the meanings of such things as religious bigotry, religious equality, citizenship, community, politics and government.

We covered a lot of ground, but that’s the nature of the subject.

If you miss the show, I’m told it will be archived here.

Written by fred

December 22nd, 2004 at 3:52 pm

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Blogging the Christian Left

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The Christian Right has been ascendant in public life for some time. But there are signs that other sectors are not only mobilizing to meet the challenge — but that they have plenty of fight in them.

(And by fight, I don’t mean violence, nasty arguments, or clever bumperstickers. I mean people who understand that politics, and persuasion is a normal part of life in a democratic society, and churches that have a democratic polity — and have the gumption to act and to organize instead of naively seeking only common ground. The Christian Right has learned to fight effectively, and to utilize the tools and institutions of democracy in order to push for antidemocratic policies and practices. But then, you probably knew all that.)

Amidst the millions of personal blogs out there — where we can see such things as our friends’ latest cute cat or baby pics, and so on — there are also a growing number of smart, capable progressives who are turning their blogs into effective internet publications. Some of these, I believe, will be playing a catalytic role in the revival of the religious Left.

Here are two pioneering sites worth checking out:

Faithforward is a new blog by a minister in the United Church of Christ — thats the liberal Protestant church currently in the news for trying to place ads that welcome all to their churches, that CBS and NBC found “too controversial.” The site is run by Pastor Dan, who blogs on religion news from Pennsylvania, and cross-posts over on the secular Daily Kos, the largest liberal democratic blog site. “It’s a work in progress,” he wrote in announcing the new site on Kos, “but we’ll keep at it, with the hopes of building up some kind of community for progressive Christians.”

Dr. Bruce Prescott, based in Norman, Oklahoma, is a leader in the struggle with the fundamentalists that have taken over the Southern Baptist Convention. He is the executive director of Mainstream Baptists of Oklahoma, and is a leader in Americans United for Separation of Church and State. On his Mainstream Baptist blog, he offers sharp, well-informed takes on the news, developments on the Christian Right, and goings on among the Baptists. For example, in response to the right wing noise machine’s claim that Christianity is under attack in the public schools and in society at large, he rejoined (on Saturday, Dec. 18): “We need to dispel the myth that Christians are being persecuted in our public schools. Most of the instances I hear about Christians being persecuted are really examples about Christians no longer being permitted to dominate the stage and school or takeover the public square.”

He has also launched a Christian Democrats blog for discussing religion in the context of politics and the Democratic Party.

Please join me in celebrating the inauguration of the era of progressive Christian bloggers.

Written by fred

December 21st, 2004 at 6:40 pm

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Young Prochoice Activists: Mark Your Calendars

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The Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program and the Population and Development Programs at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA are hosting their 19th annual conference on reproductive rights and social justice, April 1-3, 2005. Hundreds of students from all over the country, as well as many students from other parts of the world will be attending this unique, and uniquely important event.

I wrote an article about these conferences two years ago, that remains relevant today. Conference organizer Marlene Gerber Fried, a professor of philosophy at Hampshire, acknowledged at the time that is is very unusual for academic programs to sponsor an event that mixes choice-related organizing and scholarship. She explained that the Civil Liberties and Public Policy and the Population and Development programs that jointly sponsor the conference are, like Hampshire itself, “committed to knowledge being grounded in the world and in academic work and where the two meet each other.”

“We don’t bring in the stars,” Fried continued. “We place a very high priority on diversity of voices–age and race and country.”

“For older activists, it is tremendous,” she added. “And for young people, it’s not a place where the older people are going to tell you what it’s like. It’s a place where people’s experience is of value, whether it’s a year or 50 years.”

It should almost go without saying that we live in a time of extraordinary threat to reproductive rights in the U.S. and internationally. The work and experience of the past 18 years in refining how to put on this always interesting, engaging and well organized event will be evident, and undoubtedly pay off in many ways for all who attend. The conference, coming as it does at this pivotal moment in history, will provide people with the information, the analyses, the contacts and the movement to take the struggle into the future. This year it is titled: “From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom.”

Here are some excerpts from the conference description.

“The conference is open to everyone. It is intended as a forum for learning and networking for all ages, experiences and background knowledge. If you’ve been an activist for the past twenty years, or if you are just curious and have never been to a conference before, you are equally welcome to attend. The conference is free, wheelchair accessible, and housing and childcare are available with advance registration.”

“This conference has a broad understanding of reproductive rights, encompassing the struggle for racial equality, economic justice, civil liberties, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender and intersex rights, environmental justice, peace, youth liberation, access to education, healthcare and childcare, welfare rights, disability rights, immigrant and refugee rights, and freedom from violence. Our aim is to make the connection between reproductive rights and other social justice movements in order to enliven our mutual efforts for justice and equality for everyone.”

“The… weekend will include time for learning, listening, speaking, networking, and connecting… [as well as].. an abortion speak out, performances, a networking reception, and over 25 workshops on topics such as abortion access, human rights, population control, international women’s health, immigration, art and activism, welfare, globalization, spirituality, sex education, and caring for ourselves as activists.”

The conference agenda and speakers list has not been published yet, but it will eventually be sent out in a brochure, and be posted on the conference web site. People often travel great distances for this conference, and with good reason.

Contact the conference organizers now to get on the mailing list for the conference brochure. Come with a group or come by yourself. But do plan to come.

Written by fred

December 20th, 2004 at 6:01 am

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United Church of Christ Smeared by Rightwing Agencies

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The controversy about the current advertising campaign sponsored by the United Church of Christ, (UCC) has been mostly about the odd refusal of CBS and NBC to air the church’s ads. The networks claimed that the ads were “too controversial.” The church and its supporters charge the network with censorship. The ad’s message is quite straightforward: “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” So, its been hard for almost everyone who has actually viewed the ad to see anything controversial about it. But a conservative think tank, that is also the parent organization of a network of conservative dissident factions in the mainline protestant denominations, has found reason for controversy where others could not.

The Association for Church Renewal, (ARC) a project of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, says the UCC should withdraw the ad. While the press release of a seemingly obscure conservative group would seem like a minor footnote in the current controversy over censorship by major television networks, it actually provides a window into an historic struggle that has been playing out in the mainline American Protestant churches for several decades.

“We defend the right of the UCC to communicate its message in mainstream media,” Diane Knippers, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and Vice-Chair of the ACR, explained. “But we believe that this ad is dishonest and insulting to other Christian churches.”

Wow. That’s a serious charge. What does Knippers have to support her charge? Farther down in the press release Knippers states, “Its current ad tries to boost the UCC by maligning all the other churches. It insinuates that the typical American church turns away ethnic minorities, the disabled, and homosexuals, whereas the UCC is uniquely welcoming of all persons.”

So in fact, Knippers has nothing to support the charge. The ad names no other churches, let alone “all of the other churches,” nor does the ad make any claims or insinuations about the “typical American church.” I think it would be fair to say that the ad suggests that while some churches do not welcome all — the UCC does welcome everyone.

Its more than a stretch to say that the UCC is “maligning all the other churches” – in fact it is more like a smear.

As it happens, this attack is of a piece with IRD’s longterm campaign against the progressive social gospel that has animated the mainline churches over much of the past century.

For many years, conservative dissident factions — most prominently in the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), have been informed and coordinated to a considerable degree by IRD. Founded 20 years ago, IRD was bankrolled by the conservative funders like the foundations controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife, that were, at the time, laying the foundation for the institutions of the conservative movement that now dominate public life. IRD has sought to oppose, neutralize, and overturn the social justice tradition of the mainline Protestant churches — as well as the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. In the 20th century the mainline churches, and these large ecumenical institutions played pivotal roles in advancing the civil rights of African Americans and women and opposing the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, the churches were leaders in opposing, among other things, the policies of the Reagan administration in Central America.

One of the long term strategies of the Right has not just been to encourage the growth of the conservative evangelical churches, it has also been to systematically neutralize and divide the mainline churches and thereby diminish their once powerful voice in public life. These campaigns have had considerable success, and the IRD has played a central role.

Of course, divisions and disagreements are the stuff of any human institution. This is especially true in organizations that have very democratic structures — organizations whos decision making is grounded in reasoned debate. In hierarchical and authoritarian institutions, like today’s Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, debate and dissent are suppressed. But the mainline denominations, which are steeped in American traditions of congregational forms of governance, are far more democratic. It is the very openness of the democratic polities and judicial systems of these denominations that the Right has exploited to turn them into battle grounds in the culture wars.

A key tactic of antidemocratic movements in history has been to monkey wrench the norms of democratic institutions,not only to thwart the direction of the institution, but to discredit the legitimacy of democratic governance in favor of absolutist doctrines and authoritarian governance. This tactic is often on display when the conservative “renewal” factions in the mainline denominations and the outside agencies that support and inform them, sew internal dissent and generate conflict.

It is fair to say that over the past two decades, the public role of the mainline churches has been significantly diminished. One cannot attribute this solely to the IRD or any of its constituent organizations, but their roles as catlysts, instigators, and resource agencies deserve to be better understood by all who value the role of the mainline churches as bulwarks of moral progress in the areas of civil and human rights.

Written by fred

December 11th, 2004 at 7:04 pm

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Combating Creeping Censorship

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It is evident that we are entering an era of increased censorship — and perhaps more importantly — fear of censorship. The signs are everywhere.

There has always been a certain amount of self-censorship by fearful broadcasters, who are subject to some measure of government regulation, the views of advertisers and public pressures. However, the election of a more conservative and Republican congress, the reelection of George Bush, and the growing clout of a well-established Christian Right have already added to the worries of the corporate honchos of the news and broadcast media. But the good news is that there are also signs that there is plenty of fight in the forces favoring free expression and media reform.

Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times, noted the trend towards censorship. Among other things, he cited the recent refusal of public television station WNET, Channel 13 in New York City to accept sponsorship from the new film, starring Liam Neeson, about 1950s sex-researcher Alfred Kinsey.

Recently, we have seen CBS and NBC refuse to air ad produced by the United Church of Christ, which said that the church excludes no one and is welcoming to all.

“Too controversial,” said the networks, that had test-marketed the ad on network-owned stations for months without controversy. CBS owned up to the fact that they were afraid of what the White House might think — since the White House is opposed to same sex marriage. There is nothing about same sex marriage in the ad.

The censorship of the ad created a media firestorm, and has been denounced by liberal groups, religious leaders and newspaper columnists — as well as ridiculed by cartoonists. Anyone who has not yet seen the allegedly controversial ad which is running on a number of cable networks, can view it online.

The UCC is now opening another front in the battle with the networks. The church’s Office of Communication is challenging the renewal of the broadcast licenses of CBS station WFOR-TV and NBC station WTVJ-TV in Miami. Citing the censoring the UCC’s ad, the church charged them with “failing to operate in the public interest.” The UCC is asking that over the next few weeks, citizens write“informal objections” to the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that oversees broadcast licenses.

The Office of Communication, the media advocacy arm of the UCC, has a long history of involvement in media reform. For example in the 1960s the church demanded that broadcasters operate in the public interest, and among other things, successfully challenged the broadcast license of WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss, for refusing to broadcast news and information about African Americans. “Who would have guessed that it would one day be our voice that was silenced?” said Rev. Robert Chase, director of the UCC’s communication ministry. “When CBS and NBC refused to air our commercial because they considered it ‘too controversial,’ we found ourselves in the very position as other groups for whom we have historically been advocates.”

The UCC has also asked the increasingly influential blogging community to endorse their campaign. This is already being enthusiastically discussed on the Daily Kos, a major liberal blog site. This campaign could very well enhance the blogging community’s growing reputation as a force with a demonstrated capacity to inform and mobilize public opinion quickly and effectively.

Written by fred

December 9th, 2004 at 2:35 pm

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No Room at CBS and NBC

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Who would have thought that two major TV networks would refuse an ad featuring a mainstream Christian message of welcome and inclusion during the Christmas season? Not me. But that’s what has happened.

The United Church of Christ — that’s the mainline Protestant denomination whose white wooden churches are featured on New England calendars and are as American as apple pie and Thanksgiving — want to pay to broadcast ads welcoming the alienated and the outcast to their churches during the Christmas season. But CBS and NBC think it is “too controversial” that gay people are welcome at the United Church of Christ.

Here is what the United Church of Christ (UCC) stated on November 30th in a press release: “The ad, part of the denomination’s new, broad identity campaign set to begin airing nationwide on Dec. 1, states that — like Jesus — the United Church of Christ… seeks to welcome all people, regardless of ability, age, race, economic circumstance or sexual orientation.”

The UCC statement continued: “According to a written explanation from CBS, the United Church of Christ is being denied network access because its ad implies acceptance of gay and lesbian couples — among other minority constituencies — and is, therefore, too ‘controversial’” Since there are openly gay characters on network programming, and the issues of same sex marriage are discussed in the news all the time, this statement makes no sense. I have seen ads and public service announcements for many religious groups on local and network television over many years. But I have never heard of one that was refused.

But it turns out that what is really going on, is that CBS is afraid of the White House. “Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations,” reads an explanation from CBS, “and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks.”

The networks can try to blame the White House if they like, but their religious bigotry is their own responsibility.

Here is more of what the UCC has to say: “CBS and NBC’s refusal to air the ad ‘recalls the censorship of the 1950s and 1960s, when television station WLBT in Jackson, Miss., refused to show people of color on TV,’ says Ron Buford, coordinator for the United Church of Christ identity campaign. Buford, of African-American heritage, says, ‘In the 1960s, the issue was the mixing of the races. Today, the issue appears to be sexual orientation. In both cases, it’s about exclusion’”

“Jesus didn’t turn people away,” states the ad, “Neither do we.” “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey,” the ad continues, “you are welcome here.”

People can see the censored ad for themselves online. But they might also catch it on ABC Family, AMC, BET, Discovery, Fox, Hallmark, History, Nick@Nite, TBS, TNT, Travel and TV Land, among others that have agreed to run the ad.

All this may seem to some like a weird footnote in the culture wars. However, I think that the networks have miscalculated. They have refused the ad of a Christian church at Christmas because that church welcomes everyone. There are 1.3 million members of the UCC and tens of millions more who are members of Christian denominations, and other religious religious traditions that will recognize that if CBS can turn down an ad because they are afraid the White House won’t like it, the First Amendment protection of religious freedom is in jeopardy. The disgraceful affront to gay and lesbian people will also not go unnoticed.

I predict that this Christmas season will not be very merry for CBS, NBC and their advertisers.

But whatever the fate of these cowardly corporations, here in Massachusetts, over 200 UCC churches are preparing for “an extravagant welcome” to those who they believe will be reached by the ads’ message that “God is still speaking.” The ads will air through Christmas, and will be followed up with a different ad in the run up to Easter. I think many people will admire the UCC’s Christmas season of welcome. And I have no doubt that many people will check out their local UCC church, and that they will be glad they did. For many millions of Americans, there is nothing so special as the warmth and generosity of the Christmas tradition.

But the Christmas story of how there was no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph, and so Jesus the son of God, was born in a stable — will be retold many times in the next few weeks. I am sure I will not be the only one to note that there was no room at CBS and NBC for a Christian message of welcome and inclusion for all during the Christmas season. But I am also sure that none of this will dampen the Christmas spirit that is bursting forth at the United Church of Christ.

Written by fred

December 1st, 2004 at 6:57 am

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