The Stubborn Persistence of Conservative Religion in American Public Life


Published Winter 2022

American Affairs Journal

Note: This essay reviews Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular, by David A. Hollinger.

Somewhat uniquely among the democracies of the Western world, the United States has stubbornly defied the predictions of the secularization thesis for as long as there has been a secularization thesis. With each new decade of the past half century, pundits have pointed to data showing what looks like a decline in American religiosity, and looked eagerly to the day when the nation could cast off its moth-eaten revival­ist robes and fully embrace the brave new post-religious world that western Europe had already charted out. With each new decade, though, the same commentators have had cause to lament an America still seem­ingly in the grip of faith-based politics.

Such laments have tended to rise and fall in sync with the electoral fortunes of Republican politicians. In the 1980s, secular scholars wrung their hands about the “Moral Majority” that had propelled Ronald Reagan to victory and shaped the national political agenda for twelve years of Republican rule. In the 2000s, the openly evangelical presidency of George W. Bush spawned a new cottage industry of books tracing the supposed influence of “Christian reconstructionism” on Religious Right politics.1 Following a brief respite during the Obama years, the warnings of impending theocracy swelled again to a fever pitch follow­ing Donald Trump’s election in 2016, with the support of 81 percent of “white evangelical” voters,2 and the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot fueled by so-called Christian nationalism.

With evangelical Christians leading a nationwide backlash against transgender activism, and flush with victory following the overturning of Roe v. Wade after nearly five decades of struggle, conservative Chris­tianity seems as robust a political force in America as it has ever been, if not more so. Indeed, at the recent 2022 National Conservatism confer­ence in Miami—which has become a leading convener for the once dissi­dent, now nearly mainstream, politics of the New Right—few topics received more airtime than God, Scripture, and the necessity of remem­bering and renewing a recognizably Christian America.

Why, then, does Christianity in America keep defying prophecies of its disappearance? Why does it seem, if anything, to be a more potent political force even as the numbers of the unchurched balloon to unprecedented levels? There are several possible explanations. Perhaps, one might hazard, all of this is mere optical illusion: it is precisely the radical secularization of American life that makes the remaining reli­gious outposts stand out more vividly, much as an off-white garment will appear brighter and brighter against a darkening backdrop. Possi­bly, it is a result of the effect Nassim Nicholas Taleb has referred to as the “dominance of the stubborn minority”3: if the numerical decline of American Christianity has occurred at its least committed margins, then the hardy core that remains may represent a more robust form of religiosity, one capable of exerting a stronger magnetic pull on the surrounding society than a larger but more dilute Christianity might. We shall return to both hypotheses below.

Regardless of the cause, however, the stubborn persistence of conservative religion wedded to conservative politics has many of our nation’s elites in an almost constant state of nervous anxiety. Like the elites of many eras, confronted with popular movements that they cannot begin to understand, our intellectual classes seem unable to decide whether the movement is too intellectually pathetic to be worth serious consideration, or a looming power about to take the whole nation by storm. Of course, there is, strictly speaking, no contradiction between these hypotheses—on rare occasions, popular movements ani­mated almost purely by heat and precious little light can carry all before them in a wave of destruction. But in the vast majority of cases, insur­gencies are only truly dangerous when led by dissident elites armed with serious ideas. Either way, an attitude of scornful terror tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Inasmuch as elites indulge in contempt for the insurgent hoi polloi, they frequently fail to arm themselves effectively against it, fueling its success. At the same time, by seducing would-be elites away from the insurgency—by treating it as intellectually vacu­ous—they help ensure that the intellectually unserious will be disproportionately represented among its leadership, thus often making the movement more radical than it might otherwise be.

That Good Old-Time Religion

The condescension dripping from the latest round of “what’s wrong with the Religious Right” bestsellers—Taking America Back for God (2020), Jesus and John Wayne (2020), The Flag and the Cross (2022), and more—has been palpable. Of course, many have been written by “ex-vangelicals,” who, with all the fervor of the new convert who now despises his former ways, have been outdoing one another in the zeal with which they flagellate their old selves—and the friends and family they have left behind—for their intolerance and insipidity.

At first glance, David A. Hollinger’s Christianity’s American Fate promises to be more balanced, written as it is by a lapsed liberal Christian, a “post-Protestant” in his own terminology, who was never personally burned by the white-hot blaze of evangelical religiosity. Yet whatever promise of objectivity it might boast, written as it is by one of our leading religious historians, evaporates within no more than a few pages. Throughout this lively and readable volume, Hollinger lionizes the mainline Protestant elites of earlier generations as prophets of tolerance and global concord, while warning of the mindless and exclu­sionary faith of their evangelical supplanters.

Central to Hollinger’s argument is his purported explanation of the apparent paradox noted in his subtitle—“how religion became more conservative and society more secular”—both halves of which he seems to accept as sober fact rather than optical illusion. Evangelical Christianity, he repeatedly suggests, is not merely that “good old-time religion,” surviving well beyond its expiration date, a sincere faith in the supernatural that sticks out incongruously in the age of the smartphone. Rather, it seems obnoxious because it is obnoxious, something newly harsh, dogmatic, irrational, and self-assertive.

Most readers are no doubt familiar with the unsettling experience of seeming to stand still as the whole world lurches into motion around them—whether on a large ship setting sail from port, a train pulling out of a station, or even a large jetliner backing away from the terminal. One glances around uneasily for a moment to make sure that one’s senses are in fact deceiving, and is generally reassured to find that, yes, the good old earth remains solid still—it is oneself that is in motion. In cultural matters, however, we often have the opposite tendency, a curiously stubborn bias in a world that otherwise seems hell-bent on progress, innovation, and “being on the right side of history.” Even committed progressives often cannot help but try to take refuge in the illusion that it is they who are standing still, and others who have boarded a train in the wrong direction. Witness the flood of fashionable literature over the past decade purporting to document that it is conservatives almost alone who are responsible for increasing political polarization. Good, old-fashioned leftists have stood still near the center, while the Right has kept moving further right—so constant has this chorus become that it is increasingly the received wisdom of the chattering classes. Judge Glock effectively exposes the flaw in these narratives in a recent essay for National Affairs.4 The faster a train pulls leftward out of the station, the faster those on the platform will seem to be sliding to the right; just so, as formerly outrageous political stances have become casually mainstream, formerly mainstream opposition to them has come to seem outrageous.

So it is also in the domain of religion. On the face of it, the claim that most modern evangelical Christianity is objectively “more conservative” than the traditionalist wing of American religion a century or two ago seems absurd. Most evangelicals today happily consume wine, beer, and bourbon; from 1850 to 1950, and beyond, many would have been teeto­talers. What’s more, many of them visit their wineries and brewpubs on the way home from morning worship, an action that would have shocked their staunchly Sabbatarian ancestors. Most have made their peace with prominent leadership roles for women that would have been unthinkable in an earlier era of Western Christianity, and are content to leave denominational and doctrinal lines fuzzy that would have been fierce battlegrounds in earlier centuries. Church discipline is almost unknown in large swaths of evangelical Protestantism. By absolute standards, it seems clear that even the most conservative American evangelicals have liberalized in striking ways, both on matters of doctrine and on matters of culture, both in the norms they impose within their communities and those they advocate in law; they have simply not done so as rapidly as the surrounding culture.

Hollinger’s occasional attempts to demonstrate otherwise betray the limits of his grasp of historical theology, and indeed of the dynamics of religious orthodoxies generally. At one point, for instance, he dismisses the standard evangelical doctrine of Scripture as a historical aberration:

But the fundamentalists were innovators of their own kind. What they often claimed was a stable orthodoxy was in fact only a particular slice of the Protestant tradition. The notion that the Bible was “inerrant,” for example, was not central to the teachings of either of the two Protestant families in the nineteenth century and did not gain much traction among theological conservatives until very late in that century. The ferocity with which early twentieth-century fundamentalists asserted the inerrancy doctrine was quite novel.

While Hollinger is correct from a purely semantic point about the language of “inerrancy,” one does not need to read long in the writings of almost any mainstream Christian writer of earlier centuries to recog­nize that they simply assumed the truthfulness of the biblical text. The very hermeneutical contortions to which they sometimes resorted in order to square their scriptures with other authorities are proof enough. Where modern commentators can often breezily assert, “clearly this is what the text meant, but of course we now know better,” this expedient was not available to premodern interpreters, Protestant or Catholic. The simple fact of the matter was that, whatever the variations in interpretive strategies, devout Christians of nearly every stripe shared a conviction of the Bible’s basic truthfulness and reliability right up through the eight­eenth century, and Enlightenment skepticism remained the province of a small elite until the twentieth, at least in America. The evangelicalism that Hollinger derides is in a large degree simply the stubborn survival of this older consensus.

This is not to say that there has been no innovation in American evangelicalism; of course there has. It has, however, largely been the result of a shift in what can be assumed versus what must be articulated, a regular pattern in the dynamics of religious orthodoxy. Indeed, throughout Christian history, orthodoxy has evolved largely in response to new challenges to received beliefs that had been taken largely for granted—and thus only vaguely stated. As habitual beliefs and practices came under fire, church leaders took it upon themselves to shore up their foundations and mark out their boundaries more clearly, resulting in some measure of doctrinal development for essentially conservative ends. Hence there is no essential contradiction in Hollinger’s effort to portray American evangelicalism as simultaneously retrograde and radical, backward-looking and innovative, even if he tends to overstress the innovation.

That said, there is something perhaps uniquely troubling about the contours of American evangelicalism’s attempt to retain and renew historic Christian orthodoxy. Throughout the Christian past, most such responses to fresh intellectual challenges have tended to call forth a fresh intellectual ferment within the churches, leading often to creative and profound insights by theologians of genuine genius. Thus the attempt to square Christian worship of Jesus Christ with Greek philosophical concepts of the unity of the divine being brought forth the pioneering metaphysics of Athanasius of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa; the rediscovery of Aristotle in the high Middle Ages inspired the matchless synthesis of Thomas Aquinas; and the existential crises of late medieval piety provoked powerful new readings of Scripture by the Protestant reformers. The twentieth-century assault of “modernism” or “liberal­ism” on the American churches, however, failed to call forth any truly memorable champions of Protestant orthodoxy. Instead, most fundamentalists retreated into bunkers largely cut off from the very history of orthodoxy they claimed to be protecting, an act of intellectual self-immolation from which fundamentalism’s evangelical successors have not yet recovered.

Dripping with contempt though it may be, Hollinger’s argu­ment is not without merit when he worries about the cultural and political consequences of evangelical anti-intellectualism. Indeed, while many other recent writers have expended undue ink on the supposed influence of fringe movements like “Christian reconstructionism,” or tilted val­iantly against the elusive windmills of evangelicals’ “racism,” “nativism,” or “toxic masculinity,” Hollinger homes in on a more genuine threat. Christians raised on the lurid fantasies of “Left Behind” and its penchant for spotting the Antichrist around every corner, Hollinger observes, are probably going to be more susceptible to crazed QAnon fantasies. The basic epistemic habits of evangelicalism, he worries, offer a natural breeding ground for the conspiracy theories that have proliferated in the age of social media and the age of Trump. No wonder so many white evangelicals are convinced that the 2020 election was stolen, convinced that Covid was a hoax, and convinced that vaccines take more lives than they save. Such reflexive anti-intellectualism is indeed a threat to demo­cratic governance, and even if Hollinger’s smug tone is unlikely to help the problem, he is still onto something.

In particular, Hollinger draws attention to the pervasive phenomenon of “Christian worldview” thinking, which perhaps more than anything else has helped perpetuate the “scandal of the evangelical mind” that Mark Noll identified nearly three decades ago5:

The “Christian worldview” was a way to circumvent this epistemic morass and to avoid sectarian conflicts within the community of faith. The concept was amorphous enough to resist detailed critical interrogation, yet could be invoked with sufficient conviction to keep evangelicals on the same page and to serve them in disputes with nonevangelicals. All secular knowledge lacked genuine authority; rather, each claim had to be assessed within “Christian” or “biblical” presuppositions. The concept of the “Christian worldview” denied authority to any truth claim that had not been assessed in an ostensibly Christian perspective. The Manichaean tendencies of the Fundamentalist movement were thus perpetuated and renewed. You were in the know, or you were not.

Thus, while premillennial dispensationalism is in rapid decline among today’s evangelicals, and openly theocratic aspirations are confined to a tiny minority, a sizable share of American Christian voters are routinely inoculated against critical thinking, or the bare possibility that their opponents might know something they do not, by the impenetrable armor of “Christian worldview” analysis. Such fideism, while a peren­nial threat throughout the history of Western Christianity, has generally been held in check by theological elites committed to harmonizing faith and reason, and who eagerly engaged with the best of pre-Christian and non-Christian thought. Today, for the first time, a closed epistemology threatens to become the dominant strain of the dominant religion in what is still the world’s dominant nation. This is a prospect unnerving enough that we can perhaps forgive Hollinger and authors like him for some of their panicky condescension.

An Ecumenical Alternative?

All that said, one must ask what the alternative is. A couple decades ago, a plucky and overconfident band of “New Atheists” attempted to grab evangelical religion by the shoulders and shake it violently out of its delusions by sheer force of argument. Religion, they insisted, had run its course, and could now be exposed as little more than childish fantasy. It was time to grow up and enter a purely secular, rational, Enlightenment world. These efforts fell flat, increasingly exposed as a form of fundamentalism just as dogmatic as what they opposed, and with none of Christianity’s enduring appeal. Indeed, for all its relative decline in the Western world, Christianity remains extremely vibrant in other parts of the globe and is, to all appearances, here to stay.

Hollinger thus takes a different tack. Rather than calling for evangeli­cal Christians to leave behind their medieval superstitions and enter the pure light of secular day, he seeks to shine a spotlight on a road not taken—the warm and winsome faith of what he calls “ecumenical Christianity,” the dominant theology of the “mainline” Protestant denominations, tailor-made for a pluralist and democratic age. Indeed, the rehabilitation of ecumenical Christianity is perhaps, even more than the denigration of evangelical Christianity, the overriding purpose of Hollinger’s book. Throughout, he holds up the heroes of this once mainstream American Protestantism for what he considers their profound intellectual and practical courage, their willingness to stand up against the cultural tide and against the prejudices of their own parishioners. It is they, and the tradition they represented, to whom we can credit many of the moral and political advances of the last century, such as the civil rights movement and the invitation of the Third World into the global community of nations on an equal footing.

There are, however, two profound problems with Hollinger’s attempt to hold up ecumenical Christianity as a viable alternative tradi­tion to evangelicalism. The first is highlighted by those very examples just given. Despite racial inclusivity being one of the great virtues for which Hollinger celebrates the mainline churches, the tradition he cele­brates turns out to be a stubbornly white one. Indeed, one simply has to take a look at the pews of any mainline Protestant church today, and if they are not empty (as is most likely), they are almost sure to be filled with white faces and grey hairs. In an effort to pigeonhole evangelicalism as a reactionary movement, Hollinger seeks to define it in socio­cultural rather than theological terms, insisting that the thriving black Protestant tradition should not be considered evangelical, despite clear theological overlap. But his attempt to co-opt African Americans for ecumenical Christianity is not particularly persuasive, since even by his own account, blacks have by and large “joined many white Protestants in resisting liberal social and legal perspectives on lgbtq issues.” Politi­cally, minorities may still tend to vote Democratic, but even that is changing, and black and Latino churches are likely to increasingly converge toward their white evangelical coreligionists in the coming decades, rather than integrate with a dying white mainline whose basic theological convictions they do not share.

Similarly, ecumenical Christianity’s embrace of the Third World, which Hollinger chronicles at some length, has backfired almost com­pletely. Mid-century ecumenical missionaries, he shows, held up native Christians as an argument for multiculturalism and inclusivity, calling for Western humility in the face of indigenous expressions of the faith. In recent decades, however, mainline church leaders have been thrown on the defensive by representatives of Third World churches that have grown up to be far more conservative than expected. Particularly within the Anglican Communion, but in other denominations as well, African bishops have openly rebuked their American counterparts for apostasy and begun to throw their considerable weight and growing resources behind evangelical breakaway denominations. Hollinger observes the irony: “Ecumenicals had spent many decades urging American Christians to show more respect for the religious ideas and practices of peoples abroad, only to find those ideas and practices, as they matured, similar to those of their evangelical rivals at home.”

These considerations alone should give us pause about the coherence and sustainability of the ecumenical Protestantism which Hollinger commends to us. Even more serious than its inability to reckon with the stubborn religious conservatism of racial minorities and the developing world, however, has been its inability to even hold on to its own adherents. The decline of the mainline churches is well known, and Hollinger rehearses some of the dreary statistics. “As late as 1976 the seven denominations known as the core of the mainline still could count 31 percent of the nation’s population as members, but only a dozen years later they could claim only 19 percent. By 2018, membership in the same denominations had dropped to about 12 percent of the national population.” Perhaps most strikingly, few of these mainline Protestants were converting to other expressions of Christianity. Rather, they were headed for the exits of faith altogether.

Much commentary has focused on the vertiginous rise of the “nones” in American life: from only 8 percent of the U.S. population in 1990, those claiming no religious faith or affiliation had skyrocketed to 29 percent in 2021.6 But for all the noisiness of “ex-vangelicals,” describing how their fundamentalist upbringing soured them on religion, comparatively few of the nones come from evangelical ranks. As Hollinger notes, “Former ecumenicals constituted the vast majority of the ‘nones.’” Indeed, Hollinger himself is among this number, as he discloses in a personal preface that describes the liberal Protestantism of his youth that he subsequently left behind. Hollinger’s loss of faith turns out to be normative for the Protestantism he admires; after holding up mid-century writers Pearl S. Buck and John Hersey as examples of ecumenical missionaries who pushed the American churches to embrace a more tolerant gospel and fight for justice, he notes in passing that both “abandoned religion altogether” in due course. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of their churchmanship as a viable model for the twenty-first century.

Indeed, over and over through his pages, Hollinger describes a mainline Protestantism so incoherent in its theological vision that every time it propounded a new, more “relevant” vision of the faith, it soon jettisoned it in favor of something more up-to-date—losing rafts of members with each successive reinvention. Hollinger is determined to re‑narrate this well-known tale of mainline decline as one in which ecumenical Protestantism suffered because of its strengths, not its weak­nesses. On his account, it was not liberal theology that drove church­goers out of the pews, but mainline pastors’ calls for racial and social justice, which offended their elite white congregations. Rather than engage in the hard work of social transformation, many parishioners, he claims, simply jumped ship to the easier and more comforting form of Christianity they found in evangelicalism: “Evangelicalism created a safe harbor for white people who wanted to be counted as Christians with­out having to accept what ecumenical leaders said were the social obligations demanded by the gospel, especially the imperative to extend civil equality to nonwhites. . . . While Billy Graham was making Christianity simpler and more acces­sible, the ecumenical intel­ligentsia was making it more demanding.” Hollinger recognizes that this asser­tion flies in the face of social science literature, which suggests that it is the more demanding religious sects that are likely to attract adher­ents at the expense of the lukewarm, but he persists in it nonetheless, determined to discredit American evangelicalism as a haven for racism and libertarianism.

At one point, he attempts to mock evangelical ethics for requiring so little of its adherents: “practicing the Golden Rule, being faithful to one’s spouse, eschewing pornography and same-sex intimacy, avoiding the abuse of alcohol and drugs, extending a helping hand to less well-off neighbors, praying on a daily basis.” One could fault this ethic in various ways, but in a world where most marriages end in infidelity, deaths from substance abuse are on the rise, and pornography addiction is almost more the rule than the exception, “undemanding” it is clearly not. He also, somewhat bizarrely, complains that modern media and academic elites give evangelicals a free pass for their beliefs, rather than confronting their follies head-on; American society is in peril, he asserts, because “religious ideas . . . are excluded from critical evaluation.” Most evangelicals on most American college campuses would probably beg to differ.

Letting Evangelicals out of the Ghetto

All of this leads to the conclusion that, whether Hollinger likes it or not, evangelicalism’s claim to be the more authentic heir of American Prot­estantism is a compelling one. The ecumenical Protestantism he is so keen to rehabilitate was little more than an unstable waystation on the way to post-Protestantism, a post-Protestantism that increasingly di­verges from the sober rationality and tolerant pluralism that Hollinger commends to us. Instead, whatever emotional frenzy, proselytizing zeal, and fact-free dogmatism Hollinger fears from evangelicalism, it now seems clear, has been borrowed—and ratcheted up to level ten—on the woke Left. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the religious vacuum of post-Protestantism has been quickly filled with mutant forms of evangelical piety, as Joshua Mitchell has compellingly documented in American Awakening and other recent work, of which Hollinger seems oblivious.7 Increasingly, it seems, Americans must choose between one or another form of evangelical religiosity—that tied to historic Christian orthodoxy, or that which serves as the vanguard of an ever-shifting but paradoxically more dogmatic progressive orthodoxy.

Faced with such a situation, a wise elite might seek to co-opt rather than marginalize, embracing the healthiest and most thoughtful forms of evangelical Protestantism and channeling them toward the national good, rather than shutting them up in a ghetto and hoping somehow to prevent these bottled-up religious energies from boiling over. Certainly, whatever Hollinger’s own aims, this must be the prudent policy of conservative leaders interested in national renewal.

As Aaron Renn has recently argued,8 the failures of the conservative movement to take deep root in American life to date may have something to do with its religious makeup. Americans are a historically Protestant people, with their institutions and mores saturated by centu­ries of reflexive Protestantism. But postwar conservatism in America was an almost entirely Catholic and Jewish operation, and has remained shockingly so right through the 2020s. As such, despite its occasional success in mobilizing the unwashed masses of evangelicalism to attain temporary electoral victories, Conservatism Inc. has generally held these voters in contempt and treated conversion to Roman Catholicism as the necessary ticket for entry into the inner circles of conservative leadership. For this reason, American conservatism has remained something of an “AstroTurf” rather than a grassroots movement, unable to take deep root in the national psyche or reflect its deepest impulses and longings.

For much of this period, as Renn notes, “evangelicals themselves . . . [have been] in part to blame for this state of affairs. They have failed to develop the intellectual or leadership capabilities needed to merit a seat at the table.” Increasingly, however, this has begun to change, and efforts to paint all conservative Protestants as fundamentalist zealots increasingly come to look like acts of desperation. What’s more, they are shortsighted. Hollinger is right to note the reality-distorting effects of evangelicalism’s “Christian worldview” framework, which, if allowed to remain normative, will cripple any effort at serious political and cultural reform. The widespread, ongoing revival of natural law theory among evangelical Protestants, however, points in another direction.

In more concrete terms, what might a more intellectually engaged evangelical Protestantism look like politically? Michael Lind has de­scribed how libertarians have at once formed one leg of the Reaganite “three-legged stool” of conservatism—laissez-faire economic policy—while still maintaining distinct views on cultural and foreign policy issues.9 Unfortunately, the lack of intellectual depth that characterized so many of their social conservative coalition partners in the “Moral Majority” left the latter vulnerable to co-optation by their libertarian allies. As the past few years have shattered this dead consensus, there is an urgent need and a golden opportunity for social conservatives to offer a robust positive vision of statecraft that would bolster the moral foundations of the social order. With evangelical Protestants the largest demographic on the right, evangelical Protestant intellectuals will have to be part of this revival. Thankfully, the historical and theological resources for such revival are immense,10 ranging from Martin Bucer’s 1550 proposals for economic nationalism and poor relief11 to Emer de Vattel’s 1757 theorizing on national sovereignty and international law.12 What’s more, since these Protestant sources lie upstream of many of the concrete legal developments in our own American political tradition, a new evangelical leadership class committed to foregrounding them could offer more productive engagement with liberals and the Left, rather than reflexive antipathy, especially if the latter chose to approach it without contempt and condescension.

Liberals like Hollinger may never particularly like the direction in which evangelical Protestantism points, yet they are likely to find intel­lectually engaged Protestant conservatives easier conversation partners than the Dionysiac ideologues who have increasingly seized control of the progressive Left. Regardless, despite ongoing claims of secularization, the prospects for renewal of American public life, for conservatives as well as for liberals, will continue to depend in large part upon the intellectual health of evangelical Christianity.

Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash


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