Abstract Religion deeply intersects with race, ethnicity, and class in the United States. In many cases, these “variables” cannot be separated. In other words, religion’s relationship to other social structures is “complex”—a term which I borrow from a body of literature known as “complex inequality.” If we accept this complexity, then a central question arises: what are we doing looking for independent effects of religion? Asking this question does not imply that religion is not worth studying sociologically. It also does not mean that we cannot figure out when and how religion matters on its own. But it does mean that we have some work to do—especially on our research designs and methods—if we want to understand religion in all of its complexity. INTRODUCTION For most of my career, I have studied religious change.1 Lately, though, I have become much more interested in the ways in which the American religious field has not changed. In particular, I have been struck by how much American religious groups historically intersected with other social structures—especially those associated with inequality, such as race, ethnicity, and class—and by the extent to which this is still the case. I have also become convinced that some of these consistent features of American religion are either taken for granted by scholars of religion—or ignored by them and sociologists outside of our subfield entirely. In both cases, I think this is because we have been trained to find “independent effects” of religion—almost always after controlling for other variables like race and class. I argue that looking for independent effects of religion makes neither theoretical nor methodological sense in most cases. To put it simply, religion’s relationship to other social structures is “complex”—a term which I borrow from a body of literature known as “complex inequality” (e.g., Choo and Feree 2010; McCall 2001). THE MORE THINGS CHANGE I first started to think about how deeply religion intersects with inequality as a result of my research on the American religious field in the early 1920s. In an effort to understand why some very important and prominent religious denominations suddenly liberalized on birth control in 1931, I began examining the religious field as a whole. I started with the suffrage and temperance movements around 1918–1919, turned to immigration reform and early debates about evolution in 1924–1925 and ultimately ended up focusing on the debates about birth control and eugenics that were raging in the field between 1929 and 1931. To do this, Sabrina Danielsen and I searched and coded the periodicals of 30 of the largest American religious denominations on a host of issues. We ended up with about five thousand articles, which we reduced to one chart in our article “Fewer and Better Children” (Wilde and Danielsen 2014). As figure 1 demonstrates, we found that our 30 religious groups sorted into four categories: (1) the early liberalizers, (2) the unofficial supporters, (3) the critics, and (4) the silent denominations. A combination of two beliefs explains the category each denomination fell into: whether they believed in the social gospel and whether they were eugenicists who were deeply concerned about “race suicide.” I’m not going to spend much time on the social gospel movement here (for more on that see Wilde and Danielsen 2014). Instead, I’m going to focus on what was for me the somewhat shocking and earth shattering realization that more than half of the religious groups in our sample were eugenicists in 1930. I’m going to do so because it was that finding that has continued to push my thinking on the relationship between religion, race, and class in the United States. FIGURE 1. View largeDownload slide Stances on Birth Control by Belief in Race Suicide and the Social Gospel. FIGURE 1. View largeDownload slide Stances on Birth Control by Belief in Race Suicide and the Social Gospel. So, what did eugenics, and concerns about race suicide, have do with birth control, religion, and why might it matter today? Concerns about race suicide rose out of an uneasiness with the fact that Catholic and Jewish immigrants—who were not seen as white and were viewed as undesirable and inferior—were outbreeding White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. For years, eugenicists, especially the American Eugenics Society (AES), had promoted “positive eugenics,” the idea that “desirable” people should have more children. After decades of very little success, however, the AES had begun to promote “negative eugenics.” Negative eugenics encompassed everything from involuntary sterilization of the most undesirable (usually those seen to have mental and hereditary diseases), to getting the undesirables who were outbreeding WASPs access to birth control. Contraceptives were still at that point illegal and largely inaccessible for those without regular access to a physician (Black 2004; Bruinius 2006; Haller 1963; Keyles 1995; King and Ruggles 1990; Kline 2001; Larson 1995; Ludmerer 1972; Pickens 1969; Rafter 1988; Ramsden 2003; Reilly 1991; Stern 2005). It was the campaign to legalize contraceptives that most mobilized the elite of the American religious field (c.f. Rosen 2004). Knowing that the leaders of some of America’s oldest and most prominent religious institutions would be valuable allies, the AES had forged tight relations with them for most of its existence (even offering a competition for the best sermon on eugenics) (e.g., Bishop 1929). Once the AES’ focus turned to legalizing birth control, this alliance became a partnership—with most of the groups that had strong relationships with the AES (more than half of the biggest American religious denominations) making official pronouncements that birth control was not only morally acceptable, but was a duty (for less desirable groups). Let me emphasize here that as I got to know eugenicists and the religious groups allied with them, it became apparent to me that their concerns were as much about religion as they were about ethnicity and race and class. Being Catholic meant that one was not Protestant, and it also meant, more likely than not, being a poor, recent immigrant, and therefore, not Anglo-Saxon. The case was largely the same for Jews. Ethnicity, non-Whiteness, class, recent immigration status, foreignness, fertility—all were deeply intertwined with religion. Religion was a critical component of the “racial project” (Omi and Winant 1986) for birth control reform, both in terms of whose fertility was seen as needing to be controlled, and who was trying to control it. Focusing, for a second, only on class, I was struck by just how crucial social class was in differentiating American religious denominations’ views on birth control. Of course, the idea that one’s class background was correlated with one’s religion was not new. Following Weber’s early observations about capitalism and Protestantism (Weber  2002), early American sociologists were quick to point out that one’s social standing could almost be predicted by their religious denomination. From Pope’s (1948) “Religion and the Class Structure,” to Digby Baltzell’s (1964), The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America to Jay Demerath’s (1965) Social class in American Protestantism, this relationship was acknowledged and verified, for those with any doubt about the tightness with which class, religion, and region were accepted as deeply intertwined just 50 years ago, it may be useful to point out that the term “Mainline Protestant” itself, which we all use in our analyses, originally indicated these groups’ association with a series of elite suburbs along Philadelphia’s “Mainline” (Coffman 2013). It is worth noting here that more than one of the reviewers that I had for “Fewer and Better Children” who were not sociologists of religion, were entirely ignorant of this history. In fact, it is safe to say that they confused by or in complete disbelief of my references to what I thought was a well-known social fact.2 Of course, when I actually tried to prove that the relationship between class and religious group was important (because of said reviewers’ skepticism), I ran into some complications—namely that no one gathered data on income or education prior to 1940 that could be broken down by religious denominations. The surveys from that early just were not that good. The one piece of data that I was able to find for all of the religious denominations in my sample that was relevant to socioeconomic background had to do with each denomination’s mean minister’s salary (see table 3 in Wilde and Danielsen 2014:1728–9). Although this was arguably not the best measure of class, I treated it as a proxy for it, and found that it reflected the accepted wisdom. In general, those ministers who were paid the best were the leaders of the oldest Protestant denominations, long seen as the elite. Other data from the same Census of Religious Bodies (1926) confirmed that they were concentrated in the Northeast. These data showed, for example, that the predominantly Northeastern American Unitarian Association reported that it paid its average minister more than $2000 in 1926. In comparison, groups outside of the Northeast, especially those who were more recent immigrants or African American were paid much less—usually half or even a quarter of elite salaries. For example, the mostly mid-western and more recent immigrant Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod paid its ministers only $755 a year. At the very lowest end of the spectrum, the traditionally black African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church paid its average minister only $502 a year. In general, what figure 1 does not show but what the accepted wisdom in our field and the limited data available clearly suggested, was that the early liberalizers were upper class, Northeastern, White denominations—better off than all other American religious groups by any reasonable measure. The data also demonstrated that the unofficial supporters were more middle class and more Midwestern than the early liberalizers. Generally not involved in the Social Gospel movement and they not embrace the religious activism of the early liberalizers. However, they deeply believed in the Anglo history of the United States and the crucial role being Anglo thus played in “manifest destiny.” Thus, profoundly concerned about the birth rate differential between their kind and the waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants who they saw as a “vast alien invasion of our shores,” (Marlin 1932) they unofficially supported birth control reform. The silent groups were generally less well-off than the early liberalizers, but that was not the only difference between them. I found that they felt ethnically different from those who considered themselves to be White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, mostly because they were more recent immigrant groups or, in the case of African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the National Baptist Convention, Inc., historically Black Denominations. As more ethnically marginal, but largely middle class, believers in the Social Gospel, these groups rejected eugenics and concerns about race suicide and remained silent about birth control in the face of their fellow social gospeler’s overt racism. Finally, the critics of birth control were odd bedfellows, with groups such as the blatantly eugenicist and anti-Catholic Southern Baptist Convention aligned, if only on this one issue, with the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Judaism. What all critics shared in common was a rejection of race suicide concerns. For the white groups in the critics’ cell on figure 1, this was because they lived in the South and enjoyed relatively high birth rates, as well as the political advantages associated with Jim Crow. The other critical denominations were largely outside of the Northeastern elite White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment, usually because they were more recent immigrants like the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jews who were aware that they were the targets of eugenicists’ campaigns. Thus, in sum, although it was impossible to show with one figure, I gradually became convinced that, a century ago, religious group membership so closely captured the ways in which class, race, ethnicity, and particular geographic political concerns mattered to different American religious groups as to make them almost inseparable. THE MORE THEY REMAIN THE SAME In short, what I realized was that religious groups’ positions on birth control were as much a result of their racial and class positions as their theological beliefs. I realized that if this was the case historically, it might still be true today. And I realized that to fail to acknowledge how deeply religion intersects with race and class still is to do a disservice to the study of religion. As I began to ponder this more deeply, I found much evidence that suggested that rather than profound change, profound similarities exist between the religious structure of the United States a century ago and today. Although this is a very imperfect way to show this legacy, figure 2 presents the percent of members of the denominations that were in my sample for “Fewer and Better Children” who have bachelor’s degrees or more today. I use this measure of social class because I think it is the simplest, and most powerful, way to illustrate these differences. In other work I have used other, much more complex, measures that incorporate education, income and occupational prestige and found almost no difference in the relative rankings of America’s religious groups—or in these measures' explanatory power (Wilde, Tevington and Shen 2017). The few existing other recent studies of religious inequality verify that these groups were privileged since the US was founded (Davidson and Pyle 2011), and have maintained their advantage (Smith and Farris 2005). Over the last century, many of the Protestant groups in my sample have changed their names, merged, or otherwise made direct comparisons difficult in ways that are worth noting. First, many of the mergers have depressed the average class advantages of some of the early liberalizers. For example, the northeastern Methodist Episcopal Church merged with the generally less-educated Methodist Episcopal Church, South. However, even so, one can see on figure 2 that even though the United Methodist Church is now the least educated denomination among the early liberalizers, Methodists are still more educated than the most educated denomination among the critics. FIGURE 2. View largeDownload slide Contemporary Variation in Education among the Religious Denominations in “Fewer and Better Children” GSS 1999–2014. FIGURE 2. View largeDownload slide Contemporary Variation in Education among the Religious Denominations in “Fewer and Better Children” GSS 1999–2014. Likewise, these mergers have virtually eliminated the “Unofficial Supporters.” With the exception of the American Baptist Churches, Inc. (formerly the Northern Baptist Convention), none of those denominations remain intact today. Finally, of course, the Roman Catholic Church’s average educational attainment is depressed by more recent waves of Latino immigrants, who make up more than a third of American Catholics. But, again, even so, only 27% of white Catholics have at least a bachelor’s degree compared to the 62% of Unitarian Universalists with a BA or more. However, while the fact that the educational and class differences that existed a century ago between American religious groups are still prominent in modern-day survey data is important—the story is, of course, much more complex than that. The combination of religious/education/and class differences that figure 2 does a very inadequate job of showing fully, are deeply linked to other political and cultural differences that divide the American religious field today. Just one example of this legacy—currently, only five religious denominations3 endorse unions for same sex couples: the United Church of Christ (UUC.org 2005), the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA.org), the Protestant Episcopal Church (George Conger 2015), Reform Jews (Rabbi Eric Yoffie 2000), and the Society of Friends (or Quakers). Because of mergers, these five groups represent seven of the original nine denominations that liberalized early on birth control. With the exception of two small denominations (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American and the Reformed Church in the United States) that merged with two early liberalizers to form the United Church of Christ, no other religious denominations have liberalized on same-sex marriage besides those who were early liberalizers on birth control. Furthermore, those two early liberalizers who do not support same sex marriage (the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States) had difficult mergers with southern groups that were not supportive of birth control reform (the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South respectively). Thus, it is fair to say that those religious groups whose focus and identities have remained White, Northeastern, elite Protestants are the only ones who have liberalized on gay marriage. COMPLEX RELIGION So, what does this mean? It means that religion was, and continues to, deeply intersect with race, ethnicity, class, and, consequently, gender and sexuality. These relationships have been reproduced over time. As a result, for many religions, these “variables” cannot be separated. In other words, religion’s relationship to other social structures is “complex”—a term which I borrow from a body of literature known as “complex inequality.” Sometimes referred to as intersectionality, “complex inequality” is a body of theory encourages researchers to examine inequalities of gender race and class as a combination of factors, whose interaction creates a unique impact on social experience (Collins 2015; Hooks 2014; McCall 2001). The key thing about this approach, for the purposes of this essay, is that it calls for a different operationalization of religion, such that we think of it in “cells” (see especially Choo and Feree 2010). What matters is not just religion or race or class—but it is the combination of these factors, and how they differ in those combinations (where people and groups fall among the cells), that matters. By suggesting that we introduce this concept into our study of religion, I do not think that that I am imposing anything particularly new or counterintuitive to how we study religion. In many ways, we already intuitively accept this premise. For example, I think most of us would accept the statement that White working class Protestant men are different in political orientation to Black working class Protestant men, both of whom are different than Black or White Protestant women. And, of course, we use these concepts at the group level all of the time, when we talk about the “Black Church,” or “Latino Catholics.” CONCLUSION If we accept that class, race, ethnicity, and religion are deeply intertwined, which I think most of us do, then another question arises: what are we doing looking for independent effects? Why would we ever throw religion into a regression equation by itself? What does that mean? Furthermore, if we’re interested in looking at religion, why would we ever control on class? or race? It’s wrong. We can’t do it anymore. It doesn’t mean that religion’s not worth studying sociologically. It also does not mean that we cannot figure out when and how religion matters on its own sometimes. But it means that we have to be more careful especially with our research designs and methods, if we want to do that. For qualitative research that aims to understand religion, it might be a good idea to control on class and race, and vary on religion or religiosity. Quantitatively, instead of looking for independent effects, we need to look at the interaction of race and religion, the interaction of class and religion and, ideally, the intersection of race and class and religion. Yes, doing this with will require large datasets—but we have them. Sometimes the interactions will not be significant, or at least not relevant to the question being explored. But, I expect that most of time, we will find both that significant educational and other socioeconomic differences remain between American religious groups and that even beyond those differences, education (and class) has different effects for different groups. For example, in other work, I’ve found that education works differently for White Conservative Protestants than it does for all other groups Wilde, Tevington and Shen 2017. While education makes everyone from Mainline Protestants, to Catholics, to those with no religion more accepting of abortion and homosexuality, it barely affects White Conservative Protestants at all. In contrast, has a much bigger effect on them—making them much more conservative—on economic redistribution than on any other group. In another paper, I demonstrate that among African Americans, the interactions between religion and education are entirely different. African Americans are progressive, especially on economic redistribution, almost regardless of religion or education Wilde, Pilgrim and Shen 2017. There are many, many other questions that are relevant to complex religion that need to be explored—and we sociologists of religion should be the ones exploring them. For example, is it really possible to separate religion from the White supremacists’ views that so recently devastated Charlottesville? Of course, there are many, many Christians who reject such views. But, as I showed in “Fewer and Better,” racist views can easily become engrained in theology. As Reverend Rufus C. Baker chillingly told his (Mainline, most likely middle-class, and quite normal) congregation at the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1926: The problems confronted by the Church and by the Eugenicists are the same, the motive is the same. United their program is complete. Cooperative effort will accomplish the task. And the result will be a new Humanity and a new earth, which is, in reality, the Kingdom of Heaven. (Wilde and Danielsen 2014:1733) I am sure we can find Churches where similar things are said today, and I am sure that avowed White supremacists attend them. We should be asking: what proportion of the Charlottesville protesters were religious? Do they go to church? If they do, where do they go? What do they hear there? Is there any ethnic or racial diversity in their congregation? I doubt it. Despite the presence of multi-racial churches (Edwards 2008; Marti 2009)—religious segregation remains extremely common—with “eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” remaining As Martin Luther King Jr. once observed, “the most segregated hour of America” (King 1968). Of course, we can also find many churches in the United States where leaders and members alike strive against white supremacy and racism. But, these churches are different, qualitatively and quantitatively different, from those (I am admittedly imaging) the White supremacists in Charlottesville attending. Most importantly, those churches probably have more highly educated members and leaders, and they are most likely in different regions of the country. Class, region, religion, and views on race often vary together. Adopting the concept of complex religion means taking religious segregation as a starting point and acknowledging that one cannot study religion independently of race and class in the United States (and, conversely, that one should not attempt to study race or class in the United States without examining religion—or the lack thereof). I think, I believe, strongly, that interrogating assumptions of independence like this will bring us a lot further toward understanding the ways in which religion matters for things—like politics and health and family formation. It has already helped me understand a lot about religious change. REFERENCES Baltzell, E. Digby . 1964. The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Bishop, Edwin . 1929. “Eugenics and the Church.” Congregationalist 114: 342– 44. Black, Edwin . 2004. War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race . New York: Four Walls Eight Windows. Bruinius, Harry . 2006. Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity . New York: Knopf. Choo, Hae Yeon , and Ferree Myra Marx . 2010. Practicing Intersectionality in Sociological Research: A Critical Analysis of Inclusions, Interactions, and Institutions in the Study of Inequalities. Sociological Theory 28: 129– 49. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Collins, Patricia Hill . 2015. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment . New York, NY: Routledge. Coffman, Elesha J . 2013. The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline . New York: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Davidson, James D. , and Pyle Ralph E. . 2011. Ranking Faiths: Religious Stratification in America . Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Demerath, N. J . 1965. Social class in American Protestantism . Chicago, IL: Rand McNally. Edwards, Korie L . 2008. The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches . 1st ed. Oxford , NY: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Evangelical Lutheran Church in America . 2015. ELCA Presiding Bishop Offers Letter on Supreme Court Marriage Ruling . http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7759. Haller, Mark H . 1963. Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought . Rahway, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Hooks, Bell . 2014. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism . 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge. Keyles, Daniel J . 1995. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Heredity . New York: Random House. King, Martin Luther . 1968. Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution . Sermon presented at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-10 King, Miriam , and Ruggles Steven . 1990. “American Immigration, Fertility Differentials, and the Ideology of Race Suicide at the Turn of the Century.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 20: 347– 69. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed Kline, Wendy . 2001. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom . Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. Larson, Edward J . 1995. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Ludmerer, Kenneth M . 1972. Genetics and American Society . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. Marlin, H. H . 1932. “Emigration Exceeding Immigration in the United States.” United Presbyterian 90: 2. Marti, Gerardo . 2009. A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church . Bloomington: Indiana University Press. McCall, Leslie . 2001. Complex Inequality: Gender, Class and Race in the New Economy . 1st ed. New York: Routledge. Omi, Michael , and Winant Howard . 1986. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s . New York: Routledge. Pickens, Donald K . 1969. Eugenics and the Progressives . Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. Pope, Liston . 1948. “Religion and the Class Structure.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 256: 84– 91. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Ramsden, Edmund . 2003. “Social Demography and Eugenics in the Interwar United States.” Population and Development Review 29: 547– 93. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Rafter, Nicole H . 1988. White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877–1919 . Boston: Northeastern University Press. Reilly, Phillip R . 1991. The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Rosen, Christine . 2004. Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement . New York: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Smith, Christian , and Faris Robert . 2005. “Socioeconomic Inequality in the American Religious System: An Update and Assessment.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44: 95– 104. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Stern, Alexandra Minna . 2005. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America . Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. U.S. Bureau of the Census . 1926. United States Census of Religious Bodies, County File, 1926 . [MRDF]. Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census [producer]. University Park, PA: Routledge Association of Religion Data Archives [distributor]. http://www.thearda.com/Archive /Files/Descriptions/1926CENSCt.asp. Weber, Max . 2002. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , 23– 24. Great Britain/London/New York: Penguin. (Originally Published 1930). Wilde, Melissa J. and Sabrina Danielsen. 2014. Fewer and Better Children: Race, Class, Religion and Birth Control Reform in America. American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 119, No. 6 (May 2014), 1710–1760. Wilde, Melissa J. , Pilgrim Haley , and Shen Wensong . 2017. “Blackness as Primacy: The Continuing Significance of Race for Black American’s Political Views.” Paper presented at the Joint Presidential Panel of the 2017 annual meetings of the Association for the Sociology of Religion and the American Sociological Association’s, Montreal, Canada. Wilde, Melissa J. , Tevington Patricia , and Shen Wensong . 2017. “Complex Religion and American Politics.” Paper presented at the Regular Session on Political Sociology at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Montreal, Canada. Footnotes 1 So much so that I made religious change the theme of the 2015 Association for the Sociology of Religion meetings. My presidential address was the original impetus behind this essay—which has since benefitted greatly from comments and suggestions by reviewers and colleagues, especially Steve Warner and Patricia Tevington, the editorial guidance of Gerardo Marti, and the assistance of Jasmine Riodin. 2 This is at least partly due to a failure on our parts to communicate our knowledge to those not interested in religion, although other sociologists’ willing, and even intentional, ignorance of religion is also surely to blame. But even more so, I would argue that this is because there has been a reluctance among sociologists of religion to acknowledge, much less investigate, the incredible amount of socioeconomic inequality that remains between American religious groups. 3 The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is not included in this number, as it “neither endorses nor forbids same-gender marriages and recognizes that we have differing understandings and convictions on this matter” (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 2015). © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
Sociology of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 6, 2017
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