Weighty story about clergy stress

ChickenPlate JPGEvery now and then you see a news feature story that makes you slap yourself on the forehead and say, “Shoot, that story is so obvious, but I have never seen that story before. Why didn’t I think of digging into that one?”

That’s what I thought when a saw the “Special to the Washington Post” feature by Alison Buckholtz entitled “For Priests, a Weighty Matter — Hectic Schedules and Solo Living Make Weight Gain a Job Hazard for Christian Clergy.”

I would have mentioned this earlier in the week, but I’ve been having major email and connection problems during a three-day-plus conference in one totally over-the-top resort outside of Dallas. Go figure. Anyway, this is a story worth flashing back to.

The headline is very misleading. The story is broader than one study of “priests,” which would imply some hook to Catholicism, Orthodoxy or Anglicanism. Then you see “Christian Clergy” and, well, I thought to myself, “So rabbis don’t have weight problems?”

But the story covers most of the bases. It makes sense: Emotional burdens, long hours, stress and lots of people offering hospitality equal weight problems. Coffee or tea is not enough when you are trying to impress you know who. And, logically enough, there’s a supporting role for lawyers and insurance people.

There is no reason members of the clergy should face fewer weight-related problems than the nation as a whole. But several factors appear to make them more vulnerable.

“We laugh about all the potlucks … , but it’s a joke, not a reality,” says the Rev. Janet Maykus, a Disciples of Christ minister and principal of the College of Pastoral Leaders, an organization based in Texas. The group, with a grant from the Lilly Endowment, has launched a clergy health project involving ministers from several Christian denominations.

Clergy’s weight issues “have more to do with their sense of isolation because there has been a loss of status for clerical professions,” she said. “They are in a job without a great deal of respect, the pay is low, and there is a lot of depression among clergy. This is reflected in their bodies.”

There are more numbers and stats and the logical details about long days and, for the Catholic priests, nights alone.

And if you want holy writ and a small dose of spirituality, this story even offered all of that, too. That body and soul connection is

… (made) explicit throughout Christian literature, in which there is a long and significant link between spiritual piety and good physical health. St. Paul proclaimed, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?”

The 11th century Christian mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg advised, “Do not disdain your body. For the Soul is just as safe in its body as in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

And, of course, there are the well-known biblical exhortations against gluttony. Solomon admonished to “put a knife to your throat if you are a man of great appetite” (Proverbs 23:2).

Like I said, there’s a lot of meat (and mashed potatoes) in this one. Has anyone else seen a major MSM story on this? Something solid in a clergy journal?

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(Write your own witty headline here)

scaliagesture03302006So U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was coming out of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and a Boston Herald reporter shouted out the kind of question that you expect reporters to shout at churchgoing conservatives who sit on the world’s highest court.

The reporter asked how Scalia responds to people who question his impartiality on matters of church and state.

Of course, you could ask precisely the same question of any justice on the Supreme Court and it would be just as relevant, whether they are traditional Catholics, postmodern Catholics, left-leaning GOP Episcopalians, hyper-consistent liberal Jews or whatever. But Scalia’s faith is controversial because it clashes with the spirit of our age, from time to time.

But this was a valid question. Shouting it at the justice as he exited a cathedral was a nice touch.

A split second later, freelance photographer Peter Smith clicked the shutter and captured the exclusive Herald photograph seen with this post. It is going to be a web classic. And the wink-wink, chuckle-chuckle press coverage took an interesting turn in a story by reporter Jessica Heslam that starts like this:

A freelance photographer has been fired by the Archdiocese of Boston’s newspaper for releasing a picture of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia making a controversial gesture in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Sunday.

Peter Smith, who had freelanced for The Pilot newspaper for a decade, lost the job yesterday after the Herald ran his photo on its front page. Smith said he has no regrets about releasing it.

“I did the right thing. I did the ethical thing,” said Smith, 51, an assistant photojournalism professor at Boston University.

The interesting word in that final paragraph is “ethical.” What does this mean? Oh, and who was the photographer working for on this particular morning? Was he totally freelance or working for the Catholic newspaper?

Scalia never denied making the Italian-esque gesture, but denied that it automatically meant what the newspaper said (or implied) that it meant.

The Catholic newspaper staff did not think this was a story of national importance. Smith said it was his “ethical” duty to see it printed.

OK, it’s a funny photo. But what does it prove? What is the journalistic importance of this photo, other than the already established fact that Scalia is a lively guy who doesn’t care a whole lot what the media establishment thinks of him?

What is the principle of journalism ethics involved in this case?

Meanwhile, the Herald is having a merry old time with this story. My favorite laugh-to-keep-from-crying headline: “‘Sopranos’ stars divided on bawdy body language.”

As they would say in the cathedral: Lord have mercy.

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The Pope to China?

chinese catholic churchVatican’s foreign minister Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo created a bit of a stir this past weekend when he said that the “time is ripe” for the Pope and China to establish diplomatic relations, according to this Associated Press account of Lajolo’s interview with the Hong Kong station I-Cable TV, which the Vatican made available to the press.

The underlying big news of this story that doesn’t get much play until the end is that the Vatican could be soon cutting ties with Taiwan, which is the small island’s only current diplomatic ally in all of Europe. The power of the appointment of bishops appears to be the only hang-up.

Here’s the heart of the story:

Lajolo said it was clear that the spiritual needs of the several million Catholics in China are more urgent than those of the 300,000 Catholics in Taiwan.

“For this reason the Holy See has manifested its willingness to transfer the apostolic nunciature from Taipei to Beijing just as in 1952, on account of the circumstances of the time, it transferred the nunciature from mainland China to Taiwan.”

He added that the Vatican had communicated its wish to move its embassy to both governments.

However, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said Sunday that the Vatican has reassured Taiwan it will not establish diplomatic ties with China until Beijing allows more religious freedom.

“We are closely monitoring the development, but … the Holy See’s relations with us are kept as normal,” said Michel Lu, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

TaiwanWhere is the underground Catholic Church in this story, other than a “but millions belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome” reference at the end? Did Lajolo mention how they would be incorporated? I’m sure those details have yet to be worked out, if this is in fact the direction that the Vatican is heading. But that influential minority deserves at least more than a passing mention.

A switch from Taiwan to China would probably be the most significant event since Pope Benedict XVI took office, and he’s made no secret regarding his hope to spread the gospel in China. If this is indeed true, one would expect the story to receive greater play than it has. I’m guessing the major publications are waiting for the official announcement due to the intricate nature of the Vatican.

Or this all could be more hype. We’ll have to wait and see.

In a related matter, I found this Washington Post article on “panda politics” to be a fascinating explainer on how the Chinese government uses its monopoly on the world’s pandas to influence world leaders and even Taiwan’s voters. I wonder if the Vatican has been offered one of those cuddly little white and black bears.

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Women on the altar — Yay!

altarboysRoman Catholics who believe only males should serve the Sacrament or hold the lectionary open are backward and awful and almost without reason. Or so the Washington Post‘s Caryle Murphy and Michelle Boorstein would have you believe. Yes, members of the same mainstream American media that cautiously explain why some Muslims riot over political cartoons featuring Muhammad write a whole story without explaining the historic Christian view for an all-male priesthood and altar staff.

Last week it was announced that the Arlington Diocese would introduce females at the altar. I was deeply curious about how reporters would handle this story since I belong to a church which has only male pastors. For the same reason we permit only certain males to serve as pastors, we permit only certain males to serve as deacons and acolytes. In other words, we’re even more exclusive than your run-of-the-mill sexist, backward Roman Catholics! And what about those church bodies that frown on any lay assistants period?

Anyway, I sat slack-jawed as I read the puffery which passed for a news report of the change in Arlington. I honestly wish I could just quote the entire piece to show how unbalanced it is. Beyond the populist perspective — as if all that matters is whether public opinion in the pews is tilted one way or the other — the article just completely fails to mention doctrinal arguments for male-only acolytes. Imagine, if you will, that you were writing a press release for an imaginary group called Catholics for Female Acolytes and see if you would have changed anything from this Washington Post lead:

Despite the short notice, they were more than ready to make parish history yesterday at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington.

Emily Wallis held the lectionary open while the priest read from it. Angela Barbieri brought the ceremonial vial of water to the altar. And Margaret Lister followed the priest down the aisle to shake hands with her congregation, just as she’d always seen altar boys do.

“It was fun,” Margaret, 7, said later. “I always wanted to be on the altar. I wanted to see what it was like to be helping the priest.”

This particular priest, the Rev. Leonard J. Tuozzolo, was just as excited as his female helpers in their floor-length white robes called albs.

“This is very historical,” the pastor, vested in Lent’s penitential purple, said at yesterday’s 9:30 a.m. Mass, during which female servers directly assisted in the liturgy. “We’re no longer gender-restricted.”

His assembled parishioners, including squirming children, young families and elderly couples, responded with loud applause and “Yays!”

The authors say the diocese is divided between “conservative and liberal Catholics” — which means absolutely nothing, at least to me. I know many Roman Catholics and I love nothing more than to ask them about their views of their church and no matter how well I think I understand them, I would be loathe to describe them as conservative or liberal. The authors say the Arlington bishop “seemed to be trying to please both” sides by permitting two parishes to offer a Latin Mass. Ah yes, both sides. Because we know in Roman Catholic issues, there are usually two sides — one liberal and one Tridentine-loving conservative. Let’s go back to the love-fest where we see that girls are uniquely suited to the altar tasks:

Lyn McGee, who has 11-year-old twins — a boy and a girl — said she is glad she no longer has to explain to daughter Taylor why only her brother Conor could assist the priest at St. Anthony of Padua Parish near Baileys Crossroads in Fairfax County. St. Anthony is expected to begin allowing altar girls soon.

Taylor is more engaged in the Mass than her brother, McGee said, and she notices such things as his untied shoelaces. She believes that she can help him fix such things if she’s a participant, McGee added. “She said, ‘I can finally put him together before he walks down the aisle! He always has something dragging,’” McGee recalled.

altardancersFinally the authors get to the conservative folks who they say are displeased that this is a first-step toward a female clergy. Instead of citing doctrinal opposition to female priests or female altar servers, the authors instead look at what one scholar, theologian, expert, official, commenter on a blog worries about as an effect of ending the male altar service:

A mother named “Denise” expressed her concerns on Open Book. “The nature of young boys is that when you introduce girls into the activity, it lowers the value or status of the activity in their eyes and the boys’ participation decreases,” she wrote. “From these boys come our priests and the Arlington Diocese has been blessed with abundant seminarians. Why would we jeopardize that now?”

The Rev. Brian G. Bashista, head of the diocese’s Office of Vocations, said there is no evidence of a connection between the sex of altar servers and the number of men entering the seminary. The most influential factors in men becoming priests or women becoming nuns are family and faithful priests, he said.

“This is a difficult time for some people,” he said of the introduction of female altar servers, “and we need to be prayerfully patient.”

Well, I guess if the unbiased diocesan official rebuts a negative claim from a one-named blog commenter then we’ve provided all the balance we need. But we also throw in a patronizing comment about those poor people who are slow to accept change. Because we all know that they’re just fearful sexists who don’t like any progress or equality between the sexes. To drive the point home, the reporters quote a few more parents and female acolytes who praise progress and equality between the sexes in the church.

Wow and wow. I have absolutely no doubt that it was easy to find any number of parents who were elated that Suzie got to help out at the altar. I would imagine that most everyone I know — outside of my congregation and larger church body — would think this was a non-issue. They would say that it’s not even debatable whether churches should let girls serve as acolytes and lay readers. But didn’t Caryle Murphy and Michelle Boorstein have any curiosity why the Arlington diocese made this change or why the altar servers used to be exclusively male? There are serious Roman Catholic arguments for a male-only acolyte corps. They should have been mentioned and treated respectfully.

Assuming the reporting duo isn’t trying to be biased, they should really try harder to explain complex and nuanced religious issues next time.

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Do swing voters go to church?

JesusLand2Want to see an op-ed piece that misses the big picture? Check out the “Swing Is Still King At the Polls” essay today in the Washington Post by former Bill Clinton pollster Mark J. Penn. It’s another attempt to throw cold water on debates about the red vs. blue divide in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

The point of the essay is simple: There is a big and important mushy zone between the pure red voters and the pure blue voters.

Well, duh. This has been a constant theme here at GetReligion forever and ever, amen. The evidence is that there are hard blue zip codes on the left (secularists and the strong religious left) and hard red zones on the right (traditional religious believers with major clout in the Bible Belt and, thus, the U.S. Senate). As I keep saying, you really need to read that “Tribal Relations” piece in The Atlantic Monthly.

But back to Penn. I really hope the Post balances this piece — quickly — with an op-ed by someone (Hadley Arkes perhaps) who understands the role of moral and cultural issues in the red vs. blue era. Yes, friends and neighbors, Penn writes about red, blue and swing voters and totally ignores the very issues that have defined the era. He also seems to have missed the point that the red vs. blue divide is not a pure divide between the GOP and the Democrats. There are red issue voters stranded in the Democratic Party. Then again, perhaps that is why Penn does not bring them up, since it is not in his interest to mention that. This is the hot story as the Democrats ponder what to do with, for example, abortion and the definition of marriage.

Try to find an awareness of these tough issues in this Penn language:

… (O)utside the Beltway, trends show that voters are increasingly open and flexible, not rigid. They are looking at candidates’ records and visions, not their party affiliation. In the past 50 years independents have grown from one-quarter to one-third of the electorate, according to Gallup polls. In California, the number of independent voters more than doubled between 1991 and 2005. The fastest-growing political party in the United States is no party.

According to the American National Election Studies at the University of Michigan, the number of split-ticket voters in the electorate — meaning people who vote for a Democrat for president and a Republican for Congress, or vice versa — has gone up 42 percent since 1952. That shows a radical new willingness on the part of Americans to look at individual candidates, not party slates. It is a sign of a thinking electorate, not a partisan one.

Read Penn’s piece. Did I miss something? Can anyone find any threads in it linked to faith, morality and culture? Where has this guy been for the past decade?

At this point, we do not know what will happen to the voters who pivot on the faith and culture issues, for the simple reason that both parties are a bit scared of them at the moment (even the GOP). But those issues will not go away, and it will be impossible to ignore them forever.

SantorumBookLET ME JUMP IN with a quick update: Here is a story by David Kirkpatrick — who covers the conservative disputes beat at the New York Times — that certainly shows the role of social issues in one of the hottest contests in the nation. That would be the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania.

It’s a solid story — a variation on the right-wing signing up pastors template — but with one element that is rather buried at the end. What happens when churches on the left do the same thing (or take hot issues into the pulput)?

This is how the story ends. I think this element needed to go higher, with more info. Were these events similar?

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the network reflected “a growing backdoor, under-the-radar effort to lure churches into political campaigns” that could risk their tax exemptions.

Michael Geer, the president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute and a speaker on March 6, said such critics were trying to “squelch the free speech” of conservative pastors. No one complained, Mr. Geer said, when opponents of the state marriage amendment had an organizing meeting last week at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Pa.

But were materials from any candidates put in the spotlight at the Lutheran gig? Were the materials tightly linked to the social issues being discussed in the forum? That’s the thin line people are walking on the left and right.

That’s what we need to know. Like I said, the social issues are not going to go away.

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Corned-beef Catholic crisis

corned beefThe corned-beef Catholic crisis has been quietly building momentum for a week or two and now, with St. Patrick’s Day upon us, has finally made the leap into major media. Believe it or not, there is a real story hidden back there somewhere in the giddy headlines, like the latest offering in the Washington Post: “As Luck Would Have It, Bishops Allow Meat on St. Patrick’s Day”

Here is the top of reporter Michelle Boorstein’s lighthearted story:

Corned beef and cabbage will be on the menu tomorrow. Call it a gift from Saint Patrick.

Despite the Vatican’s prohibition against eating meat on Fridays during Lent, Catholic bishops in about one-third of the country’s 197 dioceses have issued a one-day waiver of the rule, citing the benefits of Irish American tradition and community. After all, what do you wash down with green beer if not corned beef and cabbage?

Among the bishops granting the dispensation are those in Washington, Baltimore, Arlington and Richmond, the four dioceses that cover the Washington region.

Hidden in that language is a complication. Note that it is the “Vatican’s prohibition against eating meat on Fridays during Lent.” You would assume this means that this is the spiritual discipline practiced in the typical American Catholic church.

As it turns out, different people interpret that rule in different ways — as I discovered when I wrote a column recently in which I set out to describe what modern Catholics do and don’t do during Lent. Click here if you want to read that. I’ve been getting email ever since pointing me toward clashing interpretations (many of which I had already seen online, while preparing for the column) of what the U.S. Catholic Bishops have or have not done to soften the rules of Lent.

stpat brisThings get pretty complicated real quick. Here’s a hint of what’s out there, drawn from Boorstein’s report:

All Christians are called upon to pray and perform acts of charity during Lent, a solemn period of penance. Among Catholics, there has been more focus in recent years on doing good deeds rather than on giving up something pleasurable, said Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of Catholic University’s School of Theology and Religious Studies.

Let’s overlook that reference to “all Christians” observing Lent, a season that doesn’t do much for most Southern Baptists and millions of other Protestants. But that’s another story.

What interests me is a more basic news hook: What percentage of Catholics “get” Lent at all? How many, at the very least, go to confession during this season? As Father William Stetson of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. (a very traditional apologetics center), told me:

“There are all kinds of actions that the church teaches are seriously sinful that the typical modern Catholic no longer believes are seriously sinful,” said Stetson, who, as a 75-year-old priest, has seen many changes sweep through the Church of Rome. “Therefore, these typical Catholics walk up to the altar week after week to receive Communion without a single thought entering their minds about repentance or confession or anything like that.

“So you have to take that into account when you talk about Lent. In a penitential season you are supposed to feel real sorrow for your sins, which can be hard to do if you really do not think that you’re sinning.”

Now that’s a news hook at the very heart of daily religious life, and there are similar nuts-and-bolts hooks linked — day after day, week after week, world without end, amen — to dozens of other subjects (and not just among Catholics, either).

Want to see what I mean about practical news hooks? Check out this well-researched visit by the Los Angeles Times to the bottom line of parish life. (By the way, note the material from empty tomb inc., which is a nice mini-think tank on issues related to faith, finances, social justice and mission work, broadly defined.)

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Should we ban military chaplains?

48502 mr chaplain CU031216 2762 stI want to revisit the always hot topic of free speech and military chaplains, because of a very interesting op-ed column in the Washington Post. We rarely deal with editorial page offerings here at GetReligion, but this piece anticipates where this hot story may be headed.

The column was called “What the Military Shouldn’t Preach” and it was written by Scott Poppleton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He is boldly asking a simple question: Are military chaplains appropriate? Are they even legal? Another question looms in the background: Is it legal to force soldiers to listen to prayers and/or evangelistic messages by clergy who are not of their own faith? Here at GetReligion, I have been asking: Is it legal to require chaplains (if they want to be promoted) to voice prayers that require them to water down, if not violate, the doctrines of the faith in which they are ordained?

According to Poppleton, it is now time to take a radical step. He believes the military services should create secular counseling services, thus removing the government from the religion business:

We are well past the point where we need to reset the baseline of individual religious freedom in our military. The first step is to provide clear-cut regulatory guidance to our commanders and chaplains requiring them to keep their religious views to themselves other than in personal settings or at church. If a solemn occasion is appropriate at a military ceremony, implement a moment of silence, as we do at every public school in our nation.

The next essential step is to reform our dedicated and government-paid chaplain corps into a nondenominational and non-religious counseling service to aid our commanders in helping everyone under their leadership. Let the counselors help with the drug, alcohol and family problems that face our forces. Give civilian clergy the right to preach and teach in the chapel. In deployed locations, provide time and space for service members to conduct services.

In other words, replace chaplains with counselors and then allow civilian clergy in a wide variety of faiths — from Baptist to Buddhist, from Catholic to Muslim — to come in and lead worship services and other activitities in which they would not be expected to compromise on issues of doctrine.

Instead of a lowest-common-denominator theism for military life, you would have a secular approach to military life backed up with a free-market system for worship.

This raises all kinds of questions, but they are questions that are already haunting military life. What happens on battlefields? On submarines with limited space? In military hospitals? Will there be no clergy in those locations at all (if local civilian clergy cannot get there on their own as Poppleton proposes)?

These are tough questions, but they are no tougher than the questions raised by the current system, in which one base may include soldiers representing a dozen or more faiths. How many chaplains can the military afford to fund for any one location so that no one is offended? Now flip that coin over. Can the military honestly expect clergy in traditional faiths to compromise on their own beliefs, in order to serve as shepherds for soldiers from a wide variety of flocks?

As I keep saying, this story is not going to go away.

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Every body is religious

05328151425 eyesA few years ago I was in Czech Republic to witness the baptism of a dear friend. We went to Kutna Hora, home to the beautiful Sv. Barbory (Saint Barbara) Cathedral, one of the most famous Gothic churches in Europe. From Jan Svankmajer’s film, I knew of an ossuary nearby that I wanted to visit. Hana repeatedly told me that I shouldn’t go, but I insisted.

She was probably right. A chapel made out of creative arrangements of the bones of 40,000 humans is, it seems, not for the weak. Finding out that it was made in the late 19th century, instead of 500 years earlier, only made it worse. It provoked in me a deeper appreciation for more private cemeteries and resting places.

I thought of this experience when reading Denver Post writer Eric Gorski’s interesting piece on an exhibition of human bodies that is touring the country. I enjoy reading Gorski because he takes the time to understand the nuances of religious issues. So many religion reporters think that they can explain complex religious issues by talking to people on opposite sides of an issue. Gorski tries to explain issues by differentiating seemingly similar views.

He looks at an exhibition in which corpses have their skin removed to show muscles and nerves. The corpses are put in bizarre positions, too, like swinging a baseball bat:

The exhibit raises questions about the existence of a creator, when life begins and the afterlife. Displaying actual cadavers — a sight usually reserved for medical students — also raises ethical and religious issues.

He talks to various religious leaders about their concerns, finding most clerics to be generally supportive. However, two of his Muslim sources disagree about whether the exhibit is okay. I found the following quote from the executive director of the Colorado Southern Baptist General Convention to be very interesting:

“The body is a beautiful miracle — a major proof of the creator,” [Mark] Edlund said. “In a cadaver there is no soul, no spirit. I see no Christian ethics involved.”

bodyworksI am sure this is the view of Southern Baptists, but I just thought it was fascinating. Think of how the spread of Christianity — with its central belief in the resurrection of the body — led to major changes in the way people dealt with the human body after death. The early Christians would have universally disapproved of such treatment of the human form. They strenuously advocated burial of the human body — contrary to many customs of the time. Obviously things have changed drastically in Christianity — with many churches supporting the cremation that early Christians worked so hard to eradicate. I am certain that some scholars or religious leaders who represent the historic Christian position could have been found, but the wide variety of belief mentioned in Gorski’s piece was interesting. I also appreciated that he found out a bit about the religious views of the exhibit’s creator:

As for the man behind it all, [Dr. Gunther] von Hagens told Colorado reporters last week he was baptized a Protestant behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany and did not see the inside of a church for 17 years.

Von Hagens describes his belief system now as largely agnostic.

Does the master anatomist believe in an afterlife? Did souls once dwell in his ballet dancer, his soccer player, his man at leisure?

“I think my brain is not constructed to answer those questions,” he said.

Too many reporters would listen to an agnostic such as von Hagens and deem his religious views unworthy of mention. But it’s important when writing about one source’s religious motivation to seek out information about everyone’s religious motivation.

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