More Christian Nation Nonsense
Ed Brayton printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Sep 04, 2007 at 11:18:05 PM EST
Remember James Goswick, the Christian Nation apologist and David Barton disciple I wrote about a couple weeks ago? Well he's got a post on his blog objecting to the following statement I made about Jefferson, which can be found in this post:

"The Declaration was written by a man who believed in a very different "creator" than Barton. Remember, Jefferson explicitly condemned the Old Testament God as "cruel, capricious, vindictive and unjust" and rejected the notion that Jesus was divine or part of any trinity."

Goswick responds:

Just because Jefferson did not believe in the Deity of Jesus Christ doesn't mean he believed in a different Creator, or a "very different" Creator. It is the same Creator, rejecting the second and third person of the Godhead. Jefferson believed in the God of Israel, his error was his perception on the person of Jesus Christ. That Jesus Christ is God, is a distinction of God, just as Jefferson not believing The Holy Spirit is not God. The distortion is Ed Brayton portraying Jefferson as worshiping a different God altogether. Unitarians believe they worship the God of Israel.

When I said that Jefferson did not believe in the same creator that Barton did, I of course meant that Jefferson did not believe in the Biblical conception of God. That this is the case can be easily established by looking at Jefferson's own words, particularly his letter to William Short on August 4, 1820. In it, he describes not only his view of Jesus but his view on the Old Testament conception of God that, he argued, Jesus came to reform and amend:

There are, I acknowledge, passages not free from objection, which we may, with probability, ascribe to Jesus himself; but claiming indulgence from the circumstances under which he acted. His object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness, and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being, and formed him really worthy of their adoration. Moses had either not believed in a future state of existence, or had not thought it essential to be explicitly taught to his people. Jesus inculcated that doctrine with emphasis and precision. Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries and observances, of no effect towards producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue; Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance. The one instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit towards other nations; the other preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence. The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation, is ever dangerous. Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion: and a step to right or left might place him within the gripe of the priests of the superstition, a blood thirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel.

There are several important things about this passage. Notice how he explicitly contrasts the "Supreme Being", the one that he believed in, from the God presented by Moses as "the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel." He clearly rejects the entire Old Testament conception of God, arguing that this god is unjust, cruel, remorseless and obsessed with "idle ceremonies, mummeries and observances." It could not be more clear that he rejected the Biblical conception of God entirely.

Goswick then, for some strange reason, quotes Jefferson's famous statement about Jesus and his system of ethics:

"To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other."
Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803

The emphasis is his. Surely Goswick is not going to claim that Jefferson was a Christian in any serious sense. As can clearly be seen in the very quote he provides, Jefferson believed that Jesus was merely a man, not a divine being of any kind. He goes on to say that he thinks that the ethical system of Jesus was the purest and most sublime he had ever encountered, and it is on that basis that he says that he is "sincerely attached to his doctrines." He also explicitly rejected the virgin birth, the resurrection, the atonement and any claim that Jesus performed miracles. Surely Mr. Goswick would not call anyone a Christian with such beliefs.

Incidentally, Jefferson said something quite similar about Epicurus, and also did it in a letter to William Short a year before the one we've already quoted:

As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus, indeed, has given us what was good of the Stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice.

He was a Christian in precisely the same sense in which he was an Epicurean. Goswick then goes on to quote the very passage that was so thoroughly debunked just a day before the post he is replying to:

No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.
Thomas Jefferson in 1803-Hutson (see n. 8) at p. 96, quoting from a handwritten history in possession of the Library of Congress, "Washington Parish, Washington City," by Rev. Ethan Allen.

This is the recounting of the story that Chris Rodda so completely debunks and that I spelled out in great detail in this post. It is a third hand version of a story told 50 years after the fact of a conversation recounted by two people who were under 10 years old at the time it allegedly occurred. More importantly, it stands in stark contrast to virtually everything Jefferson wrote on the subject of Christianity as a religion (as opposed to what he believed to be authentic Christianity, the words of Jesus himself without all the claims of divinity, miracle or spiritual dithering).

Jefferson, was deceived about Christianity and its essentials. But his unitarian God, like that of John Adams, was Yahweh, the God of Israel

That is obviously false given the clear and explicit rejection of that God in the passages I quote above. Remember, we're talking about different conceptions of God, of different attributions of God's nature. Jefferson believed firmly in a personal, benevolent, interventionist God, but it is quite obvious that he rejected the Biblical conception of God. Look at how he contrasts how different his (and Adams') conception of God is with the God worshiped by the great Protestant reformer John Calvin (this is from an 1823 letter to John Adams):

I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Dæmonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5. points is not the God whom you and I acknolege and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a dæmon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin. Indeed I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to Atheism by their general dogma that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a god. Now one sixth of mankind only are supposed to be Christians: the other five sixths then, who do not believe in the Jewish and Christian revelation, are without a knolege of the existance of a god!

I would also note that this pretty clearly destroys any pretense, lately popularized by Hitchens, that Jefferson was secretly an atheist. But that is another argument with another group on the other side who engages in the same kind of historical distortions that Goswick and Barton do. For the purposes of the present discussion, what is important is that Jefferson makes clear that he rejects the orthodox Christian conception of God and the claims of "Jewish and Christian revelation."

Goswick finally writes:

Where is the evidence Jefferson was a universalist while forming the nation? Where is this evidence at any point in his life?

Again, if one just reads Jefferson's voluminous private letters on the subject of religion rather than only reading isolated quotes from David Barton pamphlets, this evidence is easily found. For instance, Jefferson wrote to William Camby in 1813:

An eloquent preacher of your society, Richard Motte, in a discourse of much emotion and pathos, is said to have exclaimed aloud to his congregation, that he did not believe there was a Quaker, Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist in heaven, having paused to give his hearers time to stare and to wonder. He added, that in heaven, God knew of no distinctions, but considered all good men as his children, and as brethren of the same family. I believe, with the Quaker preacher, that he who steadily observes those moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven, as to the dogmas in which they all differ. That on entering there, all these are left behind us, and the Aristides and Catos, the Penns and Tillotsons, Presbyterians and Baptists, will find themselves united in all principles which are in concert with the reason of the supreme mind.

Note that he goes further than the Quaker preacher, listing even Aristides and Cato, both pagans, as being in heaven along with all who accept "those moral precepts in which all religions concur." He develops this idea further in an 1809 letter to James Fishback:

Every religion consists of moral precepts, and of dogmas. In the first they all agree. All forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness &ca. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, and happiness in society. In their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same. These respect vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, and metaphysical speculations, totally unconnected with morality, and unimportant to the legitimate objects of society. Yet these are the questions on which have hung the bitter schisms of Nazarenes, Socinians, Arians, Athanasians in former times, and now of Trinitarians, Unitarians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers &c. Among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; and what blood, how many human lives have the words 'this do in remembrance of me' cost the Christian world! We all agree in the obligation of the moral precepts of Jesus; but we schismatize and lose ourselves in subtleties about his nature, his conception maculate or immaculate, whether he was a god or not a god, whether his votaries are to be initiated by simple aspersion, by immersion, or without water; whether his priests must be robed in white, in black, or not robed at all; whether we are to use our own reason, or the reason of others, in the opinions we form, or as to the evidence we are to believe. It is on questions of this, and still less importance, that such oceans of human blood have been spilt, and whole regions of the earth have been desolated by wars and persecutions, in which human ingenuity has been exhausted in inventing new tortures for their brethren. It is time then to become sensible how insoluble these questions are by minds like ours, how unimportant, and how mischievous; and to consign them to the sleep of death, never to be awakened from it. ... We see good men in all religions, and as many in one as another. It is then a matter of principle with me to avoid disturbing the tranquility of others by the expression of any opinion on the [unimportant points] innocent questions on which we schismatize, and think it enough to hold fast to those moral precepts which are of the essence of Christianity, and of all other religions.

This is the very essence of syncretic universalism, the notion that all the major religions share a similar core of moral precepts but that each of them pile upon that core an enormous artifice of ritual, hierarchy and obsession with irrelevant minutiae over which endless wars are fought, and further that all such artifice should be ignored because the real God cares nothing about them, only with our basic human virtue toward one another.

There really is no serious doubt what Jefferson believed on such matters; he is quite clear in his letters about them. The secret is you actually have to read those letters, not just isolated excerpts from them quoted by someone with an axe to grind. And this is as true of those who seek to make Jefferson into some sort of proto-atheist as it is of the Christian Nation apologists.

How delicious.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Sep 05, 2007 at 02:30:01 AM EST

great post.

posts such as yours are important to educating Americans about how stridently secular were many of the key founders of our republic, especially in the context of the late 1700's.

I notice you use the phrase "Christian Nation" as a proper noun. Is it a formal organization, a movement, a concept, a book? You might want to consider making the first use of the phrase "Christian Nation" in your posts a link to a defining previous post or other resource. Just a thought.

by IseFire on Wed Sep 05, 2007 at 12:10:35 PM EST

I think it is misleading to say that many or most of the key founders were "stridently secular." The only ones you could possibly say that about are Madison and Jefferson (perhaps Paine, but he was not a part of writing or interpreting the Constitution at all). Washington, Adams and Franklin were all advocates of official declarations of thanksgiving, days of prayer and fasting and general rhetorical support for religion from government leaders. All three were accommodationists rather than advocates of strict separation. I think we need to be careful not to overclaim the reality, lest we end up behaving like our opponents.

by Ed Brayton on Wed Sep 05, 2007 at 02:37:03 PM EST
There is a great temptation to recruit The Founding Fathers in the service of all contemporary political points. Their actual views don't always make them a good fit. Claims of the intentions of the founders is a different kind of blanket originalism, a kind of fundamentalism if we are not careful. It is important to be guided by what history teaches us, but we are not in our present circustances, entirely bound by what the Founders, in all of their diversity of thought, and lack of unanimity on just about everything, thought. The Constitution and the  amendments did not settle everything. And we have more than two centuries of experience to prove it. We still face many of the same questions and struggles as the framers did in their time. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to benefit from their experience.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Sep 05, 2007 at 03:28:32 PM EST

Jefferson was often inconsistent, to put it tactfully. However, over a period of many years, Jefferson's correspondence seems to indicate a consistent belief that religion is, and should be, an entirely private matter. His writings also indicate strong anticlerical opinions. Regardless the form and nature of the deity in which Jefferson believed, he distrusted and generally disliked clergy and believed that the "principles of religion are a subject of accountability to God alone" (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Miles King, 1814). For Jefferson, Christianity was purely a system of ethics - he rejected the supernatural. Jefferson took this rejection so seriously that he wrote a version of the Bible and removed all the supernatural acts. Jefferson was popular with some religious groups and he was disliked by others. His critics were often aggressive and some attacked his apparent lack of Christian faith. I think the 1803 letter to Rush, referenced in the article, was written during or around a period of heavy criticism. Jefferson, like all the founders and all historical figures, must be taken in context. Barton and his ilk decontextualize and rely on carefully edited, and even fake, quotes to convince their gullible followers.

by gertrudes on Wed Sep 05, 2007 at 07:49:05 PM EST

Goswick said:

Jefferson, was deceived about Christianity and its essentials. But his unitarian God, like that of John Adams, was Yahweh, the God of Israel

One has to wonder then what Jefferson meant when he said to William short in his letter of October 31, 1819 (

"But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth."

With Jefferson, Judaism, the religion of Yahweh was "depraved". In the syllabus below the main text of the letter he explains (e.g.) what he means by "the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems, e.g. invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him".

Ed covered this but reading the text is revealing because it attacks and rejects everything important that Trinitarian Nicene Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, requires for believers. Anyone who did not pass this religious test was a dangerous heretic that would lose their civil rights or even their life itself.

As "artificial systems", he lists -

 "The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c."

Adams has also attacked the "Christian revelation" in a similar way: In his letter to F.A. Van der Kamp on Dec. 27, 1816, he makes a very accurate assessment:

"But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed.

In December, 1784, Patrick Henry's 'Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion' was proposed in the Virginia House of Delegates by the religious right of the day. It is no surprise to me that today's religious right loves Patrick Henry quotes.  He had a Medieval religious viewpoint and was not a man of the enlightenment. What the right doesn't get is that being free from England was not the same kind of revolution that the Constitution was.

James Madison, supporting Jefferson's religious liberty statute, addressed the Virginia General Assembly on June 20, 1785 with his 'Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments' @ Here are three excerpts:

"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. "

"Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious disscord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion. "

"Because the proposed establishment is a departure from the generous policy, which, offering an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion, promised a lustre to our country, and an accession to the number of its citizens. What a melancholy mark is the Bill of sudden degeneracy? Instead of holding forth an Asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution. It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority. Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance."

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For more on the Commandments vs the Constitution, check out my article (under construction) @ DMENTS/

by James Veverka on Wed Sep 05, 2007 at 08:32:59 PM EST

In his 1808 letter to the Virginia Baptists, President Jefferson clearly points out the importance of equal rights of conscience for all and that meant unbelievers, too:

"Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society."

That is common sense but the religious right of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not interested in reasonable conclusions. They feel compelled to convert all and if they need the state to do it, that is their aim. The right wing lunatics of Islam are no different than the right wing lunatics of Christianity. Its a control freak thing. They just can't stand to have anyone see the world or live differently than them. Its neurotic.

Looking at Christian history when the alliance of church and state arose during the 4th - 6th centuries makes this even clearer. Mixing church and state is downright ignorant, and approaches what a free nation's people should consider evil in many cases. We dont need founder quotes to think reasonably.

The Rise of Church-State alliances:

by James Veverka on Thu Sep 06, 2007 at 09:52:31 AM EST

Goswick tried:

"No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion"

And that is a good thing? I don't think so!

It is quite clear to me that Mr. Goswick needs some serious history classes.


Because governments ruled with religion have almost always been the enemies of true liberty of conscience. Governments ruled by religion were the problem for 1500 years; not the solution. There has never been, to my knowledge, a nation ruled with religion that offered actual religious liberty to all. Even when Islam first spread, unbelievers had a special tax to pay. All you had to do was convert to rid yourself of the tax. That is still religious discrimination.

The Roman Empire had a state religion but it was largely symbolic, with no actual creeds and dogmas. Rarely did anyone get persecuted for their religion. Judaism ultimately became an accepted religion and any Jewish 'citizen of Rome' was protected. The reason why Christians came under the gun, especially during the third century, under emperors like Decian, Diocletian and Galerius, was because they sought to undermine and destroy a millenium of religious diversity in the empire. They continually attacked what Roman leaders considered essential for public order. For a thousand years it had worked! Religious diversity was social capital in that empire. It was thought to be a strength, not a weakness, of the empire. In our pluralist society, we, with the exception of right wing radicals, see it as a strength, too.

The empire's persecution of Manicheans was largely based in a nationalist sentiment. Century after century, Rome and Persia went to war, there being a long history of hostility that probably spilled into diverse areas of life. Manicheans were traitors in a sense. Those wars continued even after the empire was officially Christianized. After the Nicene Christianization began at the Council of Nicea (325), the persecution of Manicheans continued, but the reasons shifted from being anti-Rome to being non-Christian. Augustine condoned violent persecutions against both Manicheans and Donatist Christians. Nicenes persecuted every religion and that included non-Nicene Christians like Arianists, Donatists and others. (In the 5th century, Emperor Valentinian III decreed that if you did not accept the primacy of the See of Rome, you were a traitor!)

Of course, since Arians and Donatists used the same scriptures as the Nicenes, their zest for violent persecutions was the same. During the height of Arianist Christianity's church-state alliance; especially during the 4th century under emperor Constantius and Valens, they persecuted every other religion.  During the same period, in North Africa, where the Donatist Christians outnumbered the Nicenes and Arianists, they persecuted every other religion. Donatists called Circumcellions roamed the towns, murdering Nicenes. They all, as the only true Christians, sought a church-state hegemony.

Late antiquity's Christianization was just the beginning of the "loathesome alliance of church and state" (Jefferson). Before the modern western mind emerged, Christianity was in a very similar 'religion-state' condition as Islam has been in for centuries. Unfortunately, the religious right wishes to return us to that world.

The Church and the State under Emperors Constantine thru Justinian: 306-565:

by James Veverka on Fri Sep 07, 2007 at 08:07:45 AM EST

with your analysis of the offer by James Goswick on Jefferson. Any little hob-nob of Barton's is bound to be way off. However, I've read a lot of Jefferson and have always had the impression that he mentally left the door open to atheism. In his letter of 1787 to his nephew Peter Carr, he wrote, "Question with boldness even the existence of God; because IF (my emphasis) there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." Of course, being an ambitious political figure of his time, I'm sure Jefferson was well aware that if he openly entertained an atheistic view, his career would be done. Heck, he and Thomas Paine were called atheists despite their declarations of belief in a creator. By the way, I'd be interested in your source for the statement that Jefferson "believed firmly in a personal, benevolent, interventionist God". Jefferson love to debate and analyze based on  his belief in rationalist thinking. It would not surprise me if Jefferson lived today that he would be open and even subscribe to the arguments of those like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens. Your obvious pokes at Hitchens made me curious. What has Hitchens said that has you so "blue in the face" (a phrase that Mr. Clarkson used in a discussion with me in another forum)? I guess I'll have to read Hitchen's book on Jefferson to find out......

by LindaJoy on Sat Sep 08, 2007 at 10:55:25 AM EST

You wrote:

"I've read a lot of Jefferson and have always had the impression that he mentally left the door open to atheism."

Absolutely and that is why the Federalist fundies in 1800 accused him of being an atheist infidel. Embracing atheism was not done openly in nations with powerful religious forces. The resort of atheists was to embrace deism, which was acceptable. Even during the ratification process in the states there were fundies who were afraid deists (and Jews and Muslims and pagans!) could attain public office. The religious test ban clause of the 6th Article really bothered these folks.

For enlightened men in unenlightened societies, deism was the easy way. They could deny all the superstitious rubbish and intense emotional hangups that revelatory religions foster and still say, "I am not an atheist".

Jefferson read Voltaire (considered him virtuous, too) who may have inspired him to use similar political and social strategies. Many think Voltaire was an atheist in deist clothing. In France, it was a crime to be an atheist so claiming deism was a nifty way of being socially acceptable while still having the option to speak and write against the intolerant mindset of the literalist's revelatory religion.

Will Durant in his epic "The Story of Civilization", Volume 6 (The Reformation), page 216 says something that enlightened men of Jefferson and Voltaire's times clearly believed regarding  'revealed religions':

"A supreme and unchallengeable faith is a deadly enemy to the human mind."

by James Veverka on Sat Sep 08, 2007 at 12:56:45 PM EST

Excerpt from letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814

"If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that is pleasing to him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such thing exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in Protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in Catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D'Alembert, D'Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than love of God."

by James Veverka on Sat Sep 08, 2007 at 01:08:10 PM EST

and it is excellent! What a wealth of information. I can't imagine the time it took you to do such thorough research. I especially appreciate the early church history and the timeline of the destruction of the pagan cultures. My mother had the whole Will and Ariel Durant series of books on civilization. I remember her reading them. I think they were lost during a divorce. I would have loved to have that set, especially when you see what it would cost to replace it. Thanks for your supporting quotes from Jefferson! I will be visiting your site often!

by LindaJoy on Sun Sep 09, 2007 at 01:33:43 PM EST

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I joined this site today, having been linked here by Crooksandliars' Blog Roundup. I thought I'd put up something I put up previously on my Wordpress blog and also at the DailyKos. As will......
Xulon (331 comments)
History of attitudes towards poverty and the churches.
Jesus is said to have stated that "The Poor will always be with you" and some Christians have used that to refuse to try to help the poor, because "they will always be with......
ArchaeoBob (148 comments)
Alternate economy medical treatment
Dogemperor wrote several times about the alternate economy structure that dominionists have built.  Well, it's actually made the news.  Pretty good article, although it doesn't get into how bad people could be (have been)......
ArchaeoBob (90 comments)
Evidence violence is more common than believed
Think I've been making things up about experiencing Christian Terrorism or exaggerating, or that it was an isolated incident?  I suggest you read this article (linked below in body), which is about our great......
ArchaeoBob (214 comments)

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