Can’t happen here?

From the New York Times:  Prisons Purging Books on Faith From Libraries 

Behind the walls of federal prisons nationwide, chaplains have been quietly carrying out a systematic purge of religious books and materials that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries.    

The chaplains were directed by the Bureau of Prisons to clear the shelves of any books, tapes, CDs and videos that are not on a list of approved resources.  

…The lists have not been made public by the bureau, but were made available to The Times by a critic of the bureau’s project. In some cases, the lists indicate their authors’ preferences.  For example, more than 80 of the 120 titles on the list for Judaism are from the same Orthodox publishing house.  A Catholic scholar and an evangelical Christian scholar who looked over some of the lists were baffled at the selections. Timothy Larsen, who holds the Carolyn and Fred McManis Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, an evangelical school, looked over lists for “Other Christian” and “General Spirituality.”  “There are some well-chosen things in here,” Professor Larsen said. “I’m particularly glad that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. If I was in prison I would want to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” But he continued, “There’s a lot about it that’s weird.” The lists “show a bias toward evangelical popularism and Calvinism,” he said, and lacked materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations.


This effort to limit the religious texts available to U. S. prisoners came out of the Justice Department.  To borrow a line of thinking from Martin Niemoeller:

First we’ll deny rights to “enemy combatants” detained on a foreign field of battle, and I won’t protest because I’m not a foreigner fighting against the United States.  Then we’ll deny rights to US citizens suspected of being associated wit terrorists, and that’s fine with me, because I’m not a terrorist and I don’t hang with them.  Then we’ll listen in on people’s phone calls to outside of the country, and I’m okay with that because I don’t make that many international calls anyway.  Then we’ll listen in on the phone calls of everybody, and that’s okay because you can’t be too careful.  Now we’ll decide ahead of time what religious materials a prisoner can have access to, and that’s okay, because I’m no criminal and they wouldn’t ban the Bible (would they?) in America.  Before long the idea of making lists of what people can read will strike some faceless bureaucrat as a good idea for schools (to protect children, of course) and public libraries — where they are already keeping track of what books people check out, and forbidding the librarians from letting anyone know if their reading is being tracked — and, well, why should I care, since I don’t go to the library much?  

And when they come for me, my house, my bookshelf, who will be left to say that this is not how we do things in the Land of the Free? 

 Addendum, Oct. 1 — More recent reporting tells us that the attention brought to this issue by conservative evangelicals, liberal Christians and others has resulted in a reversal of the policy, at least for the short term.   


One thought on “Can’t happen here?

  1. Before long the idea of making lists of what people can read will strike some faceless bureaucrat as a good idea for schools (to protect children, of course) and public libraries …

    BINGO!!! And soon it will be a good idea for bookstores … where certain titles (only dirty, naughty, nasty titles, of course!) are already kept off the shelves or on a “request the title” basis. Which is OK because I don’t read dirty, nasty, naughty books and magazines … until they add “subversive” titles like Mother Jones and American Prospect and maybe authors like Noam Chomsky or even, heck, Al Gore …

    This country is dancing dangerously close to the knife’s edge, and the media isn’t paying attention. This New York Times piece should have been picked up by all of the major news outlets. Near as I can tell, the only people paying attention are bloggers!

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