A record-breaking year for banning books reveals the deepest fissure of our culture wars

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A record-breaking year for banning books reveals the deepest fissure of our culture wars

January 9, 2023 -

Books line opposing bookshelves in a school library. © By Thi Soares/stock.adobe.com

Books line opposing bookshelves in a school library. © By Thi Soares/stock.adobe.com

Books line opposing bookshelves in a school library. © By Thi Soares/stock.adobe.com

The books in your child’s library may be the fiercest battle in the culture wars today.

Efforts to control what children read, particularly about sexuality, gender, and race, have become more numerous and organized than ever before. For Christians, this can mean grappling with a complicated issue of biblical principles and child welfare in a free society.

PEN America, an organization that champions free expression, has identified at least fifty groups, often formed in the last two years amid school controversies over COVID restrictions and Critical Race Theory, “pushing for book bans.”

Keith Flaugh, the CEO of Florida Citizens Alliance, sees the issue differently.

“This is not about banning books; it’s about protecting the innocence of our children and letting the parents decide what the child gets rather than having government schools indoctrinate our kids,” he told the New York Times.

“There’s no place for it in our libraries”

The dispute has been playing out in communities across the country.

In December, the US Department of Education notified the Granbury Independent School District in Texas of a civil-rights investigation into its decision to ban LGBTQ-themed books such as My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen and Trans Teen Survival Guide from its libraries.

“I acknowledge that there are men that think they’re women and there are women that think they’re men,” Granbury school superintendent Jeremy Glenn told district librarians early last year. “I don’t have any issues with what people want to believe, but there’s no place for it in our libraries.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, citing a leaked recording of the conversation obtained by NBC News, ProPublica, and The Texas Tribune, filed a complaint (PDF) with the Department of Education in July.

“The school district has actively facilitated discrimination and hateful rhetoric,” the complaint said.

A report released in September by PEN America documented school districts in thirty-two states issuing more than 2,500 book bans during the 2021–2022 school year. Texas led the nation with 801, followed by Florida (566) and Pennsylvania (457).

Once figures for the calendar year 2022 are released, the American Library Association expects “attempts to ban or restrict library resources in schools, universities and public libraries” to break the record set in 2021.

Who’s to blame for all the book banning?

Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, blamed liberals as well as conservatives for bans.

“The left . . . targets books that some people regard as racially offensive, sometimes because they originate from a different time period, when slurs were used more widely than is acceptable now,” she told the Guardian. “But it is the right that has invoked the machinery of government—including legislative proposals in dozens of states—to enforce these bans and prohibitions.”

Patriot Mobile, a company based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that calls itself “America’s only Christian conservative wireless provider,” last year gave its political action committee more than $600,000 to spend to elect like-minded candidates to school boards in the Fort Worth suburbs. All eleven of the candidates it supported won, giving it effective control of four school boards when it comes to the books taught in their schools.

Tennessee has been another hot spot. Early last year, the McMinn County School Board voted to ban Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade classrooms because of instances of profanity and nudity.

Art Spiegelman, the cartoonist who created Maus, faults the district for trying to sanitize history in a misguided effort to protect children.

“They want a kinder, gentler, fuzzier Holocaust,” he told the New York Times.

A Tennessee state legislator attracted national attention in April when he said during debate about an education bill that if he could, he would burn banned books. A few months earlier, a Tennessee pastor and his congregation burned works he deemed demonic, like entries in the Harry Potter and Twilight series.

Most Americans oppose banning books

A poll commissioned by Half Price Books released in December showed that most Americans oppose banning books. Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice, a former member of her local school board in Florida, wouldn’t disagree.

“Our moms are saying write the book, publish the book, print the book, sell the book wherever you’d like to sell it, but don’t put it in a public school library if it has explicit sexual content in it,” she told Newsweek.

The scrutiny of books can be carried to unusual, if not absurd, lengths. Last year, a school district in Keller, Texas, temporarily pulled all versions of the Bible from its library shelves while evaluating them to make sure they met new district standards.

Many literary classics have been banned or challenged because of issues like profanity, sexual references, and racist slurs. The American Library Association compiled a list of such twentieth-century novels including The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884 and often considered the greatest American novel, has been challenged because of racist slurs.

What about the children?

Of course, it’s virtually impossible to shield children from harmful content, particularly since the advent of the internet. Deborah Appleman, author of  Literature and the New Culture Wars, urges educators to “teach the controversy” rather than avoiding works with literary merit.

“Racism, sexism, homophobia and other kinds of prejudice should not be tolerated, but removing all offending texts deprives students from having the necessary conversations to help us learn from our troubled shameful past,” she wrote in Newsweek.

“I choose to challenge these books by teaching and problematizing them. For example, I have seen how teaching the controversy surrounding texts such [as] Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird can help invite students into important discussions about race, language, social justice and censorship.”

Next to gender and sexuality, books dealing with race or racism are the most frequently targeted. Contemporary titles such as The 1619 Project from the New York Times and Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi have portrayed America’s history of racism in a way that some white parents find troubling.

Others find value in learning about different perspectives. Mickey Uppendahl attended the first meeting in September of a “Banned Book Club” at the Tahlequah Public Library in Oklahoma.

“I think it’s important to understand viewpoints that are different from others and usually banning books comes out of trying to suppress viewpoints that are different,” he told the Tahlequah Daily Press.

The essential role of the Christian parent

In summary, the issue is so complex, even thoughtful Christians can disagree. Yet some truths seem clear.

The object of parenting is to produce godly adults who can make wise choices. Parents should be intimately involved in deciding what’s appropriate for their children as they mature. But even the Bible acknowledges the presence of racial prejudice and sexual sin in our fallen world.

Ever since Adam and Eve ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, temptation has been part of our daily lives.

Sadly, we can’t completely protect our children from it.

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