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Fear and Loathing at the Origin Summit

How we spent eight hours hearing about the divine creation of the universe

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The press in Michigan registered a certain amount of surprise in the wake of announcements that a creationist conference, called the Origin Summit, was going to challenge the “dogma” of evolution on its home turf: on the campus of East Lansing’s Michigan State University. Alarming headlines appeared, such as “Creationism conference at Michigan State ties Hitler policies to evolution, sparks faculty ire.” After looking at these lurid headlines, and hearing that a group of Christians was coming to the university to present their competing views, we smelled drama. That’s why, on the morning of Nov. 1, we set out to see a battle of ideas go down. Armed with whiskey, cigarettes, and a little contraband to help pass the time, we came, we saw, but — needless to say — didn’t concur.

8:03 a.m. — One Tim Horton’s large coffee with a shot of espresso and a box of Timbits (assorted): Check. Camera: Check. Digital recorder: Check. Notebook: Check. Flask: Check. One neatly-rolled joint: Check. Origin Summit, here we come.

9 a.m. — We’re heading out on I-96 under sunny blue skies, but a pall of clouds lies over the land ahead of us. As we finally scoot under them, unmelted frost appears in the ditches by the freeway. It gives us the feeling of going someplace colder, darker, under uncertain heavens.

10 a.m. — We’ve arrived on time. I’m smoking a cigarette outside and looking at the students prowling the campus on this Saturday morning. At first, I think MSU must have more than its fair share of foreign students, until I remember that this is the day after Halloween. Your average, red-blooded, keg-standing native American student is likely still sleeping off an epic holiday hangover. I take a long drink of whiskey out of my flask, ditch the cigarette, and head in.

10:03 a.m. — We’re heading the right way, but I stop for a moment. There’s a young lady bending over and chalking up a board. She’s wearing a rather short skirt and I have a view that’s quite interesting. I linger just long enough to feel sleazy, then move on, thinking about creation myths of another kind.

10:07 a.m. — We arrive. A couple women greet us and provide us with some swag: a schedule for the summit; a DVD called Unlocking the Mystery of Life: The Scientific Case for Intelligent Design; a brochure showing an empty church with the headline “Where have all the Christians gone?”; and a copy of Censored Science: The Suppressed Evidence, a 110-page glossy, full-color textbook by one Bruce Malone. The schedule for the summit has the same format and graphic design treatment as a church pamphlet, complete with a calligraphic font and ornate borders. We also get raffle tickets for a chance to win a free iPad, with additional chances to get more tickets at each panel discussion — as if the only reason anyone would ever go to a creationist summit is for the chance to win a shiny new Apple product.

10:09 a.m.Censored Science author Bruce Malone is in the midst of his opening address. “I want to acknowledge MSU, because they could have found some way to shut down this conference,” he says. “I don’t know if you know, but there was quite a controversy in the weeks leading up to this. But they didn’t. They made a public acknowledgement stating that this university is a place for sharing ideas. That is incredibly admirable, and I salute MSU University for making a stand and opening up this university.” Malone noted that MSU was not sponsoring the event.

10:10 a.m. — Malone is stalking the hall with his wireless mic, laying down the rules of the conference. Those asking questions are advised not to disrupt the event. While questions, even tough ones, are welcomed, anybody seeking to cause a disturbance will be removed. The participants, he points out, are not Bible-beating fundamentalists. It’s true. They’re science nuts, actually. But they’re sticking to the Bible’s account of cosmology as closely as they can. They acknowledge that the universe is full of billions of galaxies — just as God created them about 100 centuries ago, give or take an eon. Malone points out that, in decades of observation, nobody has observed a star being formed. Given that we’ve only been watching the skies closely for a few centuries, it seems an unfair demand. It’s like putting somebody in a garden for five minutes and asking them whether they saw a flower open. But before I get too critical of them, I realize that they are being persuaded, at least, that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Each step they take back from the classic creation myth must be a very difficult concession for them. It’s surprising they’ve already made so many.

10:15 a.m. — We look around the mostly-empty auditorium and take stock of the crowd. The majority of people seem to be either college-age or over 40, with quite a few elderly people in attendance — perhaps two groups that are either trying to figure out what they believe, or justify what they already believe. Four punk-looking kids walk in late. It’s hard to tell if they could be “alternative Christians” or atheist protesters — the look could go either way. If anyone’s going to disrupt the event, it would have to be these guys. So far there’s a little over 50 people in the audience.

10:22 a.m. — Malone notes that he and Dr. Bergman are members of Mensa, the high IQ society. He says this not to brag, but to counteract the stereotype that all creationists have low IQs. He also invokes Marilyn vos Savant, author of Parade magazine’s Ask Marilyn column and the holder of Guinness World Records’ highest recorded IQ, pointing out that while Savant doesn’t believe in creation, she also doesn’t believe in the Big Bang. “‘That sounds just plain nuts, right?’” Malone reads, quoting her thoughts on the origin of the universe. “‘But do you believe it? If so, how do you support your belief that the entire cosmos was once smaller than a polka dot? With a strong line of reasoning? Solid evidence? Anything at all? If you cannot, welcome to the world of faith: You’re accepting what you’ve been told by those you respect.’” Malone continues to quote Savant. “‘Lots of science — far too much — is accepted on faith,’” he reads. “And she says, ‘I also think we must be careful not to teach theories as fact. It slows scientific progress immeasurably.’” A man in the audience fist-pumped while Malone read that last line. It was interesting, though, that Malone chose not to read aloud the part right before that, where Savant states plainly that she believes creationism should not be taught in schools.

10:25 a.m. — Malone is showing a magnified image of a leafhopper’s hind legs that shows a gearlike structure. To Malone and his ilk, this is proof of a maker, a designer, not a billion random accidents producing the part that works best. Malone asks, “How can people not see what I think is so obvious?” It will become a refrain today.

10:27 a.m. — Somebody hands me a flier with a picture of Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and overseer of the Humane Genome Project. It reads that he accepts the overwhelming evidence for evolution, but he “prays in an evangelical church,” summarized with the phrase “Many Christians see no conflict between faith and evolution.” Another picture shows Dr. Jennifer Wiseman of NASA, a believer in the Big Bang, which emphasizes: “Is openly Christian,” noting, “Many scientists are religious.” It’s a weird handout, as if scientists have to stay in the closet about something as humdrum as believing in God.

11:01 a.m. — More people have filed in, with a total number most likely nearer 100. An older woman is knitting in the back. I ask Jackman if it’s too early for shots.

11:05 a.m. — While discreetly hitting the flask outside, we discuss how we get the impression that this isn’t some sort fundamentalist indoctrination — just a panel of five reasonable guys whose views happen to not dovetail with the scientific establishment’s. At that moment a kid in a green hoodie steps out and stares at us. We ask him if he’s here for the conference. “Well, in a sense,” he replies. He’s got sort of a militant seriousness about him. We ask if he’s an organizer for the event. “No, I’m not,” he says. We ask if he’s helping out. There’s a long, awkward pause. “Well, I’m just trying to figure out where it is,” he says. We point in the direction of the auditorium. “OK. Thank you,” he says, and leaves. We do another round of flask shots. Did we just get surveilled? Can they smell the skepticism on us?

11:10 a.m. — Dr. Bergman is delivering a lecture titled “Hitler’s Worldview.” I can’t pass up the opportunity to hear about a topic as controversial as Nazism, so I head in. I can see where this is headed right away: The nihilism of science is to blame for the Holocaust, and Darwinism lays the foundation for the evils of the concentration camp. It’s all in Dr. Bergman’s book, Hitler and the Nazi Darwinian Worldview: How the Nazi Eugenic Crusade for a Superior Race Caused the Greatest Holocaust in World History. You see, Darwin opened the door to atheism and evolution, and, worse still, converted the scientific establishment, and there lies the source of the Holocaust. The only thing is, haven’t a whole shitload of people been killed in crusades over Christianity? Is it anything new that a politician takes the consensus of the day and twists it to his own personal purposes?

11:11: a.m. — With Jackman on the Nazi beat, I chose “The Big Bang is FAKE” by panelist Charles Jackson. There are a little more than 20 people in attendance, mostly young. The young, punk-looking kids from earlier all have laptops opens, and toggle between multiple browsing tabs displaying photos of galaxies. They seem to be really into it, and the possibility of these kids being the disrupters everyone seems to be expecting diminishes.

11:20 a.m. — Dr. Bergman is still talking about Darwin, about how he regarded women as inferior, even though his wife spoke better English and more languages. He declares Darwin’s English to have been poor. Perhaps it’s an inopportune moment, as the slide in his presentation reads, “Evolution is true, only going the wring way.” Wring?

11:30 a.m. — After learning that Darwin was, like many Westerners in the 19th century, convinced that the crusade of civilization would replace the savagery of undeveloped nations over the centuries, we arrive at a quote from Hitler that sounds very much like this. The only thing is, it’s perforated with enough ellipses and a wide enough page range to give you the disquieting feeling that Bergman might be misquoting the Führer.

11:33 a.m. — Dr. Jackson explains that the imbalance of matter and antimatter in the universe is one of biggest problems with our current understanding of the Big Bang — there should be equal amounts of each, yet there is hardly any antimatter to be found. Jackson’s impersonation of matter and antimatter mutually annihilating each other in the early days of the cosmos is very entertaining, with lots of laser noises.

11:35 a.m. — Now we’re getting somewhere. Dr. Bergman is showing how the Nazis took over and taught their twisted worldview. First, you use the mass media to affect the people, then you take over the churches, the schools, the textbooks, and indoctrinate the youth. He argues that the main opposition to Hitler came from the churches and the Christians, but, like other speakers at the event, they’re more inclusive than Christian fundamentalists. Bergman discusses Hitler’s effort to expunge the Judeo-Christian-Muslim doctrine of human divine origins from mainline German religion and schools. It suggests to me that the creationists are so hard up for company they’ll even take adherents of Islam.

11:41 a.m. — While Dr. Jackson discusses the Big Bang, I flip through Malone’s book. Most pages feature stock photos of animals, galaxies, dinosaur skeletons, and the like — a pretty typical-looking textbook. One particularly weird page shows a photo illustration of a young girl with a blank smile looking at a laptop, with her brain superimposed on top. Three ropes are wrapped around her brain, with the words “Cosmological Naturalism,” “Biological Naturalism,” and “Geological Naturalism” hovering above each. It’s kind of terrifying.

11:45 a.m. — Dr. Bergman’s slide show is really getting serious. We’re looking at images of Herr Hitler, meat wagons full of bodies, and more swastikas than at a Nuremberg rally. Maybe it’s paranoia, but I’m starting to get a bit freaked out. I look at the audience of about 25 people, overwhelmingly white, mostly male, and start to wonder what somebody would think if they just walked in with no idea what was going on!

11:46 a.m. — Dr. Jackson’s thesis seems to be that the Big Bang theory should not be taught as dogma, saying there’s too much patchiness to the theory, and too many instances of ignoring laws of science and actual observations. “I don’t think it’s a problem to teach it,” he says, “but I think it’s a problem to teach and not bring up the problems, the patchiness, and perhaps even acknowledge that there are other explanations out there.” He then quotes Nikola Tesla: “‘Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality,’” he reads. “I believe that happens far too often. Don’t forget, there’s a great payoff to being the person who’s famous for a particular theory, and getting people on that bandwagon and teaching it in classrooms.”

11:50 a.m. — Dr. Bergman is talking about how he asks people who the most evil person in history was, and how a lot of people say Hitler. He says his publishers like the way he finds controversial topics, and as the author of 36 books, Bergman is totally like a self-publishing company’s wet dream. His next book is on the religious views of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

11:50 a.m. — Dr. Jackson’s presentation is rather tame. Nothing too outrageous here. I wonder how Jackman is doing.

11:55 a.m. — It’s a little uncomfortable when Bergman raises the subject of eugenics, about how he’s German and Scandinavian, and as a blue-eyed man would probably be OK in Hitler’s kingdom. But he goes on to add a little eugenics musing of his own, that white people should marry people of other races, if only to avoid the likelihood of their children getting cystic fibrosis, and to help black people avoid sickle-cell anemia. Now he’s off on a tangent about how some people in past audiences have stood up and accused him of being a racist. Once, he tells us, he even had to ask his 85-year-old black aunt to stand up and say hello, to defuse the tension.

11:59 a.m. — Dr. Bergman shows us a slide of a typical Northern European couple. They look like young hippies. Then he shows us a 1940s photo a man and a woman identified as European Jews. “She doesn’t look very Jewish,” he says of the woman. “And this guy looks more Italian than anything.”

12:15 p.m. — Jackman and I agreed to split for halftime a little early. As I get up and leave the auditorium, I can hear Dr. Malone’s voice behind me: “Remember, folks, you have to stay to the end of each seminar for a chance to win the iPad.”

12:23 p.m. — We’re taking a break at Stober’s Bar in downtown Lansing, where the mystical theme seems to find a refrain in the bizarre stained-glass artwork behind the bar, with a wizard-looking guy staring out from a sea of arcane symbolism, such as stars and yin-yang circles. Then there are the wood-carved gargoyles on either end of the bar, which look right at home amid some of the Halloween decorations. At least one of the patrons is familiar with the summit. He tells us he doesn’t want to “bash” anybody’s beliefs, but he was surprised the college allowed something that anti-intellectual to go on.

1:01 p.m. — We’re digging into burgers and fries from Moriarty’s down the street. The fries are excellent hand-cut babies, and the burgers are also very good. We show the bartender, Patricia Goncz, the book we’ve been given, authored by Bruce Malone. She looks at it and flips through it, confused by page after page of scientific writing. She gives it back to us and says, “So these people are against God? It looks pretty anti-religious.” I’m surprised by this, but then I realize that, like a lot of the divine creation stuff, it has the ring of science, not of religion. Instead of stories of forgiveness and pictures of Jesus, it may very well look anti-religious. An average churchgoer might see it that way. I’m finding it hard to see these creationists as Christians. I mean, I’ve heard these guys talk for two hours already and they haven’t mentioned love once.

2:16 p.m. — We decide to hotbox in the car before heading back in. The joint has a sort of sweet, pine flavor. Hilarity ensues. Much merriment was had by all.

2:30 p.m. — I’m back in another session with Dr. Bergman, this one titled “Evolution Is True, but Going the Wrong Way.” The premise is unusual, and it takes me a few minutes to understand that, if God created Adam and Eve, then they were perfect divine creations. So that would mean that we are actually increasingly inferior copies of our divinely created ancestors, which accounts for all the diseases and syndromes brought on by harmful genetic mutations. At a certain point back, he argues, you won’t find any mutations. He tells us that the world is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. But even as he spreads this knowledge, he urges any young scholars who agree with him to “stay in the closet.” The system suppresses academic freedom. It’s all in his book Slaughter of the Dissidents.

2:33 p.m. — I chose Dr. Jackson’s “Natural Selection Is NOT Evolution” for my second lecture. I walk in a little late. At the moment, I have no idea what Dr. Jackson’s talking about. I decide to eat the rest of the Timbits from earlier. I feel great.

2:35 p.m. — Dr. Bergman is really getting into his refutation of evolution. He says that if anybody in the audience can partner with him to prove that evolution is true, he’ll split the Nobel Prize with them. He’ll order his new Mercedes next week.

2:45 p.m. — Dr. Bergman is getting distracted. He’s shuttling through beautiful slides of protein relationships and the enzymes that switch cell functions on and off, as if certain that anybody would see the hand of God guiding this beautiful machinery. But he’s also going on odd tangents that involve, at one point, his neighbor’s carpeting. He’s also back on his pet topic of why white people must marry other races. If you’re looking for a mate, he tells us, get on a flight to Hong Kong and you’ll have beautiful, healthy children. “If you want a good dog,” he says, “get a mutt.”

2:50 p.m. — There must be some point to the slides Dr. Bergman is showing, but he’s getting wrapped up in his pet topics and not addressing the information contained in them. One slide is full of polysyllabic words I can’t understand. Perhaps running behind schedule, the good doctor mercifully shuffles it out of the way, saying, “This we’ll skip.”

2:55 p.m. — It’s weird, but I’m really starting to like Dr. Bergman. There’s something about him that reminds me of my high school shop teacher, and I’m starting to feel like one of the bad kids in the class who just wandered in late, stoned as hell after firing one up in the boys’ room. As if in response to this thought, he’s talking about gene redundancy, about how your DNA has two copies of the genes to compare against each other. “It’s like God gives you two screwdrivers. If one of them gets stripped, you’ve got another to do the job.” It’s terrific, and all of a sudden it’s 1985 again and I’m back in Mr. Kincaid’s shop class.

2:58 p.m. — Dr. Jackson’s thesis this time seems to be simply that what we call natural selection is not evolution because it does not create new genetic code. It seems to be an argument of semantics more than anything. I wish I had more Timbits.

3 p.m. — Dr. Bergman is talking about Lynn Margulis’ theory of endosymbiosis, that creatures pass DNA to other creatures, but dismisses it, saying, “That doesn’t solve the problem of where those genes came from. That just moves the problem somewhere else.” You get the sense that Bergman loves science, but hates the mysteries, and needs the guiding hand of God to explain it all. He blurts out, “I was an atheist at one time,” and there’s not even a murmur in the room. “It was my doubts about evolution that brought me back to religion. I finally accepted the divine truth that evolution isn’t true and fell over the dam, and now I see things in a new way.” It’s a touching, moving speech, and he’s obviously sincere. He even makes a self-effacing reference to Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus.

3:09 p.m. — Dr. Bergman keeps getting more personal, and more personable, even as his lecture is running off the rails and straying way, way off topic. He says, “You know, you guys are a really nice audience. You must all be friends or something. I’ve been hauled offstage halfway through some of my lectures, you know.” His irregular lecture begins to make sense; this may be one of the first occasions he’s been able to really pursue it without being removed from the dais.

3:15 p.m. — Quoting somebody else, Dr. Bergman says, “If evolution is true, then I’ve got a problem. It’s going to allow me to be promiscuous. Evolution allows me to do things that, if I were a Christian, I wouldn’t do.” But, moral considerations aside, he extols his lifelong love of science. He tells us, “When I was a kid. I loved taking things apart. And then in school, in Gross anatomy, you start with a cadaver and you end up with five buckets of stuff.”

3:21 p.m. — Dr. Berger is asked, “What’s the strongest argument for creationism?” and he replies that it’s the amazing way the system works. Now he’s quickly off on a tangent about why evolution disappoints him. It’s an emotional and disjointed speech, but there’s something poetic about this kindly old shop teacher. At the bottom, he hungers for a world in which people don’t talk about facts but about questions and mysteries, perhaps something approaching philosophy. In that regard, maybe this kindly old dude is right. He’s still hoping to get more questions from the 30-odd listeners in the room. Timidly, he asks, “Anybody disagree?”

3:25 p.m. — My tender reverie is interrupted when I realize the kindly shop teacher up front lecturing was the guy who was showing a billion swastikas on the big screen a few hours earlier. I take out my phone and text DeVito that this is getting too weird for me.

3:33 p.m. — I get a mysterious text from Jackman: “WEIIRD MMAN THIS IS WEIRD MAN.” Oh, shit, is he OK? What’s going on?

3:38 p.m. — Now everybody is gathered in the main lecture room, where the assembled speakers are ready to field questions, while host speaker Bruce Malone rushes around the audience with a wireless mic. First up is a man whose well-behaved children have accompanied him all day. His question is about the sabbath, and it seems fairly obvious he’s a Seventh Day Adventist trying to sniff out if these people fit in with his theological worldview. The creationists seem a little disappointed that it’s not a scientific question.

3:42 p.m. — Somebody has asked why human beings lived so much longer before the flood. (After all, the Bible says Methuselah and Noah lived to be more than 900 years old, but their descendants lived shorter and shorter lives, until, in the days of the pharaohs, Moses lived only to be 120.) Malone is on the ball, saying, “Here’s a model that I think the Bible supports.” He then describes a flood in which the earth splits open, shooting 8,000-degree magma into the oceans, evaporating them rapidly enough to cause hurricanes and floods about 6,400 years ago. This would be a high-mutation event that results in an ice age that lasts a few centuries. The harmful mutations, therefore, would be behind man’s reduced lifespan. As reasons go, Malone says, “That’s one of the best I’ve heard.”

3:50 p.m. — Maybe we came with ideas of making a bit of fun of these guys, but now I don’t want to. They seem defensive, sad that the scientific establishment laughs at them, discounts them, refuses to engage in discussion with them. At a certain point, the mood feels like that of a self-help group. But they do have a job to do, and I understand what it is. Their job is to offer help to people who want to believe in the beauty of science and the truth of the scripture. Their role is to help these people waltz between those two worlds without a misstep. To teach the right moves so a person can play Twister with God and science without contorting themselves too ridiculously. They do it by trying to find science that supports the Bible, and emphasizing that their science is “different, not wrong.” They declare that they’re tired of talking to themselves, but the lack of pointed questions would suggest that they’re still doing just that. Dr. Jackson says he longs for the octane of a debate, and even name-checks Richard Dawkins in an attempt to get it started. The audience remains mute and respectful. How many of the young people in attendance today are here for the scoop on creation, and how many simply want to win the drawing for the iPad?

3:55 p.m. — I’m tripping out. These guys are talking about the flood, the Tower of Babel, DNA, and God, while the big screens behind them project pulsing images of sunsets, stone stairways, lakes, pomegranates, giraffes, country fences, flower blossoms, ocean vistas. The lecture dims to a murmur while I’m looking at this bizarre succession of almost psychedelic imagery.

4:01 p.m. — One thoughtful young person raises a timid objection. If the world is only thousands of years old, what about ice cores? They bear out a terrestrial history going back 100,000 years. One of the panelists says that 10 feet of snow can pack down into a foot of ice, so he doesn’t see how even very thick ice can’t have been formed over a few score centuries. Dr. DeYoung says, “I think these ice cores may be younger than you’d like.” The scholar raises his hand for a follow-up, declaring that scientists know that each core has visible annual layers, much like rings on the cross-section of a tree. Dr. Malone dismisses these objections, saying, “Maybe you’re measuring storms, not years.” I feel sorry for the young scholar. On the bright side, now he knows how Galileo felt!

4:12 p.m. — A question about life on other planets should stir things up. Malone, skipping down the stairs warns the asker, “Now we’re entering the territory of speculation.” Surprisingly, none of the panelists seems to acknowledge the possibility. Dr. DeYoung says, “The scripture is silent on extraterrestrials.” At least the feisty Dr. Bergman raises the possibility of other forms of life: angels. That earns a laugh from us.

4:19 p.m. — One audience member asks, “Who made God?” The panel wrestles with this for a while, until Dr. Jackson begins to speak. This high school science teacher is the most professorial-looking of the bunch with his wavy hair, Van Dyke beard, and spectacles. He’s also the best-dressed, wearing a checked shirt and a tie. He’s definitely the guy from this panel you’d want on CNN to talk about creation science, shooting off sound bites on the fly. He says, ultimately, that it’s “an irrational question about an infinite being.” Take that, interrogator!

4:35 p.m. — Bruce Malone is giving the closing presentation of the evening, and he’s comparing evolution to a little red wagon he has onstage. The wagon has a book strapped to the bottom, and he asks us to imagine the book containing the instructions for making the wagon. Now, if he’s going to take the book and change a few letters each time, how is the wagon going to turn into … he punches a button and leaps atop the wagon, unsteady for a moment, while the screen flashes and shows a huge image of the starship Enterprise. Perched on the wagon, he’s asking how would this little red wagon ever evolve into a spaceship! This is the weirdest entertainment ever. Do hipsters realize they’re missing this? Heck, if you’re going to be really 19th century, why content yourself with mustache wax and velocipedes? Why not go full monty and believe in divine creation as well?

4:41 p.m. — Malone is now riffing on one of the main concerns about evolution. If we’re just chemicals, with no creator, then we have no free will, and we might as well just do what our urges tell us. It’s a strange argument. If there’s no God imposing a moral reason to not give in to our darkest urges, why isn’t there an ethical reason? Many of the speakers have a knack for seizing upon phrases that have the earthiest connotations, such as evolution means “from the goo to you, via the zoo.” (Dr. Bergman swears he lifted it from an evolutionary text, but it suits his misgivings perfectly.)

4:50 p.m. — The excitement builds in the main room as the iPad drawing gets down to business. A large box of the tickets is brought down to the front of the room, and a ticket is drawn. The name is announced and the young winner comes forward. The room lights up with applause — for the first time all day! As the winner approaches to receive his prize, Malone can’t resist a bit of theological theatrics, intoning into the mic: “God has blessed you today.”

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