This Priest Faces Mecca? A Parable of Confusion

Rev. Steve Lawler has attracted the attention of the national media because this Episcopal priest chose a very odd way to observe Lent. He decided to “adopt the rituals of Islam” for the forty day season observed by many liturgical denominations, including the Episcopal Church.

As reported in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Lawler decided to practice as a Muslim for the forty days as a part of his “Giving Up Church for Lent” emphasis at St. Stephen’s Church. The closer you look at this story, the more it appears that Rev. Lawler “gave up church” some time ago.

According to the press reports, the priest began to perform Muslim prayer rituals, facing toward Mecca and praying five times a day. He prayed to Allah, read the Qur’an, and adopted Islamic dietary restrictions.

He also got in trouble with his bishop. “He can’t be both a Christian and a Muslim,” said Bishop George Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. The bishop continued: “If he chooses to practice as Muslim, then he would, by default, give up his Christian identity and priesthood in the church.” The bishop also told the public that his priest had a responsibility “to exercise Christianity and to do it with clarity and not with ways that are confusing.”

It is refreshing to see that kind of conviction from a mainline Protestant church leader. But, after all, he had a priest who was practicing a different religion. Sort of.

What Rev. Lawler really represents is the postmodern spirituality that masquerades as authentic belief. This becomes clear when the report reveals that the priest did not declare the oneness of Allah nor acknowledge Muhammad as God’s prophet. These just happen to be the first of Islam’s Five Pillars.

So Rev. Lawler decided to deny the core beliefs of Islam, while claiming to be practicing the faith in order to learn about it. In so doing, he transformed himself into the perfect parable of postmodern confusion, emptying conviction of all content, picking and choosing beliefs and practices along the way. As his bishop rightly asserted, Lawler was “playing” with Islam.

At a deeper level, this betrays the kind of theological suicide mission that many liberal churches have adopted in recent years. The Bible could not be more clear in commanding Christians to avoid any confusion with non-Christian systems of belief.

As Paul instructed the Christians in Corinth:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? [2 Corinthians 6:14-16]

That is very strong language. Indeed, Christian worship cannot be mixed with non-Christian elements, nor can a Christian play around with the beliefs and practices of non-Christian religions without compromising faithfulness to Christ. This is a much more prevalent temptation now with the spiritual practices of Eastern religions, which some Christians attempt to blend in with Christian beliefs.

The news article states that Rev. Lawler joined the Episcopal Church because he wanted a theologically liberal denomination. Evidently, he just found out that even liberalism has some limits. A Christian minister who prays facing Mecca is not merely praying in a new direction. He is, whether he admits it or not, departing the Christian faith.

The Global Threat of Gendercide

Historian Niall Ferguson reminds us that Ernest Hemingway once penned a collection of short stories entitled Men Without Women. The stories are haunting, demonstrating the brutality that comes to men without the presence of women — and especially without the companionship of wives.

He recalls the Hemingway collection in order to underline what is at stake in the growing global threat of missing girls and women. The global gender gap in favor of males is a reversion of the natural pattern. How did it happen? By the widespread practice of aborting and killing baby girls — what is rightly called “gendercide.”

As Ferguson explains, “The mystery is partly explicable in terms of economics. In many Asian societies, girls are less well looked after than boys because they are economically undervalued.”

Years ago, economist Amartya Sen put the number of missing girls and women at 100 million worldwide. As Ferguson argues, that number is surely far larger now.

Consider the scale of the problem:

In China today, according to American Enterprise Institute demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, there are about 123 male children for every 100 females up to the age of 4, a far higher imbalance than 50 years ago, when the figure was 106. In Jiangxi, Guangdong, Hainan, and Anhui provinces, baby boys outnumber baby girls by 30 percent or more. This means that by the time today’s Chinese newborns reach adulthood, there will be a chronic shortage of potential spouses. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one in five young men will be brideless. Within the age group 20 to 39, there will be 22 million more men than women. Imagine 10 cities the size of Houston populated exclusively by young males.

Ten cities the size of Houston? This staggers the imagination.

Ferguson warns that this gender imbalance has led in the past to outbreaks of expansionism and imperialism. Others have more directly warned of militarism and violence from China’s young men who have no prospects of marriage and a normal family life. These young men are described as China’s “broken branches.” There are millions of these young men in India, as well.

We must look beyond these warnings and see the even larger horror — the tragedy of young girls, aborted and murdered just because they are girls. This, among other vital reasons, is why even the earliest Christians understood abortion to be such a horrific evil. Given the reality of human sinfulness, we now compound abortion with infanticide and gendercide. Is this of interest only to historians and economists?

Doing Away with Hell? Part One

Current controversies raise this issue anew among American Christians and even among some evangelicals. Nevertheless, there is no way to deny the Bible’s teaching on hell and remain genuinely evangelical. No doctrine stands alone.

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Will the Last Baptist at Baylor Please Turn Out the Lights?

Baylor University has been the news lately, because of the vote by the university’s regents to allow up to 25 percent of the board to be non-Baptists. The Executive Board of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, meeting February 21-22, grilled Baylor leaders on this decision — taken without consultation with the convention.

In an odd but revealing twist, the regents basically told the BGCT that they did not consult with leaders there because they knew what the answer would be. After all, the BGCT voted overwhelmingly to reject a similar proposal from Houston Baptist University just last fall. “If we offended you, we apologize,” said regent Gary Elliston. Trust me on this — many were offended.

Now that Baylor has taken the action, it appears that Houston Baptist University intends to reconsider the issue as well. It has been years since the BGCT has been so interesting to watch — and the case can be made that the BGCT sowed the seeds for all of this when it allowed Baylor to escape its oversight through the election of the school’s governing board.

Nevertheless, none of these issues match the one hardly noted as a matter of concern. Now, given the political dissonance between the BGCT and Baylor on the one side, and SBC conservative leaders on the other, the natural expectation is probably that an argument is about to be made in order to score political points. That is not the case with this article. Those issues can await some future consideration. The most urgent issue in this case could be of equal concern in the most conservative of contexts.

The real issue of concern should be a matter that is really not political at all. In speaking to the BGCT Executive Board, Baylor regent chairman Dary Stone explained the central rationale for the regents’ decision. As reported by The Baptist Standard:

“Only 31 percent of our freshman class claim the Baptist label,” he added, noting the percentage of Baptist students has been declining about 2 percent a year and likely will drop to 20 percent within this decade.

We might offer many suggestions to explain why the percentage of Baptist students has been dropping at Baylor, and some of these would have to deal with theological and ideological controversies. But there are no doubt other reasons as well, having little to do with theology or worldview. These would include the rising cost of private education, the increasing diversity of the population, and the shift to an evangelical identity that is perceptibly less specifically Baptist. In one sense, the very success of a school in terms of academic reputation and expanding institutional reach can dilute the percentage of Baptist students at any school.

Mr. Ellison pledged that Baylor would forever remain “a Texas Baptist institution.” Well, I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, but I can cast ample doubt on the fulfillment of that pledge. If the percentage of Baptists in the student body reaches such perilously low levels — and is candidly expected to fall even more — the school will cease in any meaningful way to be a Baptist institution where it matters most.

Baylor has made its choice, but it will not be alone in facing this challenge. If Baptists are determined to retain their colleges and universities, they will have to show far greater resolve than in the past. They will have to make certain that their schools are the kind of schools that will attract Baptist students, earn the confidence of Baptist parents, and retain a clear accountability to Baptist churches. Otherwise, the Baptist label will mean little or nothing — merely a tip of the hat to ancient history.

Universalism as a Lure? The Emerging Case of Rob Bell

As is so often the case, most of us first learned of Rob Bell’s new book by means of Justin Taylor and his blog, “Between Two Worlds,” at the Gospel Coalition. Justin reminds me of the steady folks at the National Hurricane Center. He is able to advise of looming disaster with amazing calmness. That is why I took special notice of Justin’s stern warning: “It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.”

Why would Justin feel the need to issue such a warning? He was writing about Rob Bell’s forthcoming book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, due to be released on March 29 by HarperCollins.

The publisher’s statement about the book is clearly intended to provoke controversy:

Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners—with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

Now, Rob Bell and others within the Emerging Church movement represent what can only be described as a new form of cultural Christianity. Bell plays with theology the way a cat plays with a mouse. His sermons, videos, books, and public relations are often more suggestive and subversive than clear. They are also artistically and aesthetically superior to most of what is to be found in the video section of your local Christian bookstore or on the Web.

Time is running out on the Emerging folks. They can play the game of suggestion for only so long. Eventually, the hard questions will be answered. Tragically, when the answers do come, as with the case of Brian McLaren, they appear as nothing more than a mildly updated form of Protestant liberalism.

The publicity surrounding Bell’s new book indicates that he is ready to answer one of the hardest questions — the question of the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ. With that question come the related questions of heaven, hell, judgment, and the fate of the unregenerate. The Bible answers these questions clearly enough, but few issues are as hard to reconcile with the modern or postmodern mind than this. Of course, it was hard to reconcile with the ancient mind as well. The singularity of the person and work of Christ and the necessity of personal faith in him for salvation run counter to the pluralistic bent of the human mind, but this is nothing less than the wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation.

Universalism and the various inclusivisms are exactly what Justin Taylor suggests — distortions of the Gospel that deceive the people of God (and non-Christians as well).

But what if all this is just clever advertising? What if Rob Bell’s book turns out to be an affirmation of the truth? Did Justin jump the gun?

There is good reason to doubt this. The most powerful argument about the book comes in the form of a video offered by Rob Bell himself. In the video, he pulls no punches. In his clever and artistic way, ever so artfully presented, he affirms what can only be described as universalism.

We must await the release of the full book in order to know what Rob Bell is really saying, but his advance promotion for the book is already saying something, and it is not good. The material he has already put forth does demand and deserve attention.

The Emerging Church movement is known for its slick and sophisticated presentation. It wears irony and condescension as normal attire. Regardless of how Rob Bell’s book turns out, its promotion is the sad equivalent of a theological striptease.

The Gospel is too precious and important to be commodified in this manner. The questions he asks are too important to leave so tantalizingly unanswered. Universalism is a heresy, not a lure to use in order to sell books. This much we know, almost a month before the book is to be released.

Boys Wrestling Girls — A Clash of Worlds and Worldviews

I, for one, am proud to know of a boy and a family who refuse to consider girls and women as proper opponents on a wrestling mat — opponents to be bloodied, gouged, and slammed. Joel Northrup may have defaulted a match, but he refused to sacrifice his Christian conscience for a moment of earthly glory.

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Conscience Trampled by the Regime

The Obama administration has revoked nearly all of the conscience protections put in place by the administration of President George W. Bush. The policy change came just today, and was released as a new rule from the Department of Health and Human Services.  As Rob Stein of The Washington Post reports, “The Obama administration rescinded most of a federal regulation Friday designed to protect health workers who refuse to provide care they find objectionable on personal or religious grounds.”

In this case, “most” means almost all of the previous rule has been rescinded. Stein described the action by stating that the Obama administration had “eliminated nearly the entire rule.” All that remains are protections put in place previously covering medical personnel who object to abortion or sterilization. Gone are all protections for those who object by conscience to abortifacient drugs and “emergency” contraceptives, the treatment of gay men and lesbians, and prescriptions for birth control sought by single women. In these cases, medical personnel have objected that their conscience and understanding of medical ethics do not allow them to facilitate acts and behaviors that are both immoral and unhealthy.

The Obama administration said that the Bush era rule was “unclear and potentially overbroad in scope.” Rob Stein explained the concern this way:

The Bush regulation, if enforced, would have cut off federal funding for thousands of entities, including state and local governments, hospitals, health plans and clinics, if they did not accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists or other employees who refused to participate in care they felt violated their personal, moral or religious beliefs.

That wording implies that the normal expectation should be that health programs and providers should not “accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists or other employees who refused to participate in care they felt violated their personal, moral, or spiritual beliefs.”

In other words, the Obama administration is now ready to use the coercive power of the state to force medical personnel to perform acts they consider to be morally wrong and unhealthy for their patients. One obvious implication of this is that the state now finds it necessary to force medical professionals to do what they by conscience do not think is right. Allowed to act by conscience, these medical professionals clearly would not do what the state now requires them to do.

Just imagine how our nation’s founders would consider such a tyrannical trampling of individual conscience by the power of the state. From a Christian perspective, this should serve as a clear alarm for those who suggest that it is paranoid to believe that the state will use similar force to require other acts against conscience. The logic is right here for all to see, and only the willfully blind can deny what this new policy means.

The Marketplace of Ideas — Why Bookstores Matter

Being in a bookstore helps me to think. I find that my mind makes connections between authors and books and ideas as I walk along the shelves and look at the tables. When I get a case of writer’s block, I head for a bookstore. The experience of walking among the books is curative.

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Is Academic Bias Against Conservatives Real? An Amazing Admission

John Tierney of The New York Times offers a really important report on the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s recent annual meeting. As Tierney writes, “Some of the world’s pre-eminent experts on bias discovered an unexpected form of it at their annual meeting.”

It all started when Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, took a poll of his audience at the meeting:

He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

Haidt responded with this simple statement: “This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity.” Haidt then pointed to studies showing that while 20 percent of Americans consider themselves to be liberal, fully 40 percent identify themselves as conservatives.

The psychologist then proceeded to define his colleagues as a “tribal-moral community” that has its own set of “sacred values.” Those values, he argues, blind the academic tribe to its own forms of discrimination. While they see discrimination against women and minorities without difficulty, they blind themselves to their own prejudice against conservatives. Even their jokes assume that everyone is a liberal.

Professor Haidt went so far as to propose a new form of affirmative action for conservatives. He also suggested that most liberal groups tend to protest yesterday’s forms of discrimination and often miss the more urgent discrimination problems of the present.

In any event, Professor Haidt’s address represented a rare moment of candor and confession in an academic meeting. The open admission of bias against conservatives was a very rare achievement.

Beyond this, Haidt’s concept of the academic guild as a “tribal-moral community” is genuinely helpful. Indeed, his insights distilled into this phrase are transportable to many other fields of interest. We are all members of some moral tribe. Hats off to Professor Haidt for making that truth so clear — and for documenting the existence of bias against conservatives in academia.

A Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Legacy

This article was originally posted just after the death of President Ronald W. Reagan. It is republished today in honor of the centennial of President Reagan’s birth, yesterday, February 6.

“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” Those words catapulted Ronald W. Reagan onto the stage of national politics. Though the “Great Communicator” has left the scene, his ideas continue to define the political landscape.

Reagan spoke of this “rendezvous with destiny” in a speech delivered to support the lagging campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Though Goldwater was to lose that election in a landslide, Reagan entered the political limelight, connecting with the American people in a way Goldwater and other conservatives had not.

By any measure, Ronald Reagan was an unusually complicated man, driven by unusually simple ideas. His roots in Dixon, Illinois gave him an immediate connection with the values of small-town America. Nevertheless, Reagan -– known then as “Dutch” to his friends –- had his sights set on a far larger world.

In reality, Ronald Reagan had several careers, all of them successful. His communication skills were first put to work as a radio announcer, but he soon came to the attention of Hollywood, where he developed a big screen career and seemed poised for greatness. All this was interrupted by World War II, when Reagan, ruled unfit for combat due to poor eyesight, was assigned to a film-making unit on behalf of the armed services. After making over 400 films for the national cause, Reagan emerged from the war with his movie career dimmed, but he soon turned to other opportunities.

Ronald Reagan then made his mark as president of the Screen Actors Guild, the leading labor union for actors and actresses. He was later to reflect that experience in the white-knuckled context of labor negotiations, which taught him both patience and determination. Both qualities were to be essential to Reagan’s later experience in political office.

Reagan was, up until the late 1950’s, an ardent Democrat. As a matter of fact, he would later acknowledge having been a member of several “bleeding heart” organizations for liberal causes. Reagan’s worldview began to change when he served as a spokesman for the General Electric Corporation, traveling around the nation speaking to both employees and public citizens. During this period, Reagan reconnected with grassroots America and sensed the need for political leadership that would recover American values, reassert American leadership, and reverse the welfare-state liberalism that then defined national policy.

For most Americans, Reagan’s political debut came in the speech made on behalf of Barry Goldwater. Reagan spoke of “a time for choosing” and told the nation of his political transition: “I have spent most of my life as a Democrat. I recently have seen fit to follow another course.”

In short order, that course would take him to the governorship of California. Elected against a cultural tide, Reagan took office and addressed some of the most critical issues of the 1960’s, including campus unrest at the University of California’s Berkeley campus and an out of control state budget. Reagan was overwhelmingly reelected to a second term, and his prospects for national office seemed to be bright. At the 1968 Republican National Convention, delegates held Reagan in reserve as a potential candidate if front-runner Richard M. Nixon failed in his effort to achieve the nomination.

Reagan’s entry into presidential politics came in 1976, when he ran against incumbent President Gerald R. Ford for the Republican nomination, arguing that America needed a change, not only of leadership, but also of vision. Reagan came amazingly close to seizing the nomination, and he instantly became the front-runner for the 1980 Republican nomination when Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 race.

Reagan’s election as President in 1980 -– capped by a landslide decision of the electorate -– represented the transformation of America’s political terrain, not merely the election of a new chief executive. As a campaigner, Ronald Reagan broke all the rules of conventional politics. He spoke boldly of ideas and resisted his own campaign advisors who counseled him to tone down his campaign rhetoric in order to appeal to nonaligned voters. Reagan saw the equation very differently. He did not want to reach nonaligned voters –- he wanted to realign their political vision to match America’s present opportunities and challenges. His success in changing the terms of our national debate is often forgotten in the aftermath of his political successes.

As President, Ronald Reagan transformed the world by refusing to believe that freedom and liberty were too expensive to defend. He understood the difference between freedom and oppression and had nothing but disdain for America’s elites, who saw the world locked in a perpetual stalemate between freedom and totalitarianism. Reagan refused to accept the world on these terms and was determined to confront the Soviet Union and the threat of world communism. He was determined to force the end of what he courageously called the “Evil Empire,” and through a confrontational public policy and a massive buildup of America’s military might, he forced the Soviet Union into a public humiliation, as its economy could not sustain an equal military expansion. In the end, the Soviet Union lost political credibility because it could not deliver on its promises, nor make good on its threats. It took the courage of Ronald Reagan to walk away from the Reykjavik summit meeting in 1986, leaving Mikhail Gorbachev to face the fact that he could not deter the United States from its newly assertive military power and foreign policy.

The impact of this change in America’s international posture is almost impossible to overestimate. During Ronald Reagan’s first term in office, communism suffered its first massive and public defeat, as it was pressed back in much of the Third World even as the Soviet Union began to collapse from within. This was not a continuation of detente, but a foreign policy aimed at liberating millions from oppression. The stakes were high, but President Reagan was driven by an absolute confidence in the ultimate victory of hope over despair and freedom over oppression. In the end, the Soviet Union fell more quickly -– and more peacefully–than virtually anyone could have predicted.

Ronald Reagan is what specialists in political leadership identify as a “conviction politician.” As former White House counsel Peter J. Wallison commented, “Reagan had convictions –- not just ‘positions,’ but principles he believed in and was willing to act upon.” As Wallison argues, this separated Reagan from his recent predecessors in office, who had generally attempted to negotiate around many issues rather than to confront and solve them. “Reagan’s extraordinary acts of political courage demonstrated that politics had a moral core, and that government decisions could be based on something more solid and enduring than the shifting sands of political expediency.”

On the world’s stage, Reagan developed an historic partnership with his generation’s other great conviction politician -– Margaret Thatcher. In an unusual alignment, based on both personality and ideas, Reagan and Thatcher redefined the Atlantic alliance and established Anglo-American leadership in the world. Thatcher understood Reagan’s vision and admired his effectiveness as both communicator and statesman. “When we attempt an overall survey of President Reagan’s term of office,” she reflected, “covering events both foreign and domestic, one thing stands out. It is that he has achieved the most difficult of all political tasks: changing attitudes and perceptions about what is possible. From the strong fortress of his convictions, he set out to enlarge freedom the world over at a time when freedom was in retreat–and he succeeded. It is not merely that freedom now advances while collectivism is in retreat–important though that is. It is that freedom is the idea that everywhere captures men’s minds while collectivism can do no more than enslave their bodies. That is the measure of the change that President Reagan has wrought.”

Domestically, President Reagan used his incredible communication skills to lead the nation, and he combined respect for the American people with the expectation that Americans should solve their own problems. His most memorable anecdotes usually had to do with some story of government inefficiency or worse. In a line he often used, President Reagan offered that the most frightening words he had ever heard were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” Reagan’s “less is more” approach to government marked the end of an era of unbridled government expansion, with its accompanying financial constriction. President Reagan restructured the economy through massive tax cuts mixed with encouragement for entrepreneurship and economic expansion.

The transformations that mark Ronald Reagan’s life also touch the most basic moral issues of life and death. As the governor of California, Reagan signed one of the most liberal abortion laws of the 1970’s. By the time he ran for President in 1980, Reagan had come to see abortion as a moral blight on America’s conscience, and he almost single-handedly rebuilt a conservative movement driven by concern for individual liberty, economic freedom, and the sanctity of human life.

Ronald Reagan was a real human being, and it showed. Those who never heard him speak as President, who never observed his speeches and press conferences, are robbed of the opportunity to see this real leader grappling with the most crucial issues of his day. He did so with both humanity and courage, remembering that, in politics, he could afford many opponents but no enemies.

My introduction to Ronald Reagan came as I joined his 1976 campaign for the Republican nomination. I was a 16-year-old campaign volunteer working to distribute literature and serving time on the phone banks used to reach grassroots voters. I was captivated by the clarity of Ronald Reagan’s vision, and I resonated with his conservative political philosophy. Admittedly, I was also simply taken by the sheer charisma of Ronald Reagan as a leader.

I was able to see Ronald Reagan in action and in person at Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium during the 1976 nomination contest. Accompanied by his devoted wife Nancy, Reagan strode to the podium and delivered, apparently without notes, a political address that -– in terms of its ideas -– would later lead to his landslide election in 1980. I waited in the rope line for a chance to shake his hand, and then I saw for myself why biographer Edmund Morris would describe Ronald Reagan as “a force of nature.” His energy, optimism, and confidence swept through the room like a bracing storm.

History will remember Ronald Reagan as a great President. Americans will remember him as a great friend. In time, monuments will be built, and memorials will be formalized. Yet the greatest memorial to Ronald Reagan is the fact that his ideas still live –- and that a generation of younger Americans will not let them die.

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