Rewriting the conservative narrative

“While I agree that it’s fairly pointless, as a tactical matter, for dissidents to attack the talk radio giants, this comes, I think, out of a deep frustration that people with little more than slogans and attitude have bigfooted discussion among conservatives, and have helped turn the GOP and the movement into something that’s extremely hostile to change (as distinct from skepticism of it, as all real conservatives should be), and almost fanatically opposed to dissent from within. A fairly conservative friend of mine and I were talking the other day about something Glenn Beck had said, and my friend looked disgusted, saying, “I’m sick of being associated with conservatives.” The impulse to take on the Becks and the Limbaughs comes from a sense that these guys are hurting us bad, and preventing the kind of clear thinking that we need to get back in the political game. I’d love to know how Mark and the League propose for dissident conservatives to “engage” the base when the kind of people the base trusts and takes its cues from demonize dissidents as RINOs, closet liberals, squishes, wets, suck-ups, and so forth. I’m asking seriously. I don’t know how to go about this in the current climate.” ~ Rod Dreher

There’s no easy answer to this question, of course.  Dreher and other critics of Beckian talk-show conservatism are right: the talking heads do hurt the  cause.  Think of William F. Buckley back in the days leading up to the launch of National Review.  Imagine if he’d had to compete with Fox News for the heart and soul of conservatism.  It wouldn’t have been easy.  Indeed, on the field of battle, Buckley with his more reasoned and polite approach to political discussion (which isn’t to say he always threw soft punches, the man could be rather straightforward after all) may very well have lost to the populists now manning the airwaves in defense of “true conservatism.”  Buckley would be painted like every other East Coast Elite.

But I doubt very much that Buckley would have taken to that particular field.  He was too canny to become embroiled in a fight he couldn’t win, and too immersed in ideas to need to resort to those measures – at least until he was sure of victory.  What’s the point in taking on the Goliaths of the conservative movement anyways?  They have a higher bully pulpit, a wider audience, a louder megaphone.  And they’re okay fighting dirty, and dragging you down to whatever level they need to drag you in order to win.  Wait until they’re marginal players.  Wait until they’ve outworn their welcome.

Conservative dissidents these days have nowhere near enough patience.  Impulsively, they attack the easiest and biggest targets they can find: the talking heads.  As Dreher points out, the impulse for this fight is two-fold.  On the one hand it’s the impulse to remove Rush and co. from the conversation, because they’re “preventing the kind of clear thinking we need to get back in the political game.”  But much, much more importantly, I think, is the desire to simply not be associated with that particular brand of conservatism.  Guilt by association.  We’re not with them, we say.  And to prove it, here’s post after post on just why this is so, on why we hate Limbaugh even more than you do.

And it works.  Nobody who knows Conor or Rod would ever couple them with Limbaugh or Levin – right?  Only, it has unintended consequences.  Sure, you’ve blacklisted the pundits, but you’ve also been blacklisted, by a pretty significant portion of the conservative base.

Isn’t there a better way?

I think there is.  Let’s call it the Trojan Horse strategy.

1. Quit attacking the talking heads.

If you want to not associate with them, that’s fine.  Don’t.  Pretend they don’t even exist if you want.  It’s like dealing with hornets.  Don’t mess with them, they probably won’t mess with you.   This way you also don’t stir up the hornet’s nest: the base.

2. Try to understand why Rush and Levin resonate with the base.

Is it because people are angry, and the pundits tap into that anger?  Is listening to these guys a way to let off steam?  Try to get to the source of that anger and then find ways to speak to it that are smart and practical.  Limbaugh may be able to foment rage but he leaves the door wide open for others to come up with good ideas, because he doesn’t operate in that sphere at all.

3. Realize that no matter how you spin it, you’re not going to get a “new” base.

Some commenters around these parts seem to think that the only way to reinvigorate conservatism is to ditch the base, which makes just about no sense whatsoever.  Secular wisdom suggests that conservatism’s recent decline is all the fault of the “white-evangelical-Christians” or, in hip crowds, the WEC’s.  Could it be that it’s actually the failure of two wars, massive spending, and further disenfranchisement of wide swaths of America that is to blame?  What exactly about evangelical Christianity – other than the rhetoric of a handful of its leaders – caused the failures of the Bush administration?  Was it the part where Bush outlawed abortion, maybe?  Or the part where Bush signed DADT?  Maybe it was Cheney’s stance on gay marriage.

4. Speak in tongues, so to speak.

Now that we’ve side-stepped alienating the base, and decided instead to engage them, we need to learn to speak to people in their own language.  There is a natural tension between the individualistic impulses so often associated with conservatism and the more solidarity-driven Christian tradition.  Part of the way forward for conservatism is to nudge the base away from the bootstraps individualism and make them realize that part of the reason they’re conservatives in the first place is because of their religion.  Speak in Christian terms, but not in exclusively Christian terms.

5. Don’t be Bill Kristol.

Independents don’t require you to denounce the talking heads, however much many of them agree with the sentiment – they just want you to tell it to them like it is.  Don’t bullshit.  Come up with good ideas and be honest.  Independents will come around.  They’re often attracted to sensible governing ideas.  Be the party of sensible, limited government again.  This doesn’t go against the grain of any of the major tenets of conservatism – in fact, it’s the central principle of conservatism.  In other words, don’t be Bill Kristol.  Sure – he can avoid becoming a target of the base, but he’s an unprincipled hack in every other way.  Do the first part without succumbing to the second.

6.  Re-build the three-legged stool – don’t break it.

Along these lines, it’s good to remember what Mark has said about the three-legged stool of conservatism: social, fiscal, and defense conservatives have in the past united under one big tent.  That stool seems to be tottering.  I disagree with Mark’s conclusions though.  He wants to knock out a leg, I think a two-legged stool is hardly seaworthy.  In order to right the ship stool, conservatives can’t start knocking out legs.  They need to find ways to create a narrative or a vision that incorporates all three.  This is a project of unification, not further division.  However galling it may seem, to reunify the movement, the internal warfare has to take place on the field of ideas, not in the field of personality politics.  The populists out for their own gain will win at personality politics, because they won’t fight fair.  Outlast them.  Let your ideas and your project to unify eclipse their project to sew outrage.  Outrage has its limits.  If we can steer it in a new direction, it will taper out.

7.  Co-opt defense.

Mark said it well:

But even here, there is no way to implement these core principles without consciously abandoning one or the other element of the infamous three-legged stool.  While I think it completely plausible to de-emphasize tax cuts, any move to an emphasis on deficit hawkishness is meaningless without addressing the elephant in the room that is defense spending.  Addressing that element requires abandoning nationalism (aka “defense” conservatism) as a fundamental tenet of conservatism.

Young conservatives should heed the failures of big government in terms of defense spending and foreign policy ambition.  It’s time to start spinning defense as something best handled by limited government.  Resurrect realism, but give it some shiny new exterior.  This means you have to take both a solidly pro-defense stance and call for cuts in defense spending and overreach.  Make this about “them vs. us” if need be.  It’s time for Europe (them) to stand up so that America (us)  can go back to the business of defending itself.  Capture the narrative.

8.  Social and fiscal conservatism need to be reconciled.

Defense is a tricky one and might take a long time, but reconciling the libertarian fiscal and economic positions of conservatism with the social conservatism of  the modern movement will be just as tricky.  It’s time to start drawing distinctions between the “nanny” or “welfare” state and the need for safety nets.  Christian conservatism requires that we provide for each other.  Safety nets are a good way to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves, or who find themselves down and out.  They should be presented as Christian imperatives.  The possibility of fiscally sound safety-nets is very real.  It’s time to stop surrendering all welfare policy to big government liberals.  Perpetual welfare leads to social decay; temporary safety nets give people a second chance.  They also cost a great deal less.

~

(All of these reconciliations fall under what I’ve begun terming civilizational conservatism, which posits that the fundamental goal of conservative politics is to preserve our civilization against decay.  This requires a stable society above all else.  It requires a give and take – a civilizational tango.  With wildly disparate levels of prosperity this is all but impossible unless people at the lower rungs of society have a chance similar to those at the top.  Safety nets are part of this.  See also Grand New Party for some of the ideas Douthat and Salam have for middle-class Americans, a population that rests at the heart of civilizational conservatism.)

~

The point is that we need to weave together a strategy which co-opts various points along the conservative spectrum.  Co-opt the angry, largely Christian base.  Nudge them toward a more reasonable socio-political position.  Co-opt the language of defense.  Nudge the very meaning of pro-defense toward something far more limited in scope.  Reconcile fiscal and social conservatism.  Create a new vision for conservatism which places the individual within his community.  Show how limited government is the least likely sort of government to degrade our rights, our religion, our liberty.  Make limited government central to all three pillars – defense and social conservatism as well as fiscal.

– Ditch the libertine language of libertarianism but not the fundamental libertarian views on civil liberties.

– Ditch the big tax-and-spend policies of the Democrats, but not the fundamental desire to help the poor and the middle class.

– Ditch the pro-business stance of the GOP, but not its pro-market, pro-free-trade economic policies.

– Ditch the personality politics, but not the desire to change the conversation.

And so forth.

But more essential to this project than anything else is this:

The most effective advocate for change in the momentum of the conservative movement will make that change from within.  Rod and Conor and other dissidents who want change would do well to remember this.  If they continue to be pushed further and further outside the circle of movement conservatism, eventually they’ll have nothing left to offer except stones on shut windowpanes.  The door will be closed to them.  Sure, the movement has a tendency to excommunicate – it happens time and again.  Learn how to navigate this dilemma.  Outsmart the inquisition. Again, the only way to kick this habit will be to influence the movement from within.

And like Pope Benedict and the Anglicans, bring the dissidents back into the loving arms of the larger movement.

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39 thoughts on “Rewriting the conservative narrative

  1. Right now, it appears that we have two political “movements.” We’ll call one consefvatism, one liberalism. Everyone seems to agree that the former is a basket case, the latter is a shrewd coalition of people who get elected and get things done. So instead of dreaming up ways to make the one coalition work, why not just take a look and see how the shrewd people treat THEIR bombastic mouthpieces.

    Who are they? Maybe Michael Moore? The people at KOS and MoveOn.org and various other outlets? Bill Ayers? Van Jordan? Al Sharpton? International ANSWER?

    How did the Left treat these various folks? If political victory is what the Right has in mind, should it not simply do the same with the Limbaughs and Levins?

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  2. You might want to mix in giving anyone who isn’t Caucasian a reason to care. If conservatives cannot really grapple with white entitlement and racism as serious movement problems they just won’t come back into power.
    In all organizing, you appeal to self-interest. You have to make a specific case to any person of color that the social conservatives of the party will not exclude them.

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      • Also – I would say racism is on the decline. Much of the outrage you see now is not in fact racism, but rather a reaction to a lot of unknowns. Lots of fear. Racism is certainly deeply present, but it’s also the sort of thing that changes slowly – over generations.

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        • Giant lie.
          Over half of the conservative base are birthers aka racists.
          Larison is a member of the League of the South, and so is RS McCain.
          Minorities have very highly sensibilities to stealthy or subliminated racism– their lives ofter depended on it.
          Racism to minorities is exactly like being black– it only takes one drop.
          What good does lying to yourselves about the base’s racism do for you?

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          • Please continue with your anthropological explanations of how minorities work. It’s fascinating, really.

            Do they all have very high sensibilities? Is it a genetic adaptation or response to environmental stimuli?

            Do you know where some of these minorities may be so we can study them further?

            One drop = Black, does that mean the Racial Integrity Act is back? I thought we were trying not to use the one drop rule, oh kids today and your retro fads.

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      • I almost put in a pre-emptive sentence about this retort. You could also mention the high levels of African-American and Latino military enlistment.
        Sure, but you have to make the case specifically because recently politically right social conservatives have enabled and cheered on racism. Regardless, pro-business policies (specifically lowering taxes and eliminating services) disproportionately hurt people of color. Organizing is about self-interest and I don’t think the 8 point plan will convince anyone who isn’t white. The conservative movement seems decidedly uninterested in directly addressing racism and inequality, perhaps hoping that a truly free market will settle all that stuff out. Perhaps it will, but you will need Latino and African-American voters for votes before you can try these policies and the economic self-interest just isn’t there.

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        • This is still operating under the assumption that in fact more services, more money thrown at the problem, higher welfare etc. will be good for minorities. That may be intuitive, but it’s hardly grounded in unfalsifiable fact. Go see big government in action on the Navajo Reservation. All the services and welfare government can buy.

          No, throwing money at the problem is the easy answer that Democrats promise, but which is proven time and again to be only a temporary fix, or worse an extension of the underlying problems.

          I would agree that changing the tune on immigration would be a good move, though it’s likely to be very unpopular for some time to come.

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          • I’m trying to be sincere here. Reread what you just said and imagine saying this to an African-American. It doesn’t sell. Your response is too fluffy – it will be better after this little bit of pain? That will convince someone? This seems more like your self-interest than your audience’s self interest.
            I’m perfectly fine to let you try this, because I don’t share your policy goals. But this response is more interested in winning an intellectual sparring match than in moving people towards your goal. This is why conservatives keep getting beaten by Obama – they don’t get organizing.

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            • I wish this discussion was a front page post. I side with E.D. on the policy substance, but it is clear that Ian M. has a practical political point. Maybe the answer — when it comes down to it — is that minorities are not fiscal conservatives, and they do not identify at all with the libertarian component of the libertarian-conservative “fusion.”

              This argument has played out so many times, and it’s exasperating because it always results in a stalemate. Conservative reformer X says, minorities should be conservatives because of A and B social issues. Minority Spokesperson Y says, ok, maybe so, but fiscal policy C hurts my race/ethnic group, and also, conservatives are perceived as racist.

              Ian’s summary seems correct, although I recoil at the explicit tribalism of it. My only substantive contribution is to ask a question: I wonder if the recent perceived increase in racial antagonism on the part of conservatives is a result of frustration with the reality that Ian describes; i.e., have conservatives given up trying to appeal to minorities because it’s an impossible task given the issues of group identity and solidarity among minorities in the U.S.? The primary issues do not seem to be issues related to how conservative policy positions would affect an individual minority, and conservatives could never craft a policy that would actually lure whole minority groups away from the Democratic Party. So why bother? (ancillary question: is this a good situation for minorities to be in?)

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              • When I talk about recent racism, I specifically mean Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to capture socially conservative white Southern voters turned off from the Democratic Party by civil rights legislation. The Republican Party spent 40 years building up a majority by pitching to white racial fear. Now they are stuck with the results – an amazingly white demographic in an increasingly non-white nation. This would be an example of explicit tribalism that I recoil from. Expect two generations for any sort of rollback of opinions – longer depending on how New Orleans fares.
                Jay – my pragmatism comes from labor organizing. It’s easy to get like-minded people in a room agreeing someone is bad. It is hard to get them to spend their free time advocating for a political goal.

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          • I think this is about right, though, I think the conservatives of today got screwed by their predecessors who abetted government policies and cultural conventions that actively hurt minority communities.

            The Democrats have had decades of experience with crafting government solutions to address the inequalities created and Republicans can’t really find adequate solutions within their ideological framework and are loathe to adopt the Democrats’

            So what we have now is a sizeable chunk of minorities who are Harold Ford Jr. Democrats. Democrats who are socially conservative and fiscally liberal-ish. So while they can agree with R’s that gay marriage is icky, R’s aren’t going to back programs that help make college more affordable for their kids.

            Frankly, I don’t think it’s an arrangement that’s particularly good for anyone involved.

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      • E.D. Kain
        October 26th, 2009 at 1:25 pm

        Actually I think it’s important to realize that many people of color are social conservatives.

        Last I heard, that’d be ~2% of blacks, a minority of Asian-Americans, and a rapidly shrinking minority of Hispanics. True, it’s ‘many’, in the sense of millions(!) of people, but as a fraction of the population, it’s small and shrinking.

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        • You think 2% of black people are social conservatives? Did you miss the whole gay marriage battle in California? Do you know where many blacks stand on issues such as gay marriage? I’m not judging people in widely racial terms here, either. Blacks and hispanics are often very religious and have socially conservative views.

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  3. I imagine that an anti-neocon conservativism might get off the ground… but that would entail the social conservatives and the fiscal conservatives finding common ground.

    And the fiscal conservatives are most likely to have as a refrain something like “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” like they were the first people ever to stumble across that formulation. The fiscal conservatives will probably say something like “it’s our turn” because they (wrongly, as you point out) believe that the social conservatives are constantly catered to and the social conservatives will not likely see an upside to compromise because what they believe is Important (indeed, God has all sorts of rules and regulations involving their beliefs) while the fiscal conservatives only care about the things of this world.

    It’ll take a Reagan for these two groups to overcome their contempt for each other before they swallow their pride and agree that the democrats would be worse.

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  4. So here is my question as gay man who is a conservative: where does that fit into the whole scheme of things? Is being gay or supporting gays be treated with respect (which is considered being socailly liberal) unable to be reconciled to conservatism?

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    • The non-religious conservatives (fiscal conservatives, hawks, neocons, conservative libertarians) tend (TEND) to not give a crap about the whole homosexuality thing. It’s a lonely world, after all, and if two people can find each other… well, more power to them. Have some tax breaks.

      It’s the religious conservatives that are the problem, for the most part. Leviticus.

      Now, I hear you say, why can’t they just use those rules for themselves and be satisfied with the thoughts of you burning in hell for eternity? Why do they have to say that other folks need to live according to Levitical Law? And, like, they don’t even care about the other parts of Leviticus! They eat shrimp, they eat pork, they wear mixed fabrics, they have sex with the wife when she’s riding the cotton pony, but when Leviticus 20:13 comes up they shrug and say “hey, God said this and we need to follow what God says”? WHAT THE HELL!!!

      And to that I have to say that I don’t disagree with a thing you’ve said.

      But, for what it’s worth, there *ARE* pockets of conservativism out there that take the attitude that your business is your business and it ain’t none of theirs.

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      • Jim Henley (highclearing.com) once coined a beautiful saying:
        ‘they have people for that’. He meant that, in a political coalition, things are divied up between factions. For example, if you’re a conservative and oppose a policy of imperial expansion and continual war, tough luck – foreign policy was largely handed over to the neocons.

        Similarly, if you have a libertarian social attitude – well, the social conservatives will have far more say than the social libertarians (who got lower corporate taxes and regulations, and so should be satisfied).

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        • One would hope that theories other than those of the neocons will get a fair hearing in the future.

          I mean, sure. The neocons will point out that we didn’t have enough willpower and they didn’t get enough funding and management had too much wastefraudandabuse… but, surely, non-neocon theories will get more face time… right?

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    • This has been one of my most pressing issues, actually. And yes, I think it can be reconciled. I look to the British as a model, to some degree. I think especially the younger generation – even the younger evangelicals – will come around to being more supportive of gay rights, gay marriage, etc. It’s the momentum, and it needs to be the momentum. My strategy would be to offer trade-offs. To push the pro-life agenda while backing down on gay rights issues. In other words, make social conservatism more focused on life issues, and take the focus away from gay rights issues so that those issues will pass in favor of gay rights.

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      • If only the <pro-life agenda you’d like conservatives to push as an alternative wedge issue to gay rights didn’t involve telling more than half the population what they should do with their lives.

        How about a pro-life agenda about things like, well, not dropping bombs on kids in foreign lands? Pro-life stuff like that?

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    • Dennis that makes you a rare bird. As someone who is catholic and conservative let me say this. first I don’t think of being gay as a conservative issue I don’t see what someone’s sexual orientation has to do with limited government and fiscal responsibility. I consider it to be more of a religious one. I believe everyone deserves to be treated with respect. As a catholic I believe everyone was created in the image and likeness of God. I received ten years of Catholic education, two with the sisters, eight with the Jesuits. I part with the church on two things: Their treatment of women with respect to canon law and their role within the church, and the theological view that homosexuality is a sin. I cannot reconcile these teachings with what I perceive to be Christ’s teachings on love and acceptance. If part of your question involves the issue of gay marriage and i’m assuming it does then here is where I must stand with the church that marriage is between a man and a woman. There was a recent thread on Althouse a while ago concerning Aldous Huxley’s last words:”Let us be kinder to one another”. Pretty simple advice no matter where one stands on the political spectrum.

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      • Richard, how is marriage not a First Amendment issue?

        I mean, I am 100% down with the Pope saying “marriage is between a man and a woman” and Catholic Churches everywhere denying Marriage (real marriage, anyway) to gay people. That’s what the Pope is for, after all.

        But why can’t the Unitarians and their Ministers offer gay marriage ceremonies to any two folks who show up?

        How is marriage *NOT* a First Amendment issue?

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  5. Until conservatives turn their backs on the ‘strongman’ conservatism of Cheney and Bush, push for rule of law, and embrace investigations and trials of the Constitutional violatons of the Bush/Cheney years, many of us will never touch Conservatism. Conservatism has been deeply tainted by the lawless and tyranny-loving Cheneyites. Many conservatives have been corrupted into embracing and now defending policies that are typical of a tyrannical strongman rather than a free republic. What American in their right mind would ally with such people?

    You do not face a task of rebuilding your movement. Rather, you face a cleansing of Augean proportions, one which few of you seem willing to acknowledge.

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  6. As I’ve said before- good luck with this. Not only as a former Republican, but as someone who believes in the value of a competitive two party system, I really do hope dissidents make some inroads. But, as alluded to above, I think you’re going to need some sort of transformational leader to do it. You need someone as big, if not bigger than, the nutbars on Fox and talk radio, which means someone who already has some sort of following that will provide a base. I don’t see that person out there, just as much as I don’t see the current base being willing to listen to anyone here or Rod or Conor or Frum.

    Also, with respect to people of color… the last Republican that seemed to have any traction in those communities was Jack Kemp. I think you’ll be hard pressed to find someone of his stature in what is largely a rump party based in Dixie. While I do believe that racism is on the decline in the US overall, my years spent in Atlanta made me realize just how much racism remains.

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    • Interesting Jack Kemp moment, I was in the House gallery 2 days before his funeral when the House passed H. Res. 401 and the bipartisan/multi-racial honoring of him seemed impressively sincere.

      Democrats and Republicans alike spoke of his outreach/work for the poor and minority communities.

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  7. And like Pope Benedict and the Anglicans, bring the dissidents back into the loving arms of the larger movement.
    Surely even E.D. is not this clueless.
    The Bad Shepherd just stole all the Anglicans that were anti-OPENLY-gay clergy or anti-female clergy.
    The pure distillate of cynicism and heartless soulless pragmatism.
    So Long and thanks for all the priests.
    Which is not to say you shouldn’t do something similar if you can pull it off.
    lawls.

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