Everything But the Knickers: The Enduring Significance of Francis Schaeffer

In a news cycle driven by the latest quotes from Rick Perry, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney, you would not expect to see Francis Schaeffer popping up on the daily ticker. The American expatriate, wearer-of-knickers, connoisseur of Swiss cosmopolitanism, and, above all, philosophically minded Calvinist public intellectual once made national headlines, to be sure. But suddenly he has returned, posthumously torturing the public square with supposed plans of a Christian political takeover, a master-strategy foiled in his day yet rising again in the phoenix of Michelle Bachmann’s presidential campaign.

Bad history and considerable ink-spilling aside, all this prompts a question: did Schaeffer ever really leave? A controversy recently erupted in the Twittersphere over this very matter. Alan Jacobs, one of evangelicalism’s most astute scholars, wrote in response to the aforementioned claims of Schaeffer-inspired dominionism, that he could not recall hearing the L’Abri founder’s name mentioned in 25 years of teaching in Christian academic institutions. Once one acknowledged that Schaeffer inspired evangelicals to engage ideas and appreciate art, Jacobs suggested that one had to concede that the man was no longer necessary.

Surely, Jacobs was right to suggest (implicitly) that the idea that Schaeffer’s work even now rouses hordes of evangelicals to attempt political takeover is ridiculous. But was Schaeffer’s influence really as circumscribed as suggested?

The Man and His Work

First things first: Schaeffer is unparalleled in evangelical history. There is no one who prefigures him and no one who now perfectly emulates him. Born in 1912, Schaeffer was raised in a Protestant home and came to faith in 1930. He studied and moved in fundamentalist circles in the 1930s and 40s and was influenced early on by famed controversialist Carl McIntire. Schaeffer moved to Europe in 1948 to conduct missionary work among children. Warming quickly to the physical beauty and intellectual spirit of Switzerland, Schaeffer and his wife, Edith, established L’Abri, a shelter-turned-community-turned-waystation, in 1955.

Through a variety of unusual encounters with spiritual pilgrims, Schaeffer soon earned a reputation as an evangelical guru, one to whom skeptics or struggling Christians could go for all-night conversation that led in many cases to personal transformation. The salon-like discussions were often taped and subsequently distributed throughout the world by Schaeffer devotees as a cycle developed: more guests distributing more tapes led to more guests. Schaeffer became something of an evangelical celebrity, with stories circulating throughout evangelicalism of visits from the son of President Gerald Ford, the children of Billy Graham, and counter-cultural mystic Timothy Leary.

In the mid-50s, Schaeffer began venturing back across the pond to lecture in the United States at schools like Harvard, MIT, Wheaton, Calvin, and many more, electrifying his audiences even as he provoked them. His talks ranged over Western philosophy and theology and held his audiences spellbound. The apologist knew how not to over-conclude, to leave his hearers on the edge of a rhetorical precipice. According to Baylor historian Barry Hankins, in a 1968 Wheaton College address, Schaeffer ended on a dime:

There is death in the city; there’s death in the city; there’s death in the city.

He then sat down. Those who believe in the cultivation of searing oratory will find ample means of growth in the Schaefferian corpus.

Hankins suggests that the two major tenets of Schaeffer’s speaking (and his broader program) were these: (1) Christianity is logically non-contradictory and (2) a system in which one can live consistently. Perhaps we could add a third: the living God reached out to a suffering world to offer it hope and salvation. Amid generous and wide-ranging engagement with major intellectual and cultural voices, Schaeffer propounded these themes in texts like He Is There and Is Not Silent, The God Who Is There, and Escape from Reason. His apologetic approach was presuppositional, but Schaeffer did not believe that this view abnegated understanding of and even affection for the non-Christian world. He practiced a rough-and-ready brand of cultural engagement but famously said that a Christian studies the world “with tears.” For Schaeffer, the intellectual life of the public Christian had intrinsic value even as it was, of necessity, missiological. One studied to understand, then set out to engage and persuade.

Schaeffer in Contemporary Evangelical Life

We cannot fully reconstruct the sweeping events, the great struggles and victories, of the evangelical icon in this piece. Such has been attempted, with a good deal of success, by two recent biographies, the first by British writer Colin Duriez entitled Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Crossway, 2008), the second by Hankins entitled Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Eerdmans, 2009). These books—one popular, the other academic (but each valuable for either audience)—suggest by way of mere existence that Francis Schaeffer is an important figure for the contemporary evangelical movement. The same goes for prior works by authors including Lane Dennis, Scott Burson and Jerry Walls, and Christopher Catherwood. In 2008, Christianity Today published a cover story on L’Abri, noting by way of title that it was “Not Your Father’s L’Abri.” Whatever one of thinks of him—whether savant or kook—Schaeffer’s name is still on our lips.

Schaeffer’s legacy lives on in institutional form at Covenant Theological Seminary, which houses the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. Headed by academic Jerram Barrs, a disciple of the apologist, the institute offers an annual lectureship, colloquia, and a fellows program that has drawn some of the brightest evangelical minds. Led by Bruce Little, the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary recently acquired the Schaeffer papers and held a major conference in Schaeffer’s honor. The World Journalism Institute, affiliated with prominent evangelical writer Marvin Olasky, has a Francis Schaeffer Chair of Apologetics.

Prominent evangelical leaders and theologians who count (or counted) themselves deeply influenced by Schaeffer include William Brown, president of Cedarville University; David Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; William Edgar of Westminster Theological Seminary; James Sire of the University of Missouri; Harold O. J. Brown, late of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Lane Dennis of Crossway Books; Os Guinness; Udo Middleman; Barrs; Douglas Wilson; and Nancy Pearcey. Schaeffer’s books—and books about Schaeffer—are assigned reading at a wide range of evangelical schools, including TEDS (I read Hankins’s text in a doctoral seminar), The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (several of Schaeffer’s works were assigned in my systematic theology classes taught by Al Mohler), Covenant Theological Seminary, Biola University, Southeastern Seminary, and many others. L’Abri shelters operate in 11 locations around the world and have grown in the last several decades, even if the movement seems in places to have distanced itself from Schaeffer (there is little about him on the L’Abri website, a quixotic reality).

Though he has won his eternal reward, Schaeffer’s ideas continue to animate Christians adhering to the conservative tradition, whether his defense of inerrancy, his care for the unborn, his love for art, film, and literature, or his belief in “true truth.” His 27 books continue to find an international audience. The “worldview thinking” that Schaeffer and other figures such as Carl F. H. Henry championed and popularized has essentially won the day as the dominant intellectual approach of evangelicalism, whether in the basement of the home-school consortium or the cavernous halls of the top-tier Christian university. Popular speakers and apologists like Chuck Colson, Josh McDowell, James Dobson, and Ravi Zacharias all promote this theocentric integration of intellectual and spiritual concerns, even if none of them has followed true Schaefferian suit and adopted knickers or a walking stick.

Schaeffer’s effect on evangelicalism, whether academic or popular, extends widely enough that it is difficult in the final analysis to quantify his influence. The number of pastors, scholars, missionaries, and other leaders affected by Francis Schaeffer number in the thousands, to be sure. Many of them frequent this site; some of them owe their love for theology and cultural engagement to Schaeffer, and others may credit their very salvation to him.


Was Schaeffer necessary? Is he relevant beyond a basic apprehension of the importance of ideas and art? Does his legacy endure and spread in our day? The answer to all three of these questions seems to be a decisive yes. Schaeffer was not a perfect man to his wife or family. He was not and did not present himself as an academic scholar, so one can find holes or mischaracterizations in his work. H did not seem to have a strong doctrine of the local church. He is not appreciated or even known by all evangelicals. Despite his flaws and the passage of time, however, we can conclude that Francis Schaeffer was a brilliant apologist who helped midcentury evangelicals by pioneering worldview thinking, cultural engagement, and robustly theological outreach to intellectuals, artists, and others whom Christians struggled to evangelize. He is worth studying, reading, and appreciating.

D. A. Carson has engaged the life and thought of Schaeffer with nuance. His work offers a fitting conclusion to our brief tour of the significance of the apologist: “In the aeons to come, there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of redeemed men and women who will rise up and call him blessed for helping them to escape from various intellectual and moral quagmires.” May that number only increase.

  • http://www.transformingwords.org/wordpress Don Sartain

    Very insightful. So grateful for the work Schaeffer did, and the role he played, in pressing Christians to stop being content with cultural and social irrelevance and pushing them to do the work necessary to understand and engage the worldviews around them from a Biblical perspective.

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  • http://greenertrees.blogspot.com Julie Silander

    I’d suggest that as history continues to unfold, Schaeffer’s work becomes increasingly relevant. Given the current political climate, I was grounded by the following excerpt from Tim Keller’s “Ministries of Mercy”:

    Francis Schaeffer said, Christians may be at times, “cobelligerents” with the Left of the Right, but never allies. “If there is social injustice, say there is social injustice. If we need order, say we need order… But do not align yourself as though you are in either of these camps: You are an ally of neither. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is different from either – totally different.”

  • Steelwheels

    “Schaeffer’s effect on evangelicalism, whether academic or popular, extends widely enough that it is difficult in the final analysis to quantify his influence. The number of pastors, scholars, missionaries, and other leaders affected by Francis Schaeffer number in the thousands, to be sure.” Yet I wonder, as a father, if he would cast that all away for his son. I have been influenced by his writings, and yet, if I can’t influence those God has given into my charge, my children, how my heart would break.

  • Greg

    Great article! “How Should We Then Live?” was assigned reading for a history of western civilization course I took at Clearwater Christian College.

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  • http://Bensonian.org Christopher Benson


    As a student of philosophy at Wheaton College, I was never required to read Francis Schaeffer – and rightly so! He’s not a professional philosopher, and much of his philosophical engagement was amateurish.

    I just finished reading Darryl Hart’s new book, “From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism” (Eerdmans). He argues that Schaeffer “provided a theoretical platform – worldview – for the Religious Right.” In “How Should We Then Live?”, Schaeffer proffered views that many evangelical academics now find objectionable, including his “peculiar understanding of the logical structure of cultural development, such as the priority of philosophy and its trickle-down effects upon science and art”; his argument that “Aquinas was responsible for the rise of human autonomy in the West and its destructive consequences for philosophy, art, and social order”; and his claim that “the founding of the United States was the embodiment of Reformation politics.”

    With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Schaeffer’s recovery of America’s Christian roots was nothing more than politically-inspired revisionism, which is particularly egregious in light of the biblical injunction to tell the truth. According to Hart, “The Search for a Christian America,” written by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden, “stemmed specifically from correspondence between the authors and Francis Schaeffer regarding his interpretation of America. On the one hand, the purpose of the book was to set the historical record straight. Was it theoretically possible to identify any state or society as Christian? The authors took their stand with Roger Williams, who taught that ‘no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God’s chosen people’ . . . . On the other hand, the book was designed to add greater caution to contemporary efforts by the Religious Right to use the past to combat specific ills in American society, especially the bogey of ‘secular humanism.'”

    Schaeffer’s apologetic work may have some enduring value, but I’m afraid it is tainted by his involvement in the Religious Right.


    • http://owenstrachan.com Owen


      Thanks for the constructive thought. I didn’t say, for the record, that Schaeffer was a “professional philosopher,” and I took pains toward the end of the piece to voice the kind of concerns you mentioned. I wouldn’t personally assign Schaffer’s writing in philosophy classes; I like him better under theology. He wrote a good deal of what is essentially philosophical theology grounded in presuppositionalism, the whipping boy in some academic circles. I continue to like many of his insights related to the existence of God in a world that denies it, his understanding of the trajectory of despair in western thought, and his preaching of the gospel of salvation in Christ.

      On Aquinas, I think I agree with you. He mishandles the Dumb Ox (though many evangelicals, professional philosophers and theologians, disagree over Aquinas, so I’ll cut him a bit of slack). On “trickle-down” philosophy, I don’t fault him as strongly as you do, though there’s an interesting conversation to be had. On the founding of America, I’m probably somewhere in the middle. Many of the founders were Protestants of either weak or strong water; I am less convinced that Schaeffer that America was founded as a Christian (read: evangelical) nation. Please do note that I didn’t hold him up as a major political resource for Christians in the piece. All this to say I’m sympathetic to your objections.

      This does not mitigate, however, his many contributions. It can be easy to write off figures like Schaeffer or Carl Henry because they were men of their times. I refuse to do so. Schaeffer was a brilliant man, I think. He would have been helped by some conversation partners and perhaps some further academic engagement, but I think he fundamentally understood the western intellectual condition and offered a bold and robustly biblical apologetic for it. He won many people to the faith through his blend of real piety and philosophical-theological apologetics grounded in cultural engagement. He faithfully preached the God who is there, and God blessed his ministry accordingly. He championed the cause of the unborn heroically, a cause many evangelicals had, to their shame, failed to champion.

      Jacobs, by the way, was right about Schaeffer and art. The public intellectual definitely did influence many of us to think afresh about art. And more than perhaps any other figure in the last 60 years outside of Henry, Schaeffer drove evangelicals to think of the faith as a “worldview,” not a salvation card. I would contend that these are not mere achievements, but are in fact major contributions. What’s more foundational than worldview thinking?

      Have you, by the way, read Schaeffer? I’m guessing you have, but if you haven’t, I can’t take your words as seriously as I otherwise might. Your comments lean a great deal on Hart.

      I like D. G. Hart. I interact with him a good bit in my dissertation on historical grounds and find him provocative and insightful. I don’t always find him balanced, and he tends to write people off he doesn’t agree with. Personally, I’m not so able to do that. One of the things Schaeffer taught evangelicals was to listen to other views, especially non-Christian views, and hear them out, probe them for strengths and weaknesses. (My TEDS prof Kevin Vanhoozer argues, and demonstrates, the very same.) Ironically, I don’t always see those who rightly disagree with some aspects of Schaeffer’s thought practicing this same intellectual virtue.

      My final challenge: don’t write Schaeffer off–or many other thinkers, for that matter–because you find weaknesses in his thought. He had many strengths, particularly if one considers the evangelistic and apologetic impact of his biblically grounded ministry.

      Appreciate the sharpening.

      • http://greenertrees.blogspot.com Julie Silander

        I appreciate the respectful, collegiate approach from both points of view. Sharpening indeed. Christopher, I have neither the philosophical nor theological training to agree or disagree with what you’ve said, but I have no doubt that your observations are astute and defensible. I can speak with some authority, however, from my own personal experience. My reading of Schaeffer’s work is limited to How Shall We Then Live (I’m actually in process of watching the video series as well), and a few excerpts included in other authors’ writings. I will say that personally, his work succeeded in stimulating the genesis of my own ideas about the influence of art, culture, and society in general as it relates to Christian living. I don’t take his writings as doctrine – rather as fodder for deeper thought. Without a doubt, he was flawed (as we all are). Yet I’m of the “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” school, and am personally deeply grateful for his contributions.

  • http://www.thekingsfellowship.com Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    Nice article but confusing title. In much of the English-speaking world, ‘knickers’ means women’s underwear.

    Let not that silly notion get spread around the Internet! Surely that can not be what is meant by Owen Strachan.

    Perhaps by ‘knickers’ he means ‘knickerbockers’ – that is, baggy trousers meant for athletics.

  • http://Bensonian.org Christopher Benson


    I have read bits and pieces of Schaeffer, but I never shared the evangelical exuberance for him. I know the diatribes against Schaeffer from his son are groundless, even vicious. I do think Hart (via Noll, Hatch, and Marsden) brings up a valuable point about his revisionist account of our nation’s Christian origins and how that played into his involvement with the Religious Right. In principle, I appreciate your challenge to hear others out, probing them for their strengths and weaknesses. But in practice there’s only so much time “under the sun,” and Schaeffer just isn’t one of those voices that resonates with me. His impact seems to have already faded, and I predict – rightly or wrongly – that future generations of Christians won’t be consulting his work in the way we turn to C. S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton.


    • http://owenstrachan.com Owen


      May I say, with full respect in view, that I cannot commend your approach to Schaeffer. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what you seem to have done is precisely what foments insufficient thinking about ideas and figures. If you are going to offer a public critique of Schaeffer, don’t work off of someone else’s intellectual capital. You need to do the reading yourself and then critique them (even then, you should do so graciously, in a Galatians 6:1 way).

      Evangelicals from both the progressive and conservative wings of the movement too often take each off at the knees without doing the other side the merest courtesy of reading them. If we do this, we’re no better than pagans in our intellectual endeavors. Christian intellectual life requires virtues like charity, humility, and generosity (and courage, among others).

      Francis Schaeffer took his shots, and did not pull his punches, but he also encouraged charitable reading of the other side, and cultural engagement, as I said in the piece, “with tears.” Many of us just want to prove who’s right, and sneer at the rest.

      • http://Bensonian.org Christopher Benson


        You wrote a blog post. I responded by sharing content from a book that I recently read because it engages the historical and political aspects of Schaeffer’s thought. For whatever reason, you omitted these aspects from your tribute when they seem relevant to any evaluation of him. Because you obviously admire Schaeffer, I thought you would be (a) interested in Hart’s critique and (b) qualified to reply. Instead, you chose to be didactic with me, as if I need a lesson in the ethics of reading.

        Commenting on a blog is different than offering “a public critique of Schaeffer.” I would need to engage Schaeffer’s thought further if I wrote an article in a magazine or journal. You’ve wrongly inferred that I’ve read little or nothing when I said “I have read bits and pieces.” For the record, I have read “The God Who Is There,” “Art and the Bible,” and select chapters of “How Should We Then Live?” I’m pretty sure it’s not necessary to read a person’s entire corpus before commenting on a blog.


        • http://owenstrachan.com Owen

          One more round. No, Christopher, it’s not necessary to read someone’s entire corpus before making a blog comment. But you made pretty strong comments about the (lack of) enduring nature of Schaeffer’s ministry. In doing so, you leaned on other scholars before conceding you’ve read “bits and pieces” of Schaeffer, and indeed you have.

          I stand by what I said, and I in fact would urge a reconsideration of the theological virtues, like charity, humility, and graciousness. It’s difficult to sweepingly dismiss someone when practicing them. Your comments seem strongly opinionated but under-funded–at least as you presented your thoughts.

          • http://Bensonian.org Christopher Benson

            And I stand by what I said. You did not mention the historical and political aspects of Schaeffer’s thought, which are critical to an evaluation of his legacy, so I shared relevant material from what I’ve recently read; it coincides with my own observations after reading some of Schaeffer’s books. Hart (via Noll, Hatch, and Marsden) brings up a valuable point about his revisionist account of our nation’s Christian origins and how that played into his involvement with the Religious Right. In closing, let me remind you of what you said in your original reply to Hart’s critique: “All this to say I’m sympathetic to your objections.”

  • http://thingsfindothinks.com AndrewF

    The only thing of his I’ve read is ‘The Bible and Art’ which I thought was brilliant. I’ve got ‘Escape from Reason’ on my shelf, which I probably should read sometime!

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  • Joe

    “His impact seems to have already faded, and I predict – rightly or wrongly – that future generations of Christians won’t be consulting his work in the way we turn to C. S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton.”

    Good grief. No one is suggesting it will. Schaeffer was a man for a certain moment. And the bulk of his work is not about the Religious Right, but about Christians loving and engaging the world. He spoke well and reached many.

    As for academics not recommending his work, as a college prof myself I can tell you I found Schaeffer’s books worth as much or more than many of the pieces of theology/philosophy and sociology required in doctoral work. Much of the disdain for Schaeffer stems from his role as popularizer. Yet he still speaks far more clearly and relevantly than, say, a Longeran or a Rahner. Just lacks the cachet. As if anyone teaching now gets it all right either. The condescension is more than a little off-putting.

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  • http://www.housewifetheologian.com Aimee Byrd

    I read Schaeffer in my early 20’s, when I started wanted to learn more about my faith. He seriously resonated w/me at that time in my life, articulating well the worldviews that I had just encountered in college. I grew up w/more of a “values” faith, and was appreciative of the way Schaeffer unmasked the fact/value split of our religious culture.

    In light of the above disagreement, I would like to add that I think the artistic crowd appreciates Schaeffer’s work better. Sure, I know the faults he tangled himself up in politically at the end of his life, but we also need to understand the despair he was coming from at that time. Kim Riddlebarger has a great critical Mp3 series of Schaeffer on his website. I agree w/Owen that he does have an enduring significance. Even where I am critical of him, I am very thankful for the contribution his books made in that transitional period of my life.

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  • john appleton

    I met Francis Schaeffer in the early eighties at Wheaton College, an inspiring presence, sitting on a table engaging us students. I have read most all of his works, he is a pivotal figure for evangelicalism.

  • EscapeToFreedom


    Intriguing that a current student, separated from the real man by decades and the world view that he dealt with by as many years, should deign to offer critiques written by others of Francis Schaeffer, and at times adopting first person language as if one was qualified to offer one’s opinion as fact.
    Owen’s comments are gracious and he bent over backwards to give wise counsel. It would be good to heed such wise and gentle remonstrances. And along with Owen, I would say read more than the bits and pieces that you have owned up to reading. Then you might be given more credence than you have been given by these gracious folks commenting. Be of good cheer, you will develop opinions of your own someday.

    a fan of FS – attended his lectures in Nashville in the late 70s and read most of his works

  • http://mikesnow.org Michael Snow

    Loved the article. Just would note that your first of three ending questions, “Was Schaeffer necessary?”, seems a bit quirky to me in view of Schaeffer’s own affirmation of the value of every life.

  • Stevie

    The importance of Schaeffer, as I see it, is in his early works. He was describing the pluralistic view of truth we see in postmodernism before it had a name: Though we have not exhaustive truth, we have truth that is true. And it is propositional. Without that, there is no discussion. Of anything.

    He spoke perhaps of one of the most important things that destroys the church today:

    “I believe that pluralistic secularism, in the long run, is a more deadly poison than straightforward persecution.”

    In the 50s and 60s the philosophers, artists embraced this. Then the universities. And now the church. It enters the church last, stays the longest and does the most damage. And the present generation is immersed in it to such an extent that it cannot recognize it. They glory in it. And he foretold that:

    “To fail to exhibit that we take truth seriously at those points where there is a cost in our doing so, is to push the next generation in the relative, dialectical millstream that surrounds us. ”

    The importance of Schaeffer is his warnings and adherence to truth.

    “Tell me what the world is saying today, and I’ll tell you what the church will be saying in seven years.” Francis Schaeffer 1912-1984

  • hullo

    ithinkumean knickerbockers – knickers are women’s panties

  • http://thechristianworldview.blogspot.com gary wearne

    now how are we to move on ourselves and to understand and with love deal with our own cultures despair? We must I believe begin with the great heritage of insight that Schaeffer left us and then with our own attitudes transformed as 1 Peter tells us, answer the yearning questions that our own lives evoke of others.

    God bless

  • Lindsay

    This was a good article. It’s interesting that the article mentions his Calvinistic beliefs. I heard this a few times before but when I’ve mentioned it to people who know his works better than I, they’ve all been surprised. I’ve done a few google searches and not really found any explicit statements from him on the topic, I’ve just heard people referring to it. Is there any evidence that he was a Calvinist?

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  • http://francisschaefferstudies.org Dan Guinn

    I really enjoyed the article. It was lite-hearted and well written. Perhaps the only exception I would take, would be the part where Owen says, “He did not seem to have a strong doctrine of the local church.” To this I would recommend reading in Schaeffer’s book True Spirituality chapter 13. entitled “Substantial Healing in the Church.” His 4th volume of his complete works deals with the church in general, but Schaeffer equated spirituality in the local church heavily with victory in personal spirituality growing and touching relationships until it transforms the church and enables it also to affect total culture. I hope this is helpful. ~ Dan

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