In the past nine months, censorship efforts in the United States, have reached an unparalleled intensity. More than 1,500 books have been targeted by rightwing politicians and activists, including the work of the Nobel prize laureate Toni Morrison. Focusing on literature in U.S. schools, the bans have targeted books that focus on race and LGBTQ issues. A large number of the banned books have been written by non-white or LGBTQ authors.
Between July 1, 2021 and March 31 this year, 1,586 bans have been implemented in 86 school districts across 26 states. The book banning has been matched by a wave of rightwing legislation dictating what teachers can and cannot discuss in schools. In March this year, Florida passed a bill which forbids “instruction” on sexual orientation and gender identity. In Tennessee, the McMinn County School Board voted in January 2022 to remove Maus, a novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade curriculum.
Banning books paves the way for misinformation, disinformation, and fake news. All forms of thought-control. Ultimately, people who ban books are really banning people.
A number of states have also banned discussion about the impact of historical racism in the United States. Of the banned titles, 41% included protagonists or prominent secondary characters who were people of color and 22% directly address issues of race and racism.
Controlling information, of course, controls and shapes what people perceive as normal. Authoritarian political and religious leaders know that information management has a critical role in controlling a population.
In my Catholic tradition, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”), launched in the sixteenth century, banned thousands of books and publications. The aim of the “Index” was to protect “the faithful” from theologically, culturally, or politically repugnant books. It included books about church history, biblical studies, and morality as well as publications by dangerous astronomers, like Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the 17th-century Scientific Revolution, and dangerous philosophers like Immanuel Kant, who stressed that reason is also the source of morality.
The twentieth and final edition of the Index appeared in 1948. It contained 4,000 titles banned for various reasons. Finally, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was formally abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1966.
Launching his own campaign against book banning, a Deerfield Beach, Florida man said this week that he was more than angry after Florida lawmakers decided to ban 54 math books said to have incorporated dangerous topics such as critical race theory. Well known for his tongue-in-cheek protests, the man asked school districts in Florida to ban the Bible. He asked public school superintendents to immediately remove the Bible from classrooms, libraries, and from all instructional materials. He questioned whether the Bible is really age-appropriate because of the many Biblical references to murder, fornication, rape, and infanticide.
The rise of book banning is the tip of a much greater iceberg: a growing movement on the far-right to push an ideologically slanted vision of what children should learn about culture, society, and history. The objective is not about discussing ideas objectively. It’s about not discussing them at all, because some ideas are dangerous.
So what is really going on in contemporary U.S. society? I see a culture war in which the ideological far-right, who believe many U.S. Americans – especially the “intellectuals” — have sold out to the Antichrist, want to use coercive force to crush the “liberal influence” over U.S. culture. Sometimes called the New Right, these crusaders are fighting against what they see as a dangerous leftist elite, shaped by Hollywood, academia, media like the New York Times and the Washington Post, and even Silicon Valley.
The crusaders, encouraged by Fox News, are angry after decades of political defeats on cultural issues from abortion to gay marriage. And they were greatly energized by D. J. Trump.
Since the administration of former-president Trump – whom many supporters believe was sent by God — the strength of the contemporary U.S. political right, with its authoritarian and conspiracy-minded right-wing movements, like QAnon, has grown to about 24% of the current adult U.S. population. Today even about 8% of U.S. adults, or 21 million people, still support the phony belief that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and that the Joseph Biden presidency is illegitimate.
Much to the frustration of the far-right, U.S. socio-cultural values are shifting in ways they do not like. Support for LGBTQ people and same-sex marriage, for example, continues to grow. In April 2015, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 61% of U.S. Americans supported same-sex marriage. As of June 2021 Gallup reported that 70% of U.S. Americans support same sex marriage. Most surprisingly Republicans, who have consistently been the party group least in favor of same-sex marriage, showed majority support in 2021 for the first time (55%). Democrats have consistently been among the biggest supporters of legal same-sex marriage. Today it is 83%.
As of this year, according to Gallup, the percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or something other than heterosexual has increased to 7.1%, which is double the percentage from 2012. Most interesting, perhaps, roughly 21% of Generation Z — those born between 1997 and 2003 — identify as LGBTQ.
Official Catholic teaching is still strongly anti-LGBTQ. Some contemporary books that are considered dangerous are Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer, and Cory Silverberg’s Sex is a Funny Word, a sex education book for 8-10 year olds. Other books being banned or challenged by parents are Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Not so surprisingly, Morrison, Johnson, Butler, and Angelou are African American, while Kobabe and Silverberg call themselves queer and Vuong is gay.
This past week, in Massachusetts, the Catholic school controversy continued to intensify. In the Diocese of Worcester, a Catholic school’s decision to fly Pride and Black Lives Matter flags brought a strong protest from Bishop Robert McManus. He ordered that Nativity School remove the flags or risk losing its Catholic affiliation. The school, run by Jesuits, has so far refused to do so and has found growing support in the local community.
Bishop McManus belongs to a group of culture warrior Catholic bishops and insists that the Pride and Black Lives Matter flags are symbols that “stand in contrast to consistent Catholic teaching” and promote “ideologies which are contrary to Catholic teaching.”
The President of Nativity School, Thomas McKenney, issued a statement that the school began displaying the flags in early in 2021 “to remind our young men, their families and Nativity Worcester staff that all are welcome here and that they are valued and safe in this place. It says to them that they, in fact, do matter and deserve to be respected as our Christian values teach us.”
Fortunately, there are indeed some prophetic U.S. Catholic bishops. In January 2021, eight U.S. Catholic bishops, declaring “God is on your side,” issued a statement in support for LGBTQ youth and denouncing the bullying often directed at them. The bishops are Cardinal Joseph Tobin, of Newark, New Jersey; and Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Bishops John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky; Robert McElroy of San Diego; Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Edward Weisenberger of Tucson, Arizona, as well as two retired auxiliary bishops, Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit and Dennis Madden of Baltimore.
The bishops’ statement said LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at much higher rates, are often homeless because of families who reject them, and are the target of violent acts at alarming rates. “We take this opportunity to say to our LGBTQ friends,” the bishops wrote, “especially young people, that we stand with you and oppose any form of violence, bullying or harassment directed at you… Most of all, know that God created you, God loves you, and God is on your side.”
Frankly, those other bishops who so loudly protest against LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter are wrong. They are abusing their position and misleading people. Jesus didn’t say anything about LGBTQ. Jesus reached out in love to everybody. He made no distinctions based on gender or race. In the words and example of Jesus we find TRUTH. And his truth makes people free.
When authoritarian leaders control information or create false information, they misrepresent truth as whatever they want it to be. With controlled information, authoritarian religious and political leaders put people into confusing situations in which quite often they do not know what to do. They often then fall under authoritarian control.
Our challenge is to be well-informed promoters of shared knowledge and critical thinking. Our challenge is to support wise, well-informed, and courageous civic leaders. The issue is more than books. Not one single student has died in a mass reading project yet people are banning books instead of guns.