NLQ FAQ: How did you get yourself into this mess?

Jonathan W. Rice (jwr)

faqs20questions2001

In late 2009, I learned that a journalist had written a book about the Quiverfull movement.[1]  I ordered the book and also discovered an online forum for survivors and refugees who’d fled from it (No Longer Quivering).  As far back as 1989, I’d known several families who fit the description but could never really understand their rationale.  I hoped the NLQ forum and the book might shed some light on their beliefs. I was not disappointed.

In mid-February 2010, a thread title on the forum caught my eye: How did you get yourself into this mess?  The author, a female refugee from the movement, was wondering how she and so many others could have fallen for it in the first place.  After reading it, I again realized how closely the QF/P movement intersects with mainstream evangelicalism and fundamentalism; and how easily I too could have been recruited, given the wrong circumstances.

How, one may ask, do people get into such a seemingly bizarre religious movement?  And how had I (in the past) been in danger of being sucked in myself?

The answer boils down to one simple word: “gradually.”

The substance of my gradual experience, which I’ll summarize here, is the shared story of countless rank & file believers who come under the broad labels “Pentecostal,” “charismatic,” “evangelical,” and “fundamentalist.”

In the beginning, as a teen in the mid 1970s, my cousin, followed by my mother, became born-again Christians.  It was really positive in those days: God loves you and has a wonderful plan, and so forth. It was all about having a new life, full of purpose and meaning. A life in which the very Creator of the Universe actually cared about little people like us!

In her adolescent southern California manner, my fourteen-year-old cousin would say, “I used to get high on weed, but now I get high on Jesus!” She gave me a copy of The Way, a hippie-friendly version of The Living Bible, which I actually enjoyed. (At age 15, while terrified and deranged from a drug-trip gone bad, I picked it up and read about 20 pages, after which I felt calm enough to endure the next few hours.)

And the early Jesus-music to which they exposed me (Chuck Girard and others), though not nearly on par with The Grateful Dead or Emerson, Lake & Palmer, still spoke to me in a profound manner.

By the time I finally became a Christian at 17, this was my milieu. Sure, I was exposed to some disturbing signs of things to come at my Christian high school, but neither I nor my new friends shared the views of the newly-founded Moral Majority, which we thought to be vestiges of an old religiosity on the verge of extinction.

It was all really positive in those early, idealistic years. Loving Jesus, hoping to save the world, helping homeless people, having an abundance of real friends who stood with me through thick and thin: it was all good; really good.  The song that often brought tears to my eyes in the early days was written by Keith Green immediately upon his conversion (before he’d entered into his extremist phase):

Like waking up from the longest dream

How real it seemed

Until your love broke through

But gradually…

A radio program called Focus on the Family that I used to hear doling out advice to crisis-wracked families, was becoming politicized.  Through the show, and then through the warnings of Tim LaHaye and others, I began learning of sinister threats being hatched against us by people called “Secular Humanists.”  LaHaye, in a breathless, frenzied spiel, warned of the threat as follows.  Humanists, he said:

have been “planted” in strategic places in the United Nations, they teach children in public schools “to read the words scientific humanism as soon as they’re old enough to read,” and 275,000 humanists control the American government, education, and media.[2]

As conspiracy-paranoia mounted, politics in church began to subvert the innocent, Jesus-loving expressions of faith I’d known in the beginning. Our churches started distributing candidates’ score cards in the foyers, telling us to vote accordingly.

And then there was a radio preacher, William Steuart McBirnie, whose Voice of Americanism program daily rehashed senator McCarthy’s and Carl McIntire’s Red Scare fundamentalism, updating it for the mid-1980s.  We had much to fear and many to loathe.

Music-wise, instead of hearing to how great it was to know Jesus, I discovered Steve Taylor, who was parroting the Christian Right in his angry, caustic songs.  Listening to and agreeing with Taylor could make my blood boil, and I heard him frequently; so much so that sixteen years later I can quote lines verbatim from memory—like this one from the 1984 song “Meat the Press”:

When the godless chair the judgment seat

We can thank the godless media elite

They can silence those who fall from their grace

With a note that says, “We haven’t the space.”

After the release of Taylor’s first album in 1983, Francis Schaeffer lavished gushing praise upon him.[3] (Francis, especially through his books How Should We Then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and A Christian Manifesto, was the Godfather of the New Christian Right.)  On the jacket of a later album, Steve Taylor credited Schaeffer’s firebrand son Franky as his inspiration.

I met Francis Schaeffer and his son Franky in the spring of 1984, when they spoke at my college (Francis sat in a chair for the few minutes he spoke, being in the final stages of cancer. Two weeks later he died). It was the angry, energetic Franky who took center stage, bashing the “secular media establishment,” the vast Secular Humanist conspiracy, and even the bastion of evangelicalism, Wheaton College, which, he claimed, was compromising in some manner. “If I ever disappear,” he roared in a histrionic fit, “you can find my body buried in the swamps behind Wheaton!”  Franky’s rage was contagious, further fueling my anger.

Most cults have a well-planned program for the indoctrination of new recruits, in which they deceitfully hide their more bizarre teachings from seekers (an exoteric/esoteric truth divide). The new convert is only taught the vision piecemeal; gradually gaining deeper (and weirder) knowledge over a period of months or years.

But with us, although it may have appeared that way, it wasn’t exactly so. I later realized I was living in the midst of a drastic change in popular American Christianity.  The movement still really was (for the most part) benign when I joined. The resentful loathing was added gradually, not as a planned indoctrination program, but because the church genuinely was in the midst of radical transition during 1980s and ‘90s.

And thus by 1985, my original faith, though still there, was mixed with anger, resentment and fear—a sense of being under siege.

After another few years, the Rev. Don Wildmon, who Max Blumenthal would later describe as “churlish,”[4] started telling us to boycott Mennon Speed Stick deodorant because it was advertised on a TV show which he, and therefore God, didn’t approve of.

Then, in 1990, James Dobson openly began using the language of civil war: “Nothing short of a great Civil War of Values rages today throughout North America. Two sides with vastly differing and incompatible world views are locked in a bitter conflict that permeates every level of society.”[5]  Whether the timing of Dobson’s drum beating was cunning or just plain lucky, I don’t know. But it certainly was fortuitous. In September of that same year, PBS aired its nine-episode Civil War series, the most popular program in the network’s history. As Entertainment Weekly’s Albert Kim recalls, “The Civil War mesmerized 38.9 million viewers, upsetting the networks’ fall premieres.”[6]  Or as Dave McCoy, in the official Amazon.com review puts it:

While [Ken] Burns is a historian, a researcher, and a documentarian, he’s above all a gifted storyteller, and it’s his narrative powers that give this chronicle its beauty, overwhelming emotion, and devastating horror…Burns allows us not only to relearn and finally understand our history, but also to feel and experience it.[7]

Due to the gripping popularity of the series, it mattered not whether one was an avid history buff or history-illiterate.  Freshly burned in the psyches of those who read and heard Dobson’s 1990 Civil War cry were graphic images of America when it was in the throes of its most self-destructive conflict.

Civil War. What a great idea! Brother against brother. A woman against her coworker. Neighbor against neighbor. Divide and conquer. A nation’s unity destroyed. And when all was said and done, Dobson emerged from the fray as the new Republican Kingmaker.

In such a milieu, those negative traits of resentment and fear had become almost central, my original faith being sickly, barely alive and far beneath the surface.  We were now in the midst of full-blown culture-war.  And all that the churches and Christian mailing list materials were trumpeting was also confirmed by an outside source: The Rush Limbaugh show.

By 1992 I’d made the full transition from a spirituality of awe, joy and wonder to one of hatred, fear and all-around loathing.  We Christians were under siege.  “They” were taking away our freedoms. “They” had planted Secular Humanist agents in every ‘government school,’ brainwashing the next generation. Not only that, The New Age Movement (painted as a well-organized conspiracy rather than the loosely knit spiritual fad that it was) was out to forge a One World Government and wipe the final vestiges of Christianity from the face of the earth.

Around that time, I heard a song by the excellent alternative Christian rock band, The Swirling Eddies. One of the lines said, “…and it scares me just how angry I have grown.” This was a bit unsettling, but I felt my anger was justified. After all, hadn’t Franky Schaeffer written a book called A Time for Anger?

As the content of our faith changed, so did our conceptualization of Jesus.  He was no longer a God of love, but a muscle-bound tyrant.  Speaking of the Christian Right in 2009, journalist Max Blumenthal’s following description also summarizes the view of Jesus that was gaining ascendancy among us in the 1990s:

The movement’s Jesus is the opposite of the prince of peace.  He is a stern, overtly masculine patriarch charging into the fray with his sword raised against secular foes; he is “the head of a dreadful company, mounted on a white horse, with a double-edged sword, his robe dipped in blood,” according to movement propagandist Steve Arterburn.  [Mega-church pastor] Mark Driscoll…stirs the souls of twenty-something evangelical men with visions of “Ultimate Fighting Jesus…”

A portrait of virility and violence, the movement’s omnipotent macho Jesus represents the mirror inversion of the weak men who necessitated his creation.  As [Erich] Fromm explained, “the lust for power is not rooted in strength, but in weakness [italics in original].  It is the expression of the individual self to stand alone and live.  It is the desperate attempt to gain secondary strength where genuine strength is lacking.” [8]

I knew three Quiverfull families back in those days, though I didn’t yet know the term.  Two of them had become discredited in my sight, one badly so. The other had moved far across the country to the Bible Belt, and thus their influence on me was minimal.

But: supposing a well-spoken, polished QF/P promoter, who in outward appearance had an exemplary life and family, had befriended me then. And supposing this theoretical person had possessed a charismatic personality. Had this happened, I very well could have bought into the QF/P vision.

The angry and ever-intensifying Christian Right machine had changed our churches into pre-stocked ponds in which QF/CP and other extremists fished.  I was one of those pre-stocked fish. I just happened (by no virtue of my own at the time) to always be on the other side of the pond when people like Nancy Campbell, R.C. Sproul Jr., Doug Phillips, et al., went fishing.

That’s why I find it no surprise that so many of the former QF/CP people (like Vyckie Garrison, for example) are so smart and articulate. People don’t join the movement because they’re idiots. On the contrary, they join because they’re thoughtful, intelligent human beings who really care about their country; who are concerned about the kind of world in which their children and grandchildren will live.  But these same good qualities became a curse when cunning fascist leaders subtly began to channel them for their ends.

And thus over the gradual course of time—sometimes even a decade—we (both “regular” believers and QF/P Christians) became foot soldiers in a zombie-army, doing the political bidding of our Christian Right masters.

My desertion from the zombie-army largely came about through some unexpected developments. In 2002, my family and I moved to Colorado Springs where I worked for an evangelical ministry until we left the area in late December, 2007.

As I headed toward Colorado in a U-Haul van, my knowledge of that city was minimal.  I knew it was America’s new evangelical Mecca, populated with scores of Christian organizations; and I loved the beautiful Front Range Mountains I’d seen on my visit a month before.  But my main source of information was a book I’d read seven years prior, Ted Haggard’s, Primary Purpose: Making It Hard for People to Go to Hell from Your City.[9]  In it, I’d read the amazing story of how Haggard and his initially small band of followers had transformed the supposedly pagan, anti-Christian city into God’s own country.  Through spiritual mapping (identifying the ruling demons in a given area) and systematic warfare-prayer walks through each neighborhood (in which those demons were expelled from the region, presumably to resettle in Washington state, California, New York and Massachusetts), Colorado Springs was now the godliest place in America: truly a city that was “hard to go to Hell from.”

Or so I thought…

Although the organization that employed me was benign and apolitical, through my involvement with it I was exposed to the other big ministries in the area.  Year after year I witnessed countless episodes of hypocrisy and self-congratulatory backslapping amongst Christian Right leaders.  I soon felt uneasy amongst people I’d once greatly admired.

The church we attended turned out to be a de facto outpost of the Republican Party, and according to the pastor’s bizarre interpretation of an Isaiah passage, God had foreordained Republican Jesus to defeat Babylonian Saddam Hussein. By 2005, the church was showing a smiling picture of Sam Brownback each Sunday on the large overhead screen. The pastor would then instruct us to stretch forth our hands and pray fervently for him.

Brownback, dubbed “God’s Senator” by Jeff Sharlet, was a near-perfect embodiment of America’s new civil religion. He was a syncretic marvel who could glide effortlessly between his (Fundamentalist) Topeka Bible Church, Roman Catholicism, and a smattering of Orthodox Judaism.  One cold winter Sunday, the pastor excitedly told us of the senator’s latest mystical experience: Brownback, the pastor claimed, had just been to Valley Forge with a group of prayer leaders.  There, he knelt at the exact spot where George Washington had once famously prayed.  While on his knees in the snow, Brownback had received “the spiritual mantle of George Washington,” an anointing which would send him to the Whitehouse in 2008—but only if God’s people prayed long and hard enough.

Growing weary of weekly political rallies, we soon dropped out of the church.

As the Iraq War went sour and the federal deficit went into the trillions under the “godly” Bush, I became increasingly disillusioned. Then came wave upon wave of varied Republican scandals; so many that they soon became an endless blur in my mind, and would have remained so to this day had Max Blumenthal not compiled them all under one cover in Republican Gomorrah. I realized that we’d been duped by the Christian Right: the politicians they promoted were not godly at all. They’d exploited a few causes that people felt passionately about, using them to con millions of voters.  It had nothing to do with God’s will, only the will to power.

In early 2006, I heard our daughter, a student at Cheyenne Mountain High School, make reference to “Meth City” in a conversation. When I asked what it meant, she said Colorado Springs has such a bad Meth (methamphetamine) abuse problem that her fellow students had aptly renamed their city.  (The things people learn from their kids!) At an elevation of over 6,000 feet, I was living in a Meth City on a Hill.  Speaking of which…

Ted Haggard’s famous New Life Church was a few miles up the freeway from my office; we’d visited on several occasions over the years.  On November 3, 2006, seized with morbid curiosity, I drove to New Life the day after Haggard had been exposed for his affair with male prostitute & bodybuilder Mike Jones, and for using Meth.  The parking lot was jammed with major media vans broadcasting their stories and interviews. Entering New Life Church’s “World Prayer Center” on the campus’s east side, I noticed that the homoerotic paintings (macho, muscular, semi-clad men; one a blacksmith, another in chains, and an African-American angel), which I’d seen just a few months prior, were gone. It looked like a hasty job. No new paintings were in their places yet, and the picture hangers were still lodged in the now-bare walls, which had scratch marks from the rubbing of the frames over the years.

But it was impossible to remove the heavy sculptures with the same haste. As I went from the World Prayer Center over to the vast foyer of the church, the huge sculpture of an angel named “Exalter” was still prominently on display. It had the appearance of a steroid-sodden bodybuilder. Its massive arms were raised in adoration of the universe’s ultimate Alpha Male: the super-macho Christ of the Religious Right. Haggard’s consort, Mike Jones, had a physique quite similar to this sculpted angel. Was it merely a coincidence?  Obviously, the people who’d scrambled to remove the paintings in the World Prayer Center either that morning or the night before knew it was not.

A few weeks before we finally left Colorado, a local news station did a major exposé on human trafficking in Colorado Springs. It turned out that kidnapped Asian women were stocking the city’s many massage parlors.  An expert on the show informed viewers that if they saw massage parlors with barred doors and windows, the women inside were probably being held captive.

Droves of sex-prisoners languishing in God’s own Paradise? How could it be?

During that season I also learned we’d been lied to.  Contrary to the jeremiads of the Christian Right’s propaganda industry, it wasn’t “America’s godless, secular intelligentsia” who had removed the Bible and the knowledge of God from our educational system.  In reality, Christians themselves had caused it nearly 200 years ago.  By the 1820s, America’s public schools were in a dilemma.  Calvinists wanted the schools to teach only Calvinism, but Arminians (mostly Methodists) wanted them to teach only their doctrines.  Several other sects were making demands of their own.  And all of them agreed that no matter which version of Christianity won out in the classrooms, it should never be Roman Catholicism, which they all abhorred with equal passion.  The endless infighting overwhelmed school authorities, who eventually gave up on the teaching of religion, substituting a vague, generic moral science in its place.[10]

The same thing goes for taking Bible reading out of public schools.  No, it wasn’t a cabal of Secular Humanists in the early 1960s, but Christians themselves who brought it about, through vicious infighting between Protestants (most of whom championed the King James Bible) and Catholics who could only accept the Douay-Rheims translation.  Speaking of the “Bible Wars” in the mid-nineteenth century, Stephen Prothero writes, “The most visible battlefield in these early culture wars was Philadelphia, where Protestant-Catholic riots over whose Bible would be read in public schools left over a dozen people dead and Catholic churches burned to the ground in 1844.”[11]  In addition to outright violence and murder, the endless polemical clashes between these groups caused school administrators to become weary and wary.

As a result, by the 1870s, public schools in many states had not only done away with Christian education, but Bible reading and hymn singing as well.  Contrary to what we’d learned from the Christian Right, the rulings of 1962 and ’63 were merely the final few nails in the coffin—not the beginning of a cultural decline engineered by Secular Humanists.

Speaking of Secular Humanists, were they really a threat, or were they mere boogey-men, the creation of our Christian Right overlords?  Veteran journalist and author Chris Hedges observes:

The obsession with the evils of secular humanism would be laughable if it were not such an effective scare tactic.  The only organized movement of secular humanists who call themselves by that name is the American Humanist Association (AHA), which has about 3,000 members… Its Humanist magazine has a miniscule circulation.  In terms of influence, as Barbara Parker and Christy Macy wrote, “these humanists rank with militant vegetarians and agrarian anarchists, and were about as well known—until the Religious Right set out to make them famous.”  But it is not important who is fingered as Satan’s agent, as long as the wild conspiracy theories and paranoia are stoked by an array of duplicitous, phantom enemies that lurk behind the scenes of public school boards or the media.[12]

A far cry indeed from LaHaye’s whopping 275,000 Secular Humanists who supposedly control the entirety of American life and polity!

Finally, what ever became of the angry young evangelical, Franky Schaeffer?  He eventually tired of the whole scene and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Then, in 2008, he denounced the Christian Right in his book, Crazy For God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back.  In a candid interview with Max Blumenthal, Frank (he no longer goes by “Franky”) said:

We [Christian Right leaders] thrived on bad news, we thanked God that education was falling apart and teen pregnancy was going up.  We couldn’t peddle solutions unless there was a crisis.  We were in business in the same way an oncologist was—if there was no cancer he’d be out of business.  Quite simply, we were trying to manufacture crisis.” [13]

In the same interview, Frank also said that his father Francis, on his deathbed, deeply regretted his role in founding the Christian Right.  “He was convinced that he had created a monster.” [14]

Living in Colorado Springs and learning what I did there was like Neo swallowing the red pill. I’d seen the truth about The Matrix. I could never go back; life couldn’t continue as it had before.

But unlike some of my QF/P-escapee friends, I didn’t pay a heavy price for leaving.  No loss of friends or family, no painful divorce, and no “shunning” by fake former brethren in an abusive house-church.  The Christian group with which I’m affiliated has never endorsed QF/P. On the contrary, they aggressively promote the ordination of women. Nor are there any political litmus tests which members must pass. They range from very conservative to quite progressive.  A group closely networked with ours has orphanages and schools across Mozambique, and in mid-2007 my family and I spent six weeks there.

While a gentle breeze off the Indian Ocean kicked up tiny swirls of reddish-brown dust in the large Pemba compound, I asked the co-founder, a vibrant expat woman from southern California, her opinion of American politicized Christianity.  With a troubled look she replied slowly and deliberately, “Those of us who work among the poor have no fondness for the Religious Right.”  Being just one week off the plane from Colorado Springs, I couldn’t believe my ears.  But I had heard correctly, and most of the hundred or so other visitors we met during those weeks shared similar views.  A few weeks later I heard music and saw a crowd of Pemba residents gathered under a large tent on the compound.  When I asked the co-founder what the meeting was about, she replied that it was a UN-sponsored AIDS awareness program. “We let them use our place for free,” she said. “They’re trying to save peoples’ lives.”

Waves of relief washed over me as I came to a realization that should have been so obvious all along: “I don’t have to be fascist to be a Christian!”

Leaving, for me, was more an act of remembering; recalling what being a Christian was supposed to be in the first place.  It was like “waking up from the longest dream, how real it seemed…”

Now that I’ve renounced the politicized spirituality of fear and loathing, I am so very relieved. Sure, I still get angry at times, like when I read about Fundamentalist parents Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz, who, following Michael and Debi Pearl’s No Greater Joy child-rearing manuals, allegedly beat their seven-year-old adopted daughter to death with plumbing supply line because she repeatedly mispronounced a word during a home-schooling lesson.  In cases like this, there really is “A Time for Anger.”

But there’s a big difference. Because I deny Christian Right demagogues and their talk-radio allies access to my mind, I’m not simmering with anger and resentment. I really enjoy life again. This is not to say I’ve simply reverted to a facile Sunday School type of faith.  Such a second naivety is neither possible nor desirable.  Theologically, philosophically–and in every way really–I’ve been through many changes.  There was no “restore to default” button for me to click; no way to un-swallow the red pill once it was digested.

What I have been able to do, though, is make a return to a spirituality of awe and wonder, in which I no longer look to self-appointed authority figures and ‘experts’ for guidance. And I’ve utterly lost the Modern, Cartesian illusion of “geometric certitude,” which was so deeply ingrained through years of studying “Christian Worldview” materials. I now revel in the thought that the universe is, as the poet Robert Hunter put it, full of “mysteries dark and vast”; mysteries that my little ant-brain will never begin to fathom.

For these reasons I find a deep kinship with those (both female and male) who have fled the QF/P movement.  After all, they were once in that same pre-stocked Christian Right pond, swimming right alongside me.

And like them, I’ve also escaped that pond and know better now.  We’re no longer taking the bait.

Born and raised in northern California, Jonathan W. Rice is a freelance writer and teacher.

Discuss this post on the NLQ forum!

ENDNOTES


[1]Kathryn, Joyce, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement(Boston: Beacon Press, 2009).

[2] Tim LaHaye, The Battle For the Mind (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1980), pp. 27, 74, 97, 179.  Summarized in George M. Mardsen, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism ( MI: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991), p. 109.

[3] “I Want to Be a Clone” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Want_to_Be_a_Clone). Accessed 23 February 2010.

[4] Max Blumenthal, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party (New York: Nation Books, 2009), p. 203.

[5] James Dobson, Children at Risk (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1990), pp. 19-20.

[6] Albert Kim, “The Filmmaker Behind PBS’ ‘Civil War’ Steps Up To The Plate With His Epic ‘Baseball’” (http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,303684,00.html), accessed 25 February 2010.

[7] Dave McCoy, “The Civil War” (http://www.amazon.com/Civil-War-Film-Ken-Burns/dp/B000BITUE8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1267037976&sr=1-1), accessed 25 February 2010.

[8] Blumenthal, Republican Gomorrah, pp. 9, 10.

[9] Florida: Creation House, 1995.

[10] Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 109-120.

[11] Ibid, pp. 121-127.

[12] Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America  (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 27.

[13] Blumenthal, Republican Gomorrah, p. 30.

[14] Ibid, p. 27.

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  • http://standbyyourname.blogspot.com/ Yam Erez

    I related to what you said about the exoteric / esoteric truth divide. Creepily similar to the *chozer b’tshuva* [born-again Orthodox Jewish] movement.

  • Leigh Ann

    That was really interesting about the fights between Protestants and Catholics over whose Bible to read. I had never heard that but I believe it. So many people blame problems on taking God out of school. Well, you can’t stop God from being anywhere, he’s in the hearts of the kids and the teachers and whoever else who believes. My daughter is in public school and I don’t want her learning faith there (I’m fine with learning about different religions, that’s important for understanding the world). That’s for us and every parent to teach or not teach in their own way. We live in a heavily Jewish area and many of the students are Jewish, as was my daughter’s second-grade teacher. One of her friends is Mormon. There are lots of Muslims as well. Public school is where everyone should feel welcome and comfortable.


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