Progressive Revival

Progressive Revival

Evangelicals and Abortion

There’s been a lot of talk in the chattering classes lately about the political impact of the two major political parties’ exact positioning on abortion policy among Catholic voters.  Michael Sean Winters argues in the New Republic, for example, that Kathleen Sebelius’ stormy relationship with her bishop on abortion issues makes her a less likely veep asset for Obama among Catholics than co-religionist Tim Kaine (I’ve published a contrarian take on Winters’ article at The Democratic Strategist).


But what about conservative evangelical Protestants? In June, conservative blogger Ross Douthat offered this startling assessment of Barack Obama’s potential to cut deeply into this deeply Republican constituency:

“If he [Obama] moved to the center on abortion, a knowledgeable religion journalist remarked to me last week, he could win half of evangelicals under 40.”

Douthat’s remark pointed to one of the most well-established but under-discussed religio-political facts of life in America: white evangelical Protestants (particularly younger ones) are consistently, and by sizable margins, more likely to favor abortion restrictions than Catholics.


There are variable measurements of this phenomenon, but no real doubt about the basics.  A September 2007 Pew survey showed white evangelical Protestants agreeing that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases by a 65-31 magin; Catholics favored keeping abortion legal in all or most cases by a 51-44 margin (with no appreciable difference between Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics).  On a related issue that helps measure the intensity of anti-abortion views, the same poll showed white evangelicals opposing embryonic stem cell research by 57-31, while white non-Hispanic Catholics favored it by 59-32. 

Moreover, the evangelical-Catholic gap on abortion looks likely to increase in the future. An April 2004 Pew survey providing generational breakdowns showed that white evangelicals under 35 favored abortion restrictions by more than a two-to-one margin (71% among those under 25), while those over 65 actually (if narrowly) opposed more restrictions.  The generational trend lines among white Catholics moved in exactly the opposite direction.   


The political implications of this split depend, of course, on why as much as whether a given religious category of voters opposes abortion.  And therein lies a great mystery. 

Catholic anti-abortion views, after all, are undergirded by a long series of increasingly emphatic papal encyclicals; a natural law and bioethics tradition stretching back all the way to Aristotle; an overall theological position making church teachings on matters of faith and morals binding on believers; a relatively low level of tolerance for individual dissent; and a teaching and disciplinary system that can be (and in some parts of the country, is being) deployed to influence the views and behavior–personal and political–of the laity.


Not one of these is a significant factor for Sola Scriptura Protestants. And unlike other moral issues ranging from gay and lesbian rights to divorce to adultery, the belief in scriptural inerrancy common among evangelicals doesn’t really explain the vast gap between evangelicals and their mainline brethren on abortion. I’ve yet to read or hear a purely scriptural justification for banning abortions that doesn’t ultimately come down to circular reasoning based on the condemnations of homicide from the Decalogue onward. 

Evangelical hard-line views on abortion are not a matter of an unbroken tradition. In 1971, before Roe v. Wade, when nearly all states maintained abortion bans, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for abortion laws that would recognize exceptions not only in cases of rape and incest, but where the “emotional, mental and physical health of the mother” might be endangered.  Needless to say, that would be considered a radically liberal position among evangelicals today. 


So whence cometh today’s white evangelical anti-abortion ferver? One theory is that these folk are radically alienated from contemporary American culture, and view legalized abortion (along with premarital sex, open gay/lesbian lifestyles, and TV/Hollywood “trash culture”) as a symbol of a depraved society. This is undoubtedly the view of some well-known evangelical leaders like James Dobson, who often indulges himself in Nazi analogies for the “Holocaust” of abortion.  But objective measurements of evangelical cultural alienation are generally ambivalent, and they are famously enthusiastic about adopting contemporary culture in their own liturgical and missionary practices. 


Another theory, for which I can offer little other than plausible conjecture, is that the “framing” of the abortion issue–particular its treament as fundamentally a matter of the reproductive rights of women, or of personal privacy–that underlies the pro-choice argument is simply uncompelling to many white evangelicals. Aside from the strongly anti-feminist bias of much of contemporary evangelical teaching, American evangelicals have become strongly averse to the libertarian traditions of church-state separation and protection of individual conscience that once was a central feature of their own belief system. And perhaps an inability to even hear the pro-choice case has reinforced the impact of such secular phenomena as widely available sonogram images of fetal development.   


The bottom line is that I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone knows, if Barack Obama or any other pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-feminist politician or party can make significant inroads into the white evangelical vote by minor tweaks in abortion policies or how they are presented.  Evangelicals, of course, care about other issues like the war in Iraq, the economy, the environment, and corruption in Washington, that could incline them towards a vote for a Democratic presidential or congresstional candidate.  And that’s why (along with chronic disappointment with GOP promises to “deliver” on cultural issues like abortion) so many evangelical leaders like Rick Warren are expressing an openness to two-party competition. 


But the assertion of Douthat’s “religion journalist” friend that “moving to the center” on abortion would open the floodgates of white evangelical votes for Obama strikes me as no more than a pious guess.  I hope others here at Progressive Revival, or among its readers, can cast more light on this subject.   



Comments read comments(49)
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posted August 1, 2008 at 4:55 pm

As an evangelical, I’m troubled by the tone of Kilgore’s post. It sounds like he’s analyzing some newly-discovered tribe in the Amazon. But I’ll try to respond in a spirit of goodwill anyway…
Young evangelicals (my three kids, for example) probably are even more anti-abortion than their parents. They know they’ve been lied to by secular society about sex, war, consumerism, the meaning of life. They see the mainline church as having sold out to the sexual-industrial complex, just as they recognize that the fundamentalist church has sold out to the military-industrial complex. They really believe what they were taught in Sunday School: that the Ten Commandments mean what they say. They say to their society: “What part of Thou Shalt Not Kill don’t you understand?”
My kids are leaning toward Obama, although they are deeply, deeply troubled by his pro-choice policies. But overall, they suspect he may be more pro-life than McCain (when you factor in war, environment, capital punishment and other life issues). If Obama were to select a pro-lifer as his running mate, they would feel far more comfortable with the ticket.
I, as a lifelong Democrat, am almost totally disillusioned with the party because of its pro-choice stand (and, here in my home state of Oregon, because of its support for doctor-assisted suicide and gay marriage). I’m reluctant to vote Democratic again until my party makes some effort to welcome people like me. I refuse to vote Republican, because the GOP is in the pocket of big business and warmongers.
As someone has said, the Democrats are the Party of Lust and the Republicans are the Party of Greed. That doesn’t give Christians much of a choice.

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posted August 1, 2008 at 5:02 pm

This Catholic can’t in good conscience automatically turn away from the Democratic Party, which on the whole is pro-choice, and turn to the Republicans who at least publicly claim to be anti abortion when their party seems determined to undermine any and all pro-life issues once a child is born.

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posted August 1, 2008 at 5:07 pm

Perhaps it hinges on whether you believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth as practiced by the Republican Party -OR- as the Democrats are trying to do which is allow abortion to remain a choice, but work to help pro-life issues for those who are already born and those who choose to give birth.

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ed kilgore

posted August 1, 2008 at 5:44 pm

Sorry you feel that I’m looking at evangelicals like an newly-discovered tribe. You may be right, but you may be surprised to know that I feel that way because I was raised as a Southern Baptist, and in some respects, don’t recognize or understand my “old tribe.”
This is most obvious on the subject of church-state issues. I was raised to believe that what made a Baptist a Baptist (as opposed to, say, a Methodist) was, aside from views about the necessity of believer’s baptism by full immersion, a radical devotion to absolute separation of church and state, reflecting a tradition that went back to Roger Williams. In my own Sunday School and church-camp training the Baptist stance on that subject was pretty much indistinguishable from that of the ACLU. And this, as you probably know, was a big issue for Baptists and Protestants generally when John F. Kennedy ran for president–would he keep his faith totally separate from his presidency?
Baptist opinion couldn’t be much different now. And aside from that, the whole “tone” of my post reflected an out-front confusion about the roots of evangelical conviction on abortion, which wasn’t, as I noted, a “distinguishing” issue for evangelicals until very recently.
So instead of noting that I don’t “get it,” Bill–which I freely admit–please explain to me what I’m missing. It’s not that I have no comprehension of the evangelical point of view: I just have trouble understanding why that point of view dictates anti-abortion views as defining and mandatory for believers.
Thanks for the comment, and please stay engaged.

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posted August 1, 2008 at 7:30 pm

As Pro-life I am suppoting and voting for the only pro-life cannidate: Chuck Baldwin.
If you are pro-life you only have one choice: Chuck Baldwin in 2008

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posted August 4, 2008 at 11:44 am

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Ed. Cheers.

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posted August 7, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Ed, it’s because you’re comparing all apples to a single particular type of orange. If you compared Catholics in general to Protestants in general, you’d probably find a fairly close correspondence – or if you compared conservative Catholic abortion views to conservative evangelical views.
But it’s not surprising that when you line up all Catholics vs. a subset of “conservative evangelical Protestants” as you put it, there are differences. It would be surprising if there were not. And of course you could obtain a similar result by comparing conservative Catholics to all Protestants, not just churchgoing evangelicals.
Self-selection comes into play here as well – as some pro-life Catholics become pro-abortion, they usually still remain Catholic at least in name. But as some pro-life evangelicals become pro-abort, they will more often join a non-evangelical pro-abort congregation or denomination and thus stop being counted as evangelicals.

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posted August 7, 2008 at 4:29 pm

Ed, I would like to know what evidence you can produce that shows Southern Baptists no longer believe in strict separation of church and state. I regularly attend a Southern Baptis church and have relatives and friends who are Southern Baptist, I have never heard one sermon or seen a single tract or heard any discussion that would indicate your statement (if I’m interpreting your argument correctly) is true.
A couple of comments were made by others that Republicans don’t care about those who are already born. Just because we believe in different ways of achieving quality of life than Democrats doesn’t mean we don’t care about the born. Where is the evidence?

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posted August 7, 2008 at 4:41 pm

Ed, I think perhaps you’re just trying too hard. As for church-state separations, I don’t know that the traditional Baptist stance is any different than it always has been. I am a member of a traditionally Baptist church, and I think a poll of our congregation would show a more libertarian sense than what you’re describing. We’re in Texas, so perhaps that’s a distinguishing factor.
As to abortion: I don’t know what you’re referring to when you accuse us of “circular reasoning”. I am the canonical individual you’re writing about (28 years old, white, native Texan, evangelical Christian raised in a Baptist church environment), but it doesn’t seem circular to me at all. I don’t think anyone would disagree that it’s consistent with the Bible to call homicide wrong, and there are a number of passages used to justify the idea that personhood is initiated at conception (the most prominent of which is in Job, saying “You knew me when I was in my mother’s womb”). Once you’ve established that personhood begins at conception, it’s a slam-dunk to be opposed to abortion in all but the most extreme (and life-threatening) cases. The establishment of personhood is central to all this, and Sola Scriptura evangelicals find that scripture generally supports the idea that conception confers personhood. A further explanation for the fervor might include:

that the number of abortions has skyrocketed in the previous decades
evangelicals teaching their children, who are multiplying faster than the population as a whole

As to the 1971 resolution you mentioned: are you sure you aren’t confusing the SBC with the GBCT? My church has been a member of SBC since before 1971, and I’m sure they would have left it had such a resolution actually passed.

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posted August 7, 2008 at 5:28 pm

Someone is a bit confused. There’s nothing circular about saying the Bible forbids A because the Bible forbids A.

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Francis Beckwith

posted August 7, 2008 at 9:03 pm

“I’ve yet to read or hear a purely scriptural justification for banning abortions that doesn’t ultimately come down to circular reasoning based on the condemnations of homicide from the Decalogue onward.”
Then you’ve not read my article, “A Critical Appraisal of the Theological Arguments for Abortion Rights.” Bibliotheca Sacra 148 (July-September 1991): 337-355.
You can access it on here:

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Richard L.A. Schaefer

posted August 8, 2008 at 3:00 am

Another factor is that so many Catholic academics are like typical U.S. academics: pro-abortion Democrats. Evangelical academics are not.

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Clare Krishan

posted August 8, 2008 at 10:05 pm

How about evangelicals pro-liberty/anti-tyranny political angle rooted in the Founding Fathers defense of democracy via promotion of “inate” human rights?
Reaganites decried the Century of Death long before National Geographic charted it in a recent issue (as I alluded to in my comment under BeliefNet’s CrunchyCon thread on the news of the passing of the Russian emigre Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
alexander-solzhenitsyn-witness.html#more )
Evangelical Federalists probably do a better job of understanding and promoting the social justice teaching of the Catholic Church called Subsidiarity than those faithful to the See of Peter, even if they may not be able to articulate the thology behind that position, the political philosophy is a reality for them on which they have formed their conscience and conform their will to defend. Too many Roman Catholics have been infantilized by a pastoral-care mindset of N.a.n.n.y.S.t.a.t.e.K.n.o.w.s.B.e.s.t (see “Why I am a Catholic Democrat” at / Joomla / index.php? option=com_content&task=view&id=280&Itemid=48 ) that has permitted a heinous and traumatic assault on the wombs of the poorest minority women (foetimatricide-by-baby-daddy is the leading cause of death for pregnant African American women 35) that is not worthy of the epithet in scare quotes, perhaps ethnic-gender-cleansing is too insensitive a term to apply to the self-loathing endemic among women in America in the third millenium, but how else do you describe such widespread surrender to oppressive forces? Janet Smith has an interesting take on how mood-altering drugs may play a role in the poor choices our young women are making (and no, you’ll be surprised to learn its not the recreational drug of choice being consumed by the teens at your local neighborhood rave):
www .youtube .com / watch? v = Bevk4s1I0XM
or Google “contraception” and “libido” for the negative correlation…

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Wm. Robert Johnston

posted August 9, 2008 at 10:04 pm

I don’t get the impression from this piece that Kilgore understands either evangelicals in general or Baptists in particular. The SBC resolution cited (which is indeed an SBC resolution) was passed when more liberal views prevailed among SBC leaders. In contrast, from 1976 to the present the SBC has passed over 20 resolutions variously affirming the pro-life position. “Evangelicals” even today can’t be characterized by a single position precisely because of doctrinal autonomy. Despite this doctrinal autonomy, evangelicals nonetheless tend to affirm a pro-life position because it is the logical conclusion from a straightforward reading of the Bible (e.g. as shown by FJB).
Evangelicals tend to oppose abortion because scripture teaches the sanctity of innocent human life, that “humanness” is not merely bestowed when we can see the baby, and that it is sin to murder for the sake of avoiding the consequences of sexual sin. Like Ben notes, they tend to find that scripture affirms personhood begins at conception. Whether Kilgore accepts these scriptural conclusions does not diminish the fact that they are scripture-based. The suggestion that the evangelical pro-life position is merely a reaction to contemporary culture or libertarian traditions demonstrates no effort to understand the position.
I would emphasize that the pro-life position is characteristic of evangelicals of all races, not merely whites. The Pew poll cited by Kilgore does not provide data on non-white evangelicals, who also tend to be pro-life. The poll question on abortion was very vague, as demonstrated by the very different result for Black protestant views on abortion in a Pew poll 2 years ago ( In any case, the current practice of legal abortion in all cases is supported by only 8-21% of religious-affiliated respondents, and only 17% of all respondents.
Most evangelicals are not single-issue voters. Evangelicals who vote Republican or Democrat usually do so based on an array of issues, so tweaking abortion policies is unlikely to make much difference.

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Joe S.

posted August 12, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Why are evangelical Protestants more strongly opposed to abortion than Catholics?
A no-brainer, IMO. Patriarchy.
I think that there are two reasons why people are opposed to abortion. Many consider it tantamount to murder. This is the RC position, and the ostensible position of evangelical Protestants.
However, many consider abortion as an unnatural interference with a social structure laid down by God. Womens’ sexuality is a wrongness (except perhaps in marriage) and pregnancy is God’s natural punishment for this sin. (Note that Protestant anti-abortion people tend to be anti-contraception, while there is a big split on this among Catholics, despite clear Church teaching.) This reasoning cannot speak its name, but note the correlations. What does abortion-as-murder have to do with homosexuality or contraception? How can an anti-abortionist condone our death penalty system?

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Sara Robinson

posted August 12, 2008 at 4:37 pm

FYI, the Catholics came rather late to the anti-choice party. Up until the late 1800s, the church’s official position was that the fetus was ensouled at quickening, usually late in the fourth month of pregnancy. Whatever happened before that was between a woman and her midwife.
That policy served the church well for a long, long time. It kept church ad state noses out of women’s business during the early months, when miscarriages are common. It recognized that some women need to do what they need to do, and the compassionate response is to look the other way. It also recognized the fact that midwives have known how to induce abortion for millennia; and in most traditional cultures, women attempted this fairly routinely.
My friends who are Catholic historians say that the changes came in the 1860s and 1870s, as industrialization began to undermine church authority. There was a run of popes who responded to this by tightening the Church’s grip on all kinds of previously uncontroversial behavior. The turnabout on abortion was part of this. So was the restriction on modern forms of contraception, which were also starting to appear in that same time frame. All were seen as modernist evils that threatened not only the traditional family hierarchies; but the male-dominated church hierarchies as well.
And Joe S. is right that, for fundamentalists anyway, control of women — including their fertility — is a core issue. (This is true of all fundamentalisms, not just the Christian varieties.) It’s also notable that fundamentalism only appears in cultures where the role of women is expanding (usually due to industrialization or education), and men are threatened by what they perceive as a loss of control over their homes. It’s not inaccurate to call fundamentalism a modern-era male backlash movement.

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posted September 29, 2008 at 10:35 am

It doesn’t sound like any of you understand evangelicals at all. Perhaps this Sunday you should visit one of their churches and get to know some of them personally before spouting off like you know anything about them at all.
I was raised evangelical protestant, and my dad is still an elder at an Assembly of God church, where I am actively involved. And, at 36 years old, I fall within the demographic that you claim would be swayed to vote for Obama, should he “move to the center” on abortion.
First of all let me say that my contemporaries and I would rather cut off our right arms then ever vote for Obama, regardless of how much he flip flops to try and win my vote. Abortion isn’t the only reason we would never vote for him. In addition to being pro-murder, he is a pinko anti-American socialist, and a liar, too. And anybody who would take a stand AGAINST a newborn baby who just had its brains sucked out through a hole drilled in its head being held until it dies, is akin to Hitler, in my eyes! That very telling voting history, and his very vocal opposition to the partial birth abortion survivor policy in Chicago, would belie any “moving to the center”, in my opinion.
Come on – we young evangelicals may have a simple faith, but we’re not stupid.
Speaking of which, never in my entire life have I ever been taught that my sexuality was wrong, nor that a pregnancy was “God’s punishment” for sin. God’s punishment for sin is eternal separation from Him, i.e. an eternity in Hell – not pregnancy.
And yes I keep my sexuality within the bounds of my marriage, but it is the most wonderful, beautiful experience of my lifetime, in contrast to my rebellious teen years of meaningless promiscuity. No boyfriend was ever able to meet my every physical and emotional need like my husband has been able to, for the past 17 years! How dare you come off so blase’ about marriage – the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me and all my friends – like it’s some kind of yoke of bondage.
Furthermore, I am barren. We have never been able to have any children in 17 years. Due to this fact, abortion is an enormous slap in the face to women like me, who would give their right arm for a child.

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posted December 11, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Why do these “Evangelicals” (who, by the way have hijacked
the Christian ‘Faith’ in America from those who most would
call ‘the TRUE Followers of Christ’ — making it into a “religion”
of both ‘worshipping-mammon and legislating-morality’) seem
to arrogantly think that God is so ready and willing to “punish
America for all the aborted babies” — and YET also somehow
manage to believe that God is (perfectly accepting of) and
NOT at all willing to “punish America for any of the …?
1) American Indians murdered for their land;
2) People (of all “races”) held in slavery (chattel,
indentured-servitude, debt, wage, etc.) in the nation;
3) Abused and exploited vulnerable people
(children, women, elderly, sickly, poor, etc.)
3) Rape and destruction of the ecology
(not to mention corporate-welfare
at the expense of the most needy);
4) Miscarriages of justice in the courts;
5) etc. and so on.” ?!?!?!?!
Why do they honestly (and arrogantly — not to
mention ‘unscripturally’) think that God is ONLY
concerned with the things that “bother them”?!?!?!
In my opinion — those aborted fetuses will have a long line
GROUPS IN AMERICA) to stand behind — before they get
their chance to present their “demands to God for justice”.
Also — why does it seem that the very same people who are
against gender right’s, reproductive rights; sexual rights;
work wage rights, education rights; social rights; equality
rights; etc. — often seem to have ‘no problem’ at all with
the many other SAD FACTS ABOUT AMERICA (such as
the past slavery/segregation-system; the destruction of
98% of the indigenous-people of the land; etc. and so on.)
Seriously … talk about cherry-picking of ‘abominations’!
They are simply Unbelieveable !!!!

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Benjamin David Steele

posted June 29, 2015 at 8:13 am

There is a lot of confusion around these issues. I know that the younger generation in general simultaneously holds two beliefs that don’t fit into the old culture war frame. They want more careful restrictions of abortion, but the reason they want that is because they also want abortions to be legal. They aren’t for abortion bans. The younger generation has a more morally nuanced and less politically polarized view of the issue.

Maybe they are better informed and know about the data that shows that abortion bans have the side effect of on average increasing abortions, just made illegal and more dangerous. Banning certain drugs didn’t decrease their use, but increased it instead. The same thing happened with alcohol during Prohibition.

Research has found the best way to prevent abortions is by preventing unwanted pregnancies. And research has found the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancies is by offering full sex education, birth control, family planning clinics, women’s healthcare, etc. The reason that the abortion rate doesn’t go up when abortions are legalized is that this tends to go along with these other liberal policies that decrease unwanted pregnancies and the so lessen the number of those seeking abortions.

This type of thinking confuses the older generations, but makes perfect sense to the younger generations. Millennials are going for the both/and option. They support both pro-choice and pro-life.

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posted 2:44:04pm Jan. 19, 2011 | read full post »

The Spiritual Messages of Chanukah and Christmas -- and Their Downsides
Christmas and Chanukah share a spiritual message: that it is possible to bring light and hope in a world of darkness, oppression and despair. But whereas Christmas focuses on the birth of a single individual whose life and mission was itself ...

posted 12:59:53pm Dec. 02, 2010 | read full post »

Obama (and Biden) Have No Clue About What's Bothering Their Political Base
Shortly before the California Democratic primary in 2008, the San Fransisco Chronicle invited me to write a short article explaining why I, chair of the interfaithNetwork of Spiritual Progressives, was supporting Barack Obama. Like ...

posted 1:44:11pm Sep. 30, 2010 | read full post »


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