Los Angeles Times gets religious liberty

AllSaintsIt is rare that you get to watch a great newspaper — in this case the Los Angeles Times — wake up and realize it has published two stories in the same issue that are, in fact, directly related. In this case we are dealing with religion stories, so let me happily help GetReligion readers connect the dots.

Let’s start with story A. This is a news story titled “Antiwar Sermon Brings IRS Warning” by reporters Patricia Ward Biederman and Jason Felch. This is a story that will make your blood boil, if you have even the slightest interest in free speech, the freedom of association and the side of the church-state separation equation in which the state has to keep its hands off the church. Here’s the heart of the story:

Rector J. Edwin Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena told many congregants during morning services Sunday that a guest sermon by the church’s former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, on Oct. 31, 2004, had prompted a letter from the IRS.

In his sermon, Regas, who from the pulpit opposed both the Vietnam War and 1991′s Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas said that “good people of profound faith” could vote for either man, and did not tell parishioners whom to support. But he criticized the war in Iraq, saying that Jesus would have told Bush, “Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine.”

The story also included this fact:

On a day when churches throughout California took stands on both sides of Proposition 73, which would bar abortions for minors unless parents are notified, some at All Saints feared the politically active church had been singled out.

That’s interesting, because the same edition of the newspaper included story B by reporter Jenifer Warren, with the headline “Abortion Proposition Finds Its Forum in the Churches.” This concerned Proposition 73, a ballot initiative which would require doctors to alert parents of minors seeking abortions. Action on this proposition had been surprisingly quiet, this story informs readers:

But as the weeks before election day dwindled, millions of voters began hearing about the initiative in a place not routinely associated with California politics — their neighborhood church. So it went on Sunday, when the faithful up and down the state received a dose of propaganda with their prayer books.

At some Catholic parishes around Los Angeles, it came in a glossy “yes on 73″ flier slipped into the church bulletin. At Methodist and Lutheran churches in the Bay Area, it was dished up by organizers who set up information tables behind the pews and urged a “no” vote. And at some evangelical Christian churches, including the Rock in Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento, pastors made time for a two-minute DVD featuring teenage actresses promoting support for the measure.

Set aside, for a moment, the word “propaganda.” What is interesting about story B is that it appears, to me at least, that the Los Angeles Times does not realize the irony of these two stories being in the same paper. For years, liberal groups have challenged the tax-exempt status of conservative churches that get involved in political fights in the public square. The reality, of course, is that churches and other nonprofits have every right to do this — if they stick to issues, not personalities. It’s a hazy line, but one that protects anti-war activists and pro-lifers at the same time (and, of course, many activists are pro-life and pro-peace at the same time).

In other words, the same laws protect the religious left as well as the religious right (as well as the people who are so consistent that they cannot be labeled).

Thus, I was pleased to get my email summary of the Los Angeles Times this morning and discover story C, with the headline “Conservatives Also Irked by IRS Probe of Churches.” In it, that duo of Felch and Biederman inform us that — surprise! — there are thinking conservatives who are willing to be consistent and defend the free-speech rights of liberals. Imagine that.

… (The) IRS action has triggered an unusual coalition of critics who say they are concerned about the effect on freedom of speech and religion. When Ted Haggard, head of the 30-million-member National Assn. of Evangelicals, heard about the All Saints case Monday, he told his staff to contact the National Council of Churches, a more liberal group.

Haggard said he personally supports the war in Iraq and probably would not agree with much in the Rev. George Regas’ 2004 sermon at All Saints, which was cited by the IRS as the basis for its investigation. But Haggard said he wants to work with the council of churches “in doing whatever it takes to get the IRS to stop” such actions.

“It is a violation of the Constitution for the IRS to threaten that church. It may not be a violation of IRS regulations, but IRS regulations have been wrong,” said Haggard, who is pastor of the 12,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

The only problem with this is that this particular coalition is not all that unusual. It has worked on a number of issues, from freedom of religion in the workplace, to environmental issues, to human rights in the Sudan, to sex trafficking and a host of others. Perhaps it is only unusual to see it covered by reporters — other than the excellent religion-news team — in the Los Angeles Times. Note to editors: If you have religion-beat professionals, please involve them in important stories as much as possible.

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Esquire explains it all for you

BookLernersSomeone at Esquire decided it was time to warn the fashion-conscious men of America about the perils of Intelligent Design, so the November issue offers not just one air-raid siren, but two.

Charles P. Pierce’s “Greetings From Idiot America” offers a unified theory of everything annoying to an Esquire contributor, explaining not only Intelligent Design but also George W. Bush, the war in Iraq, and — oh, the injustice — why Fox News draws better ratings than the erudite Keith Olbermann.

Tom Junod’s “The Case for Intelligent Design” is a wry attempt to claim I.D. on behalf of agnosticism, if not for process theology.

Neither author makes much effort to describe I.D. in terms other than caricature — while railing at nearly 6,600 words about intellectual laziness, Pierce dismisses I.D. as nothing more than slack-jawed creationism in a lab coat. Neither article is available through Esquire‘s penurious website, so some blockquotes will have to do.

Here is Pierce:

On August 21, a newspaper account of the “intelligent design” movement contained this remarkable sentence: “They have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin’s defenders firmly on the defensive.”

A “politically savvy challenge to evolution” is as self-evidently ridiculous as an agriculturally savvy challenge to euclidean geometry would be. It makes as much sense as conducting a Gallup poll on gravity or running someone for president on the Alchemy Party ticket. It doesn’t matter what percentage of people believe they ought to be able to flap their arms and fly, none of them can. It doesn’t matter how many votes your candidate got, he’s not going to turn lead into gold. The sentence is so arrantly foolish that the only real news in it is where it appeared.

On the front page.

Of The New York Times.

Gadzooks! Even the Times has become captive to the know-nothing patrons of bars across America? And yes, the bar is an image invoked by one of Pierce’s interview subjects, then beaten into the ground by the author:

“The reason the creationists have been so effective is that they have put a premium on communication skills,” explains [MIT professor Kip] Hodges. “It matters to them that they can talk to the guy in the bar, and it’s important to them, and they are hugely effective at it.”

It is the ultimate standard of Idiot America. How does it play to Joe Six-Pack in the bar? At the end of August 2004, the Zogby people discovered that 57 percent of undecided voters would rather have a beer with George Bush than with John Kerry. Now, how many people with whom you’ve spent time drinking beer would you trust with the nuclear launch codes? Not only is this not a question for a nation of serious citizens, it’s not even a question for a nation of serious drunkards.

Here is Junod, who never quite recovered — theologically, at least — from an acid trip’s revelation that God bears the blame for evil, what with creating thorns and all:

It’s an interesting exercise, to try to find a rationale for the crucifixion — and, by extension, for Christianity itself — in the precepts of intelligent design. Christians of all stripes tend to love it, so you’d figure it would offer some kind of foothold for their sanguinary and human-centered vision of the cosmos. It doesn’t. Intelligent design offers, instead, the Cult of the Really, Really Smart God, which undercuts Christianity at least as much as it supports it. How can humans be redeemed if they’ve been designed? What are they being redeemed from? Their animal nature, which is so integral to their design that it’s woven into their DNA? Their DNA itself? A design flaw? A mistake, either in conception or in execution? And if so: How intelligent is a designer whose design is so flawed that it can only be repaired by the sacrifice — the torture slaying — of his innocent offspring?

. . . I’m pretty sure my own response to my own lysergic noodling was gnostic — more gnostic than Christian, anyway. My gnosticism permitted me to stay Christian. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth the only way he could, the only way he knew how. He was really, really smart, but there were limits to his smarts, as there were limits to his power. To make the creation work, to make it come into being, he had to incarnate forces that poor, befuddled human beings, coming into consciousness many, many years later, would come to regard as evil. It was the only way. And so God was not innocent of human suffering any more than humans were innocent. He evolved as we evolved, as the universe evolved. Hey, he needed us — he needed us to humanize him, he needed us to be human. He not only listened to our prayers, to our inchoate wailing; he listened to our music. He read our books. He existed in our music and in our books. And he was moved. He took pity. He apologized. And that was Jesus — God’s apology. His apology for making us the way he did. His apology for the sin of implanting sin in our hearts. His apology for putting us in really sort of an impossible situation. His apology for evolution.

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Connecting the Army recruiting dots

gc125 arI’m curious. I wonder if the trend covered in this story — “Youths in Rural U.S. Are Drawn To Military” — has anything to do with two other stories that I have tried to follow closely for this blog. I refer to the growing tensions among military chaplains and the growing tensions about religious expression at military academies.

Here’s the lead from reporter Ann Scott Tyson at The Washington Post:

As sustained combat in Iraq makes it harder than ever to fill the ranks of the all-volunteer force, newly released Pentagon demographic data show that the military is leaning heavily for recruits on economically depressed, rural areas where youths’ need for jobs may outweigh the risks of going to war.

More than 44 percent of U.S. military recruits come from rural areas, Pentagon figures show. In contrast, 14 percent come from major cities. Youths living in the most sparsely populated Zip codes are 22 percent more likely to join the Army, with an opposite trend in cities. Regionally, most enlistees come from the South (40 percent) and West (24 percent).

I wonder if there are similar patterns among the men and women stepping forward to be chaplains? To apply for acceptance at the military academies? There are more Southern Baptists and Pentecostal believers in small towns than there are Episcopalians and Unitarian Universalists.

This story focuses on the role that hard times play in smaller rural communities, pushing many young people to enlist in the military for economic reasons. I have no doubt that this plays a major role in this trend. However, it does not take a degree in demographics — after recent years of red-blue and “pew gap” studies — to wonder if this Pentagon study doesn’t raise religious questions, as well. (Personal note: Yes, it is hard for this commentator to avoid use of the unpopular “ghost” metaphor at this point.)

In other words, we can probably expect more tensions between military personnel from red zip codes and lawyers working for elites in blue zip codes.

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A note to GetReligion newcomers

I think GR contributors are using the word “ghost” way too often … despite the fact that it is Halloween season

Posted by Lucas Sayre at 5:24 pm on November 4, 2005

I know that Lucas was joking. However, he has a point. There may be readers out there who are new to this blog and do not know the origin of this “ghost” riff. For a flashback to the birth of GetReligion, click here.

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The Washington Post salutes the “good” Jesus

va62BEvery now and then, major newspapers run articles that really don’t have strong news hooks, but it seems like the editors believe these articles state fundamental truths about American life. It’s like they are saying to their readers, “We think we just learned a fundamental truth about American life and we’d like to share it with you, so that you can be enlightened. Behold, here it is.”

That’s how I felt as I read the Jennifer Moses piece in The Washington Post titled “Why Jesus Is Welcome In the Public Square: Religiosity Isn’t Just the Right’s Territory.” It’s a fun little piece that includes some nice zingers. Think of it as an aftershock to the aftershocks from the red vs. blue “values voters” earthquake of 2004.

Here’s the big idea that Moses brought back from the bayou (where there are old churches like the one in this photo). This is a paraphrase: There sure are a lot of conservative people down here in Baton Rouge, and some of them are not as dumb as I thought they would be.

Here is a direct quote of her point of view:

… (Perhaps) I’m naive, but I tend to believe that the Christian religiosity that’s the common currency of great swaths of our country generally does more good than harm, giving people a sense of purpose and community where they might not otherwise have either. But I’m talking mainly about what I call the “good” Jesus — the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the one who, through his people, clothes the naked and feeds the hungry.

As you would expect, the people who serve this “good Jesus” are an interesting gumbo of folks, down Louisiana way. Moses has even discovered that the Democratic Party includes people who go to church and that some of them — sit down for this one — are even kind of conservative when it comes to religion and culture. African-Americans, for example, are not fond of new definitions of marriage. Even the Democrat in the statehouse has to embrace public prayers.

The writer can see this. She is uncomfortable with it, but she can see that this kind of public-square faith is not all bad. Maybe. She’s struggling.

This brings us to the roller-coaster quote of the day. Hang on.

If one common mistake liberals make is assuming that the great majority of Bible-thumping (or tapping) comes from the right, a second — and to my mind, more important — mistake is equating this style of religiosity with something as simple as narrow-minded ignorance. Rather, bringing God and his word as expressed in the Bible into the debate points to a profound lack of meaning and vision in our public discourse, and a searing pessimism that anyone, or any institution, in public life might put things right. It points, also, to disgust: disgust not only with our elected leaders but also with the cheapening of life around us, whether by blatant sexuality on television, soaring drug abuse, the acceptance of out-of-wedlock birth or the loss of the communal ties that once grounded us.

As far as I can tell, progressives and liberals of all stripes don’t even begin to fathom the despair and confusion most ordinary Americans feel when they hear the latest violent rap song or see a billboard plastered with an image of a 16-year-old clad only in Calvin Klein underwear.

And all the people said: “Say what?”

Clearly Moses has been drinking the water down in Louisiana. So I decided to ask Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher what he made of this piece. Rod has more bayou water in his blood than anyone else I know (and family near Baton Rouge). Here’s his reaction:

That’s a tough one. It’s something like, “These people down here are more or less Jesus freaks, and you wouldn’t believe the kind of crap a normal person has to put up with living among them, but they seem to be onto something, though I can’t quite figure out what it is and really would rather not.”

That’s about right. What those Louisiana people need to do is go to church less often and watch PBS more often. Then more of them will buy newspapers and let journalists tell them all about what is happening in their lives.

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Yes, Newsweek missed the Church Ladies

NewsweekOprahFor the past week or so, something kept bothering me about the Newsweek cover story titled “How Women Lead.”

I mean, I survived reading the thing (it is soooooo neo-People magazine) and I even marked it up a bit. Then I tossed it on my desk and it has been there ever since, staring at me. If you want to see the basic, non-ghostly holes poked in it, I suggest that you turn to Myrna Blyth’s “Girly Gobbledygook” column at National Review Online.

But I decided pretty quick that there wasn’t much to write about, looking at “How Women Lead” from a GetReligion point of view.

Then somebody sent me a reminder about the recent Christine Rosen “Houses of Worship” essay in The Wall Street Journal. That’s the one with this punchy, even pushy headline: “Church Ladies — Women dominate America’s pews. Is that a problem?” Here is the opening of that essay:

This fall, the entering class of rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, is 34% female. At Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, women are nearly half the student body. At many Protestant seminaries, women pastoral students now outnumber men, and between 1983 and 2000 the number of women who identified themselves as clergy tripled. It seems that Catholic scholar Leon Podles’s prediction of a few years ago, that “the Protestant clergy will be a characteristically female occupation, like nursing, within a generation,” may soon prove true.

Pulpits aren’t the only places that women dominate. According to a recent survey, the typical U.S. congregation is 61% female. Women are also the force behind most lay organizations and volunteer activities and make up the majority of church employees.

Bingo. Now I knew what was bugging me about that shallow Newsweek cover story. Somehow, the team that produced it forgot about the Church Ladies and the tremendous impact that women are having on modern sanctuaries.

This is a big news story. Some social critics will even say that this rise in female power is directly linked to at least three major Godbeat stories — the lack of men in pews, the decline of the liberal mainline and the rise (sort of, the stats suggest more like a plateau) of the new conservative mainstream. 0785260382

Here is what that argument sounds like, with Rosen riffing on the work of David Murrow, author of the book Why Men Hate Going to Church.

Interestingly, Mr. Murrow notes that, among the major Christian denominations, it is the mainline churches that suffer the largest gender gaps in church attendance. These churches, still pilloried by feminists for their patriarchal pretensions, have in fact become spiritual sorority houses. It is the more conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, that have the most even ratios. In these more traditional churches, many of which do not have female clergy, parishioners hear less about cooperation and feel-good spirituality and more about spiritual rigor and the competition to win souls. Churches that embrace male leadership, including the Roman Catholic Church, remain the largest in the country, and the Mormon Church, which also does not have female clergy, is the fastest-growing.

(Personal note: Before people start leaving comments on this, let me confess that my family worships in an Eastern Orthodox parish, the most ancient of churches and one in which women can be saints, theologians, professors, iconographers, apologists and all kinds of things, but not priests.)

The power of religion does show up — very briefly — in the Newsweek mini-profile of Brigadier General Sheila Baxter. I had noticed this reference, with its strong faith language, but this theme had really not been woven into the piece. Baxter testifies:

The other thing that is very important is my spiritual background. I received my calling in the ministry in 1988 when I was stationed in Germany. The Lord called me through a dream. It was 2 in the morning and I jumped up out of the bed. I heard his voice clearly. The next day I talked to my pastor and he put me into a training program. I was licensed with the Church of God in Christ. When I retire, I plan to go to seminary and pursue a divinity degree.

However, note that the Church of God in Christ is a very conservative denomination, in terms of its culture and social views. It ordains women, but this is not a flock that most people would put on the left side of the sanctuary when it comes to moral issues and basic doctrine. This is not the United Church of Christ.

No, I think that the most important piece of Godtalk in the Newsweek package, the one most closely linked to the skyrocketing statistics about women in pews and mainline pulpits, can be found in the profile of the Rt. Rev. Oprah Winfrey.

Come to think of it, this paragraph is the closest thing this cover package offered to a thesis statement. Maybe there is a ghost in there after all.

And behold, Oprah said:

All the women leaders I have met led with a greater sense of intuition than men. I am almost completely intuitive. The only time I’ve made a bad business decision is when I didn’t follow my instinct. My favorite phrase is: “Let me pray on it.” Sometimes I literally do pray, but sometimes I just wait to see if I wake up and feel the same way in the morning.

And millions of Americans said: “Amen.”

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Newsweek’s mailbag

mail callThe mail call for Newsweek‘s splash on the Mormon Church was thick and heavy, judging by those letters published in this week’s issue. There are a total of 15, by my count. Here’s a good summary:

One member “anxious about inaccuracies” was “pleasantly surprised at the great job of compactly presenting such a huge topic.” Another insisted that “the Mormon Church has no need to ‘confront’ its past.” Still another wondered how an article by “a current member of the church could offer a ‘fair and balanced’ portrayal.” Many readers took exception to calling Mormonism a Christian denomination, and others criticized the church for its secret ceremonies and exclusivity. “The Mormon Church is a Masonic lodge dressed up for public view as a Christian church,” a former member said. Others questioned Mormonism’s history, pointing to the frequently altered Book of Mormon and founder Joseph Smith’s reported discovery of gold plates. Charged one, “This obviously fairy-tale religion was founded by a boy magician and latter-day con man.”

Some of the letters are quite vicious, many voicing the opinions already voiced on this blog, but in Newsweek, as with most publications, full names and localities are published. The effort involved and the publication of a bit more personal information somehow give them more weight.

The highlight for me was the letter addressing the issue of Newsweek‘s allowing a lifelong Mormon to report the piece:

Elise Soukup may be a lifelong Mormon, but her reporting displays little knowledge of Christianity. She wrote a nice PR piece for the Mormon Church, which fits well into its campaign to promote itself as mainstream and Christian. When Soukup notes the wonderful care the Mormon Church gives the daily needs of its members, she is correct. The Mormons are unlike the Lutherans or Catholics who, with their huge social-service programs, take care of anyone in need. Caring for all, not just one’s own church members, is what Jesus taught his followers to do.
Charles Jones
Chicago, Ill.

So is Mr. Jones being sarcastic? I believe so. But I’m having trouble sorting out his exact point.

More importantly, is this a big issue? Frequent GetReligion commenter Stephen A. first brought this to our attention early on. It’s something I wish I had known for the original post, because part of me believes this should have been disclosed in the article, but that could establish a bad precedent for religion reporting.

In an online chat, Soukup is quick to disclose this fact. Perhaps that’s a more appropriate forum for disclosing personal information like this.

She addresses it later in the chat and is quite upfront about it:

Salt Lake City, UT:
How can you write a cover with your conflict of interest, without disclosing your bias in your article?
Elise Soukup: Good question. In the [editor's] note at the front of the magazine, I’m identified as “a lifelong member of the Mormon Church.” I am definitely upfront about it! But the larger question is the one of, how can you write an article about a church if you are a believing member? First off, I have to say that I am just one of the many people that worked on this article before it made it to print. It went through several senior editors — none of them Mormon. So there’s definitely a checks and balance system! With that said, it’s not uncommon for reporters to write about what they know (e.g. I believe that the person who wrote last week’s TIME article about gay teens was gay himself). But my job became easy when I realized that I didn’t have to take sides. Really, what I tried to do was provide a straightforward and candid account of founder Joseph Smith, the church he established and the most common debates or controversies that are discussed. I’ve gotten angry letters on both sides, so I feel that I’m doing my job.

Just doing her job, trying to be straightforward, receiving angry letters from both sides … as a journalist, this works for me.

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Hat tip to Duin (two of them, in fact)

questionsBIG2One of the advantages of having a veteran reporter on the Godbeat is that they have long memories and they can spot key updates in ongoing stories. Here are two fine examples, in the recent work of Julia Duin at The Washington Times. Both of these stories are linked to one of the major U.S. religion trends of the past generation or two, the statistical implosion of what was once called mainline Protestantism.

• Remember those hot United Church of Christ ads that trumpeted this denomination’s more-inclusive-than-thou status on issues of sex, race, singleness, handicaps and who knows what all? The church on the left edge of American Protestantism is preparing another wave of ads, and Duin has a very informative interview with the Rev. Ron Buford about what is ahead in this drive to find a way to do liberal evangelism. Here is a sample:

Although evangelical Christian groups have boomed since the 1960s, mainline Protestant denominations have hemorrhaged members because of differences over women’s ordination, issues surrounding homosexuality, biblical interpretations and the importance of evangelism. After the UCC unearthed, through market research, an undercurrent of alienation among unchurched Americans toward church in general, it began playing up themes of inclusivity and acceptance.

“I consider ourselves evangelical, too,” Mr. Buford said, “but for a different market segment.”

The hook for Duin’s report is that other churches on the religious left are launching similar efforts, trying to reach beyond their aging demographics. (Our thanks to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington for granting permission to reproduce one of its ads in this post.)

• Speaking of Episcopalians, Duin (who has a degree from an evangelical Anglican seminary) latched on to a hot lead out there in cyberspace. It seems that someone connected to (or close to) the Episcopal Church leaked a key set of notes from an anti-traditionalist strategy session to someone who forwarded them to someone who carbon-copied (or blind carbon-copied) a set to the famous (or infamous) Anglican news-blogger David W. Virtue. The key question, of course, is this: Is the material real?

Duin quickly confirms that, along with the detail that plans are in fact underway to toss out as many as 16 conservative Episcopal bishops:

Informally named the “Day After” for the aftermath of the June 13-21 event, the strategy outlines a way to file canonical charges against conservative bishops, unseat them from their dioceses, have interim bishops waiting to replace them and draft lawsuits ready to file before secular courts for possession of diocesan property. The strategy was revealed in a leaked copy of minutes drafted at a Sept. 29 meeting in Dallas of a 10-member steering committee for Via Media, a network of 13 liberal independent Episcopal groups.

“It was a worst-case scenario — what people in various dioceses would need to do if their bishop and much of their diocesan leadership decided to walk away from the Episcopal Church,” said Joan Gundersen, the steering committee member who drafted the minutes. Conservatives also “have made statements to that effect,” she said.

Where in the world are the major dailies on this story? There are all kinds of explosive details in here, including Duin’s note that: “In July, about 20 liberal and conservative Episcopal bishops met secretly in Los Angeles to discuss how to divide billions in church assets in the event of a split.”

UPDATE: Doug LeBlanca participant in this Anglican story, and thus silent about it — tells me that the religious-press scoop on the Via Media story belongs to the venerable journal for Episcopalians called The Living Church. I will try to confirm that, if and when I can ever get the publication’s slow website to respond and let me read the story.

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