Sunday marks the start of Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) to celebrate the right to learn by highlighting books that have, over the years, fallen prey to censors.
In Rumford, Maine, the staff of the public library decided to get a head start on things by erecting a display of banned books. But, in a development that surely caused the irony meter to explode, three conservative ministers in town demanded that the banned books display be banned because some of the banned books it features they believe should, in fact, be banned.
Did you get that?
Faced with public blowback, the religious leaders are now insisting that they don’t want any books to be banned – they just want them to be removed from public display at the library. They’re playing the “please-think-of-the-children” card, arguing that because some of the books deal with LGBTQ issues, this somehow makes them inappropriate for children to even see.
To its credit, the library’s Board of Trustees, after hearing several points of view during a public meeting, voted unanimously to keep the display.
I’ve written previously about how common religiously based censorship of books, magazines, plays and other material used to be in the United States. Every time I write about this issue, some people act as if it’s no big deal anymore because you can get the books you want online or through bookstores.
That misses the point. Bookstores haven’t been the censors’ target for a long time. These days, it’s public libraries and public schools that feel the heat. The ALA reported 416 censorship attempts in 2017. Of the top 10 books most frequently targeted, half of them deal with LGBTQ themes. (One of them is an award-winning children’s book titled And Tango Makes Three that the Religious Right has been going after for years.)
Many Religious Right leaders are old hands at the censorship game. Pastor Robert Jeffress, one of the most prominent members of President Donald Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board, first made national headlines in 1998 over a censorship flap. Jeffress was pastoring a Baptist church in Wichita Falls, Texas, at the time, and a member brought him copies of Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate, two LGBTQ-themed children’s books that the parishioner had checked out of the library.
Jeffress confiscated the books and refused to return them, eventually paying a $54 fine. A member of his church later proposed an elaborate system of censorship whereby if 100 library card-holding residents requested that a book be placed on restricted access, it would off limits to anyone under 13. City residents spoke out against the plan, and the library board rejected it.
The bottom line is that there are plenty of Religious Right zealots out there who would like to control what our children can read and, by extension, what they can learn. Opposing censorship efforts is the most important thing you can do to stop them, but there’s another, more entertaining activity you should not overlook: Set a good example for youngsters by reading a banned book yourself.