Protestantism’s Troubling History with White Supremacy in the US

The early leaders of the United States were steeped in a racial ideology of a divinely ordained Anglo-Saxon heritage, writes Tiffany Puett.

A New Jersey minister welcoming members of the KKK into his church in 1923.
(Bettmann via Getty Images

By Tiffany Puett
St. Edward’s University

In the long-overdue discussions taking place over the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States, few appear to be addressing the relationship between religion and racism.

This comes despite notions of white supremacy being entwined with the history of religion in the United States.

As a scholar specializing in issues of religion and identity, I argue for a deeper introspection around how white supremacy permeates all parts of American society, including its religious institutions.

Race and Religion

In 1835, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville described the character of the U.S. as the result of “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty,” which he argued, “elsewhere have often been at war but in America have somehow been incorporated into one another and marvelously combined.”

However, there’s a perpetual tension between the narrative of the U.S. as a nation built on diversity and religious freedom and the experiences of many who live in the U.S. – especially racial, ethnic and religious minorities, who have faced discrimination and marginalization.

It is true that Americans have a mandate for the free exercise of religion and the freedom from religion enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

But those promises of religious freedom and tolerance have historically been more readily extended to varieties of Protestantism than other religions. As the former British ambassador to the U.S. Viscount Bryce noted in 1888, Christianity is given “a species of recognition” at a federal and state level that is inconsistent with the view that the country is “neutral in religious matters.”

As the dominant religion in the U.S., Protestant Christianity’s dominance has long been enmeshed with the racial dominance of whiteness – white supremacy.

‘Anglo-Saxon Heritage’

From the Puritans to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, the early leaders of the United States were steeped in a racial ideology of a divinely ordained Anglo-Saxon heritage, a romanticized account of the ancestral and cultural roots of inhabitants of England. They believed they were building a new nation with a divine purpose, a “new Israel” with a twofold mission: racial and religious.

This ideology is symbolized in the seal Jefferson proposed for the new nation, which President John Adams described as depicting “the Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by day, and a Pillar of Fire by night, and on the other Side Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom We claim the Honour of being descended and whose Political Principles and Form of Government We have assumed.”

Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, depicted here, owned slaves.
(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This is part of an old, defining narrative of America as chosen by God, rooted in a white Anglo-Saxon heritage and exceptional in its devotion to values of liberty and individual rights – a narrative of American exceptionalism.

This narrative has also supported the notion that the ideal or “true” American citizen is essentially white and Protestant – a view that historians of Protestantism have noted was reflected in the pulpits of pre-Civil War America.

Notions linking “whiteness” to Protestantism were further entrenched in the second half of the 19th century, when immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Italy came to the U.S. bringing Catholicism with them.

These non-Protestant, non-Anglo immigrants were seen as “less white” than more established Anglo communities and were subject to significant discrimination.

Only after assimilation into Anglo cultural norms, especially speaking English, were they granted the social and economic privileges that came with “whiteness.” Yet many continued to experience anti-Catholic discrimination.

And the U.S. continued to see other immigrant groups – Latino, Jewish, Asian and Middle Eastern – racialized, discriminated against and set as perpetual “foreigners” in contrast to the norm of the white Christian American.

The supposed superiority of white Protestantism, supported by interpretations of biblical texts, was for centuries used to justify the institution of slavery.

Biblical texts were also used to justify segregation and Jim Crow. Even the Ku Klux Klan rooted their ideology of white supremacy in Protestant theology and the Bible.

In the reasoning of many white Protestants, white dominance was not the consequence of a political and economic arrangement, but the will of God – the way things are supposed to be. As Kelly Baker, author of “The Gospel According to the Klan,” states: “Even liberal Protestant churches supported white supremacy. That seemed the natural order of things. Just as people used biblical texts to support slavery.”

Such notions of race and religious superiority also combined in the forcing of Native American children into Christian boarding schools from the mid-19th century. The children were robbed of their families, cultures and religion under the rationale that they would benefit from the “civilizing influences” of Anglo Christian culture.

The ‘Other’

Today, rising rates of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia remind America that religious minorities continue to face a social and
political climate of bias and discrimination
that marginalizes them as foreign or “other.”

The old narrative of Anglo-Saxon America continues to feed notions that a “real” American citizen is essentially white and Protestant.

Sikhs are attacked and told “go back to your country.” Buddhist temples are vandalized and mosques are denied building permits. Muslim community leaders are reportedly asked to sign “loyalty pledges” to verify their “American-ness.”

Understanding religious difference in America requires a view of how the country has been shaped by racism. And interrogating racism in the U.S. requires a view of how it pervades social institutions, including religion.The Conversation

Tiffany Puett is adjunct professor of religious and theological studies at St. Edward’s University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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23 comments for “Protestantism’s Troubling History with White Supremacy in the US

  1. A
    July 25, 2020 at 04:35

    Racism is just one form of bigotry.
    There is also religious bigotry.
    (And, of course, gender bigotry, sexual orientation bigotry, etc. But these are off-topic.)
    Religious organisations are prone to perpetuate bigotry, regardless of whether it is religious, racist or otherwise. Bigotry, in general, should be reduced, regardless of the nature of the bigotry. In my view, bigotry is incompatible with religion, which should be about the relationship of a person with their “spiritual” side, which can include a relationship with god(s).

  2. robert e williamson jr
    July 24, 2020 at 21:22

    I have but one thing to say at this point. If the Church any church wants to remain a non-profit they need to stay the hell out of politics.

    Best kept secret in the country is the the IRS is so underfunded it is without any base of power to enforce it’s authority. Then there is the problem with the Southern District of New York. The lobby for churches insures IRS will not touch them and the churches have the funding to get what they want.

    The IRS has become a political weapon both parties use to further their own agendas and has become another of the “Thousands of Cuts” that are killing our country.

    The big Churches have more money than ever before look around.

  3. Owen
    July 23, 2020 at 21:14

    It’s interesting that you mention the rising rates of Antisemitism and Islamophobia and the attacks on Sikhs while omitting the burning of Catholic churches (including an attempted mass murder of a congregation in Florida), the defacement of their statues and the organized physical attacks on Catholics saying the Rosary in St. Louis.

  4. July 23, 2020 at 19:48

    A Catholic School professor blaming Protestants for racism in the United States is ironic. The Catholic encomienda system depopulated two entire continents. Millions died and millions more suffered fates worse than death at the hands of Catholics. If the Spanish Armada had defeated England in 1588, the racism in this land we call the United States of America would be just as racist under Catholics as under Protestants.

    The principal differences between racism and religion: Racism is a codified system of hate and segregation created by the rich in order to control lower level social classes, while religion is a codified system created by the rich in order to divide and conquer lower level social classes where hate is just one small part of an even larger bundle of control mechanisms.

  5. Paul Eccles
    July 23, 2020 at 02:35

    Everything written about the USA here applies to South Africa as well. Here the colonists also considered themselves as fulfilling God’s word, creating a new Israel and so on. The Afrikaner people were God’s “chosen race” just like the Jews of Israel or whatever.

  6. Thomas Ellingwood Fortin
    July 21, 2020 at 10:30

    “In 1835, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville described the character of the U.S. as the result of “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty,” which he argued, “elsewhere have often been at war but in America have somehow been incorporated into one another and marvelously combined.”
    After sharing this quote, which was a well written, and observed fact, leaving out the southern states which were the exception, and Alexis had some things to say about that,…
    As for the observations of the British Ambassador in the 1880s, yes, the United States by that time, with the uniting of the Republicans and Democrats to end Reconstruction and allow the racist slavers of the south to take back over and subjugate the blacks, had degenerated in principles and departed from the liberal ideals of the founders, which were based on the thinking of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason, a bit of history much neglected these days.
    It was also the beginning of the Gilded Age, a repudiation of the Age of Reason concept of free market capitalism and a return to a more feudal economy with monopolies for the elite,…like we are seeing today.
    In the history of humanity, as so well pointed out by the great philosophers and savants of our civilization, the battle has always been between liberalism, the rights of humanity, as opposed to conservatism, the right of the few to ride on the backs of the many and to oppress them. From Locke to Lincoln, we have been reminded of this. And don’t forget, it was “white” liberalism that has done more to liberate other races then anyone else in history,
    “Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils. The unhappy man who has been treated as a brute animal, too frequently sinks beneath the common standard of the human species. The galling chains, that bind his body, do also fetter his intellectual faculties, and impair the social affections of his heart… To instruct, to advise, to qualify those, who have been restored to freedom, for the exercise and enjoyment of civil liberty… and to procure for their children an education calculated for their future situation in life; these are the great outlines of the annexed plan, which we have adopted.[For the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, 1789]”
    ~Benjamin Franklin, Writings

    “Many of the white people [who] have been instruments in the hands of God for our good, even such as have held us in captivity, are now pleading our cause with earnestness and zeal.”
    -Richard Allen, founder of the A.M.E. Church in America. In an early address entitled “To the People of Color.”

  7. PV Nevin
    July 21, 2020 at 07:33

    Veteran investigative reporter Robert Parry dies at 68:
    “In its obituary for Parry, the New York Times wrote: “After decades of enraging conservatives, Mr. Parry began angering liberals in 2016 by suggesting that Russian meddling had had little influence on the election of Donald J. Trump, though he was critical of President Trump for what he called his ‘contempt for facts and his crass personal behavior.’”

    It is not that Parry’s politics had changed, but rather the “liberals” of the New York Times ilk who turned sharply to the right over a whole period, embarking on a neo-McCarthyite campaign to demonize Russia as the supposed source of all hostility to the ruling establishment in the US, and opposing Trump on the basis of his supposed failure to pursue a sufficiently hard line against Moscow.

    The “newspaper of record” might well have added that “contempt for facts” was precisely the indictment Parry made of the corporate media, and the New York Times in particular, when it came to the propaganda campaign over “Russian meddling.”

    “When it comes to Russia these days—as with the Vietcong in the 1960s or Iraq in 2002-03—you can pretty much write whatever you want. All journalistic standards are gone,” Parry wrote in an article posted on Consortiumnews last September.”

    Consortium News are involved in the campaign to defend and free Julian Assange. See this – “Not in Our Name”:

    I am raising these points about Consortium News, in its favour, because I do not agree with Tiffany Puett’s thesis.
    Not all Protestants were WASPs. Indeed, not all WASPs (in the political outlook that term implies) were Protestants.

    More importantly, Tiffany Puett, agrees with the racist claim concerning Washington. and Jefferson and by implication therefore the American Revolution.

    The New York Times has launched the ‘1619 Project’ to promote the claim that all modern American history is the history of racism.
    This sham of a ‘history’ project has been exposed by leading American historians.
    The New York Times’s 1619 Project: A racialist falsification of American and world history:

    On the streets in the USA premise of the ‘1619 Project’ is undermined by the multi-racial campaign of young people against police murder and brutality.

    The book that Tiffany Puett references with regard to Jefferson, and Washington is ^The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter:
    “A New York Times bestseller: “This terrific new book . . . [explores] the ‘notion of whiteness,’ an idea as dangerous as it is seductive.”—Boston Globe
    Telling perhaps the most important forgotten story in American history, eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter guides us through more than two thousand years of Western civilization, illuminating not only the invention of race but also the frequent praise of “whiteness” for economic, scientific, and political ends. A story filled with towering historical figures, The History of White People closes a huge gap in literature that has long focused on the non-white and forcefully reminds us that the concept of “race” is an all-too-human invention whose meaning, importance, and reality have changed as it has been driven by a long and rich history of events.”

    Racism exists. It is used quite deliberately to divide. Like religious sectarianism in Ireland where I am. However, those middle class layers of the racially oppressed that wish to get a better stake in the system are embittered by racism, and its effect on their careers. They do not at all wish to see an end to generalised oppression and exploitation. That is class oppression.
    In Ireland Sinn Fein represent the same aspiring type that is aggrieved by religious blocks to their petty ambitions.

    Rather they want the impediments removed to the advancement of their class.. Leaving everything else in place
    Today, we readers of this web site who are white, live of the brutal exploitation off garment workers in Bangladesh, for example. Are we therefore racists? And black workers in the US who buy Bangladeshi clothes? Are the racist against Bangladeshis?

    Nearly every person murdered by a cop in America is poor.

  8. geeyp
    July 21, 2020 at 01:31

    I go with the true radical who started Protestantism, Martin Luther. Read the 95 theses.

  9. July 20, 2020 at 23:14

    Of course! WASPs are WASPs and the US is WASP. It was never intended to be otherwise. The Catholic is the “nigger in the woodpile” and Jews are welcome to Zion – provided they behave! As for Muslims, they’re just so many dangerous insects to be trampled wherever found. So much for those of the Abrahamic faith. The ‘others’ don’t count. So, where to from here?

  10. Ventura Calderon Parada
    July 20, 2020 at 22:44

    Chris Hedges was speaking about Christian Dominionists. These are Protestant evangelicals joined with Catholic Opus Dei. Dominionists are zionists only as it serves their End Times theology. They are anti-Semitic as far as Jews are concerned. They see themselves as the new “chosen people” and America as the new holy land. This was alluded to in the article.

  11. July 20, 2020 at 20:41

    I liked Tiffany Puett’s analysis and the linkage between the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) and racism including the white supremacy complex.
    I would like to add a defining dimension between the conquers in North America and the conquers of South America.
    The WASP in the North practiced democratic decision making in their religion , thus regrettably depending on lay people’s interpretation of what was right and wrong, resulting in the justification for the extermination of Native Americans.

    By comparison the Spanish conquistadors of South America were beholden to hierarchical Rome for the interpretation of moral issues. So, on reaching out to Rome they were told that the Native Americans were human like everyone else and should be converted, not slaughtered.

  12. David
    July 20, 2020 at 17:41

    Any complete look at racism and religion in the U.S. in my view needs to include the role of the British Empire with it’s extentions ie.., Wall Street, European Central Bank, other central banks efforts to overthow and or subordinate the U.S. gov’t. to it’s dictates. Racism and religion are geopolitical tools used by the British Empire. Review that Geopolitics is a reference to a specific doctrine proposal. A specific doctrine which defended the Briitish Empire and eas adopted at the end of the 19th centery although it was in practice before that. It uses whatever identities there are whether religious, race, tribal, familial, national. or ethnic. Geopolitics pit nations and peoples against each other so that they can be controlled from the top down. This is classic British doctrine that was deployed to prevent the development of a unified policy for economic development. To prevent the development of sovereign nations of Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The British instead insisted that there had to be a divide between Russia and France on one side and Germany on the other. Fearing that German technology and German economy of the 19 century if combined with French and th Russians with a trans-continental railroad that goes from the Atlantic to the Euros and beyond. That that development would take away the strengths the British had because of their sea power. Thgrough ability to control trade, therir ability to control nations, the ability to control finances would have been lost. The Berlin to Bagdad railroad tha the Germans were talking about was seen as an existential threat by the British. Race and religion are and have been geopolitical tools of control for the British Empire. And ever since the American Revolution and the Declaration of Indepence the Brithish have sought to subvert and overthrow the Principles in the U.S.A.Constituition using race, religion and other geopolitical tools! American politicians aligned with the British geopolitics took our sovereignity away from us by putting us in globalist deals such as Free Trade, Climate conference and so on. That was the loss of our sovereignity. It was done by the City of London opperatives working in both political parties in the U.S. who adopted the idea of Neoliberal economics and geopolitical sttrategy as an approach for America. The City of London, Wall Street, the European Central Bank and other central banks represent private interests and their attack on sovereignity. The 1980 book by Walt wristen attacked the idea of sovereignity. He was the head of City bank. His idea was the idea of these bankers. that if money could move freely around the world they can play a crap game called casino economy. A speculative economy where the bankers can loot nations, including the poorest nations, in terms of raw materials and cheep labor. But this doesn’t give them a high enough margin to control their debt. So they turn on the middle class and working class people of the Western countries, hence our collapse. Because virtually all of us are victims of preditory actions in service to the needs for debt recovdry of the oeading private intereests. The American System waw set up as a system where gov’t would protect the common good against private interests!

  13. Jim Meeks
    July 20, 2020 at 17:01

    I think Matt Taibbi is right about conservatives and liberals having changed places on the left/right scale:

    • Pyotr Kropotkin
      July 20, 2020 at 19:31

      @Jim Meeks
      Liberals have never been on the left. They say some nice things about social issues from time to time, but their political and economic actions have proven their words to be fictitious. And if you look into the political, economic, and social beliefs of the conservatives, they are still very right-wing. We’ve never really had a left-wing of any political, economic, or social significance in this country. I like Matt, but his political confusion is palpable at times, as are others who equate right-of-center liberals as “the left” because there is no one else to look to.

  14. rosemerry
    July 20, 2020 at 16:34

    This US phenomenon is seen in the very large and effective evangelizing influence in Latin America of people who were already Christians, but Catholics, from previous conversions/missionaries. Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and others follow this pattern and the “élites” in these countries often allow these evangelical types to take over power.

  15. July 20, 2020 at 15:06

    American Protestantism has roots in Puritanism.

    Those dear “Pilgrims” of American Thanksgiving legend were actually people of exceptionally nasty character, a branch of the English Puritans. You want to read about ugly people, just read about John Knox and other prominent English Puritans.

    The Pilgrims did not so much escape religious persecution in Europe – the line taken by American grade-school textbooks – as they did the consequences of their own ugly religious intolerance and extremism.

    They publicly insulted others about their religious beliefs and even interfered with worship services of others.

    I am a believer in the concept that most choices of religious or political conviction have a great deal to do with genetic endowment rather than actual choice through intellectual or emotional conviction.

    The Puritans were simply horrible. Among their acts, after the English Reformation, were running through the great English cathedrals and destroying priceless historical artifacts and artworks.

    They smashed stained-glass windows, destroyed sculpture, and even desecrated the remains of Saint Thomas Becket.

    When they finally began arriving in America, they slaughtered the Indigenous people.

    The Puritans provided a gene pool that remains influential in America’s power establishment. It is poisonous.

    • Zalamander
      July 20, 2020 at 21:43

      I disagree. Religious and political choices are not genetic predispositions, they are ideological. Religion is ideology. Calling religious and political convictions genetically based eventually leads to racism.

    • Ventura Calderon Parada
      July 20, 2020 at 22:32

      I have met members of today’s Dominionists who call themselves Putitans. Dominionists/Christian Nationalists are a very dangerous movement in our country. They virtually own today’s Republican Party. A difference from the past is that the Protestant Dominionists are in league with the Catholic Opus Dei.

    • AnneR
      July 21, 2020 at 06:57

      Actually John Knox was a Scot. By the Puritans’ “gene pool” remaining influential I imagine you mean simply that their descendants have maintained their status, economic, political and social; and that among many of them the racist-supremacist views of their forebears remains among, passed down, shared, among them. It is the air they breathe, the intellectual sustenance they ingest.

    • Mark Stanley
      July 21, 2020 at 11:56

      Oliver Cromwell’s armies performed atrocious acts–like cutting out the tongues of Irish women because “womens tongues wag”. When the Brits finally ejected the Puritans they emigrated to America–well over 20,000 of them.
      Britannia took a poop, and the turd landed in North America.
      Their influence on American society is still with us today, and yet most Americans cannot see it because we are so steeped in religious extremism.

    • robert e williamson jr
      July 24, 2020 at 19:31

      Isn’t racism an ideology? Isn’t it’s followers considered by most humans as individuals who could easily qualify as being members of an alternate state. The dregs of human society maybe. Maybe those at the low drain on the gene pool?

      Regardless Zalamander’s claim rings hollow. I live in a place where these religious fanatics refuse to believe in all inoculations. The don’t believe in evolution and refuse to even consider that man descended from apes. The body of proof of which is constantly growing.

      They instead to choose a path of mythology. I consider many far too many of them as being the same as the “Raving Lunatic in Chief” and his best buddies the right wing Israeli government. It’s their mental lack of clarity. Many, if not most religious groups believe it’s their way or the highway. “Only their religion is the right religion.

      Additionally some of the most hypocritical are farmers who believe this way. It is no wonder that they have let some agricultural science lead them to follow many ruinous practices. If they don’t believe in science what gives, why not reject it. One example is their production of garbage corn to produce fuel for bogus reasons. Once again it all comes down to greed not knowledge or being right with their God.

      I get Johns point and agree with him although John might not agree with me or AnneR she hit it right on the nose and her addition clarifies a point.

      These “Blue Blood types with lengthy family histories in this country are very strongly related to their fore fathers genetically. It cannot no longer be denied and science, specifically the science of genetics is proof of their relations.

      The proof of their racist beliefs can be found in the genocide they unleashed on Americas first inhabitants. A result of greed and the idea they were superior. Disgusting, barbaric, crazy with greed and the idea of their superiority soothed them, emboldened them because they were and ARE out of touch with reality.

      The racist mind is an underdeveloped. A mind closed by the teaching of religion from the earliest of age, brain washing I call it, that produces a false sense of being superior, they are religious and believers and thereby special. It’s no more than mob mentality dressed up with crosses and the such.

      My proof is the two faces the religious show up with, the one face at church and the other at their KKK meeting.

      From my point if view I figure the religious have had more than enough time to build a just society. Look around and what do you see. Rich churches and dying poor people. They have changed nothing, nada!

  16. Aaron
    July 20, 2020 at 13:47

    There is something unique and weird about how the history of America, thought of as a bastion for those looking for freedom of/from religion, to worship or not worship as they please, has paradoxically been driven by various religious groups looking for power. Most of what I’ve learned about the modern situation is from Hedges’ important book on Christian fascists. It’s the evangelical denomination that has risen to power, it’s a very organized, powerful, and ambitious movement. And is it not the fusion of the evangelicals with the Zionists that has the power right now? It is also important to remember that Obama actually set us back a lot in race relations, because he didn’t deliver on his promises. I remember reading an Eddie Glaude opinion piece in TIME during Obama’s presidency, very harshly criticizing how Obama had betrayed all of the blacks that had voted for him, and I think that’s the main reason Hillary lost, because they didn’t vote in the election in high percentages. But Obama was all in for Israel and the Zionists, and so is President Trump, who has many evangelicals like Pence, DeVos, Pompeo in high offices now. But the common denominator in recent decades is the rise of Zionism, fused with any and all popular movements/candidates that can further the Zionist movement. And this phenomenon has “marvelously combined” militarism/patriotism into it’s realm, and has been able to equate patriotism with their cause. Christians are “United for Israel”, even the Protestants and Catholics, although they don’t seem to know it, their guys are all in also. If this theory is wrong, please explain why.

    • David Gomez
      July 20, 2020 at 18:13

      There never really was a Zionist movement until it got the full backing of the British Empire. most jews given a choice of where to live between Tel-Aviv and NY City would choose NY City. The Jewish population had no necessity of a homeland. And religous Jews rejected the idea that the bible was a real estate contract from God to the Jews. Where did that idea come from? It came from the British Isrealites. When people talk about the power of the Rothchilds,how did the Rothchilds come to power? They were what were called Hoff Juden or Court Jews who were given their power by the Monarch, Princes and Dukes of Europe. Including the Bank of England. They were servants of the British Empire! And while they made personal fortunes and did alot of evil things, they never could have organized the creaton of a Jewish State without the backing of the British Monarchy which controlled that region until the present time. if it is understood that Zionism was given its green light fro the Balfor Declaration of the Leaders of the British Empire including Floyd George, but before that King Edward who set up teh Palestine exploration Fund, to stake a claim on behalf of the British Monarchy for the land which is today Isreal. If you understand this you can understand the other side of this..The Saudies. Today, including sometimes in Washinton’s heavily influence by Saudi lobbying and Isreal lobbying. But neither of these are the controllers of that. What you have is a corruption of the political process so that tthe geopolitians whether one calls them the Military Industrial Complex, the Deep State, The British Empire…whatever you want to call it. That is who is calling the shots. By targetting the Jewish influence in Washibngton as the source of this then one fall’s for the misleading and clever trick by the British.

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