by Robert Crux | 17 May 2023 |
Highly politicized book bans have exploded across the nation. Placing a book on a library shelf can polarize a whole school community. Threats to librarians and information professionals are on the rise, too; these normally mild-mannered information professionals have been labeled ideological groomers and pedophiles by conservative social media, denounced by local politicians, and reported by parents to local authorities for books deemed unacceptable in their school libraries.
The microscopic examination of the nation’s school libraries by conservative activists has resulted in numerous book bans, risking blatant violations of the First Amendment and threatening the careers and personal reputations of many school librarians. Hiding their selfish goals behind the language of patriotism, parental rights, and Christian purity, extreme right politicians are questioning and banning books that fall out of line with their conservative ideology and narrative for America’s future and survival.
In this rush to judgment school librarians are under attack, and it can be argued that democracy itself is under attack.
In 2022, the American Library Association (ALA) documented 1,269 demands of book censorship. It was “the highest the organization had ever recorded since it began collecting censorship data more than 20 years prior,”—and 2023 looks to be another record-setting year. At the heart of this widespread book censorship movement is the “anti-woke crusade” promoted by right wing performance politicians.
Many conservative politicians have made “anti-wokeness” the cornerstone of their political campaigns for 2024, decrying it as unAmerican and demonizing wokeness as a destructive radical ideology. The anti-woke identity of right-wing politicians projects extremism onto their opposition to condone their own extremist views (i.e., perpetuating white supremacy) in American culture and society.
In a piece in USA Today (March 8, 2023), Susan Page cites an Ipsos poll showing that most Americans view the word “woke” as a positive attribute. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed say the term means “to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices. That includes not only three-fourths of Democrats but also more than a third of Republicans.”
Yet, this wokeness ideology, when defined as being too open-minded on issues of race and social justice, is condemned and portrayed as Marxism in some states by politicians looking for votes. Campaign hopefuls promise to censor library books and punish workplaces they denounce as “woke.”
Maeve Higgins writes in The Guardian,
… the censorship frequently pushed by conservative groups is linked to wealthy rightwing donors even as they masquerade as grassroots efforts, with names like “Moms for Liberty” and “Parents Defending Education.” Republican legislators, who loudly claim they are all for freedom of speech, are working to change how library board members are appointed and challenging laws that protect librarians and teachers from prosecution should they be accused of sharing something someone could find offensive.
Book banning tends to be an emotionally charged issue that drives parents and communities to “protect” their children. Some politicians use this to encourage a false sense of victimhood. Greg Sargent in the Washington Post writes that
… it should be blindingly obvious that many red-state book crackdowns are designed to encourage the impulse toward censorship. By enabling lone actors to get dozens of titles removed from school library shelves while meeting deliberately vague criteria for objecting to them, these measures invite overzealous parents to hunt for books to purge.
Christopher Rhodes of Aljazeera says that
others have condemned ‘woke racism,’ an ill-defined criticism that seems to imply that we are taking the concept of battling racism too seriously and perhaps even engaging in reverse racism as a result.
Politicians have capitalized on this sense of embattlement and victimhood by encouraging parents and communities to fight back against the evil forces of a decaying and immoral society with random and often senseless censorship of school library and curriculum/resource materials.
Whiteness and anti-wokeness
I am asserting here that anti-wokeness is a made-up menace designed to distort historical racism and ongoing social injustices—used in the same way conservative activists used the issue of abortion to attract and energize white evangelical voters. Wokeness is so politicized and misrepresented that white people are now being described as victims of racial bias and mistreatment by American society and culture. Writes Nicole Cardoza,
Some people are so focused on protecting white supremacy that they’re willing to manifest a new enemy to exercise its power against. As a result, there are coordinated attacks against “wokeness” that are actually more forceful applications of white supremacy culture.
These distortions about wokeness should be called for what they really are: a new political tactic supporting white supremacy. By whitewashing the history of racism in the United States and erasing the struggle of Black Americans to gain equal rights under the law, the anti-wokeness crusade is attempting to change the narrative and create a new American history for today’s students.
I believe that the anti-wokeness movement with its book-banning crusade is not about protecting children; it’s about discrimination.
Adventists and censorship
In his essay “Christianity and Censorship,” Daniel Blackaby says
Christians cannot censor a spiritually dead world into eternal life… Christians should not be apathetic toward ideologies pushed by secular society, particularly when children are concerned. But Christians should focus on shining light rather than overly fretting about the darkness. Freedom of speech and ideas should be the default posture.
For Seventh-day Adventist librarians the issue of censorship has typically been over theological differences, strong language, and books of fiction. A survey conducted among library directors in Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities around the world shows that Seventh-day Adventist librarians at the university and college levels are most often challenged because of differences in religious/theological beliefs or strong language.
It is understandable and expected that Adventist schools teach from a biblical worldview that includes books that adhere to the parameters of the moral law, and specifically the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the church. However, K-12 school librarians and English literature teachers often walk a fine line in maintaining balance between the unique Adventist worldview beliefs and the integrity of having a range of other world views available for students to critique and compare with their own views.
Further, each Adventist school community tends to be unique regarding what is acceptable literature or library reading material for its students (regardless of conference or union education office levels having approved curriculum committee book/materials lists available).
I was quick to learn this early in my teaching career when I supplemented my Grade 9 & 10 Bible class reading materials with Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. These books were too controversial for that particular Adventist community—while in another Adventist community I learned these books were acceptable and even promoted.
This is why new teachers/librarians must learn the theological “lay of the land” quickly and understand which books may cause controversy in their classrooms on a particular Adventist campus or location. A wrong decision about what books or literature to include in the classroom/library can be a career-ending faux pas for both the neophyte and seasoned Adventist education professional.
The spectrum of acceptability in Adventist school communities can range from libraries that include the latest Newbery/Caldecott award-winning fiction books, fictional Christian romance books, and other books published by reputed non-Adventist Christian publishers, to those schools that regard only the Bible, the Spirit of Prophecy, Review and Herald, and Pacific Press books as acceptable in their school libraries. These two extremes of the spectrum demonstrate the wide range of theological differences reflected in the books we have (or don’t have) in Adventist school libraries.
It remains to be seen what impact the current highly politicized book bans in the public sector of the nation will have on Adventist school libraries and classrooms. However, every book ban matters because it restricts access to ideas based on someone’s ideological, political, or theological objection.
Intellectual freedom is something every Christian should cherish. Jesus told His followers the greatest commandment was to “… love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind’” (Matt. 22:37). The last phrase of this text—“…all your mind”—means we have a responsibility to glorify God by the way we study, ponder, and think. To do so, we must be given the freedom to decide for ourselves what books we will and will not read, rather than relying on the viewpoint of an influential religious or political leader.
Americans and censorship
For many Americans, book banning is associated with extremely authoritarian regimes like Nazi Germany. A CBS News Poll of February 2022, written up by Fred Backus and Anthony Salvanto is entitled, “Big Majorities reject book bans.” Americans, they say,
overwhelmingly reject the idea of banning books about history or race. One reason for that: a big majority also say teaching about the history of race in America makes students understand what others went through. Large majorities — more than 8 in 10 — don’t think books should be banned from schools for discussing race and criticizing U.S. history, for depicting slavery in the past, or more broadly, for political ideas they disagree with. We see wide agreement across party lines, and between White and Black Americans on this. Parents feel the same as the wider public.”
Further, Bakus and Salvanto add that
Americans are okay with the broader notion of public schools teaching about ideas and historical events that might make some students uncomfortable. By contrast, the idea that teaching about race makes students feel guilty about past generations or makes them less racially tolerant today gets little traction with most Americans.
families in the American majority (white, English-speaking, Christian, and so on) have the privilege of ignoring issues minority families cannot, such as racism, police brutality, or terrorism. The Hate U Give has been on the Top 10 Banned Books list for years. If we keep banning the book and ignoring the issues on which it is based, change will never take place.
As Christians leaders, we should encourage and foster the growth of young minds—not stifle them or insulate them from understanding the plight of those citizens who have been traditionally forced to the margins of American society. How can we best defend and embrace Christian principles without understanding the diversity, the inequity, and the need for inclusion in our communities?
The Bible allows people to make their own choices. We have the choice to refuse to read books we think are inappropriate to our faith or our children’s age.
However, we are not called to make that decision for everyone.
Robert D. Crux, Ed.S, worked as a teacher, principal, and superintendent of schools over a period of 35 years in Adventist education before retiring in 2016 to Lawton, Michigan, where he enjoys writing, reading, biking, model railroading, and, most of all, his grandchildren.