As we noted on the “Wall of Separation” blog yesterday, it’s Banned Books Week. You may know about the work Americans United has done to protect young people from Christian Nationalists who seek the right to control what they may read and learn in America’s public schools. But here’s something you may not know: Opposing religiously based censorship has been part of AU’s mission from its earliest days.
At the time of AU’s founding in 1947, censorship – often based on alleged offenses to religious views – was distressingly common. In an age where there was no internet or big box stores, books were often sold by small mom-and-pop operations, department stores or newsstands. It was easy for powerful religious groups to apply pressure and have books pulled that they disliked – and they often had help from local governments.
Defending the right to read
Americans United spoke out against this. In 1955, Paul Blanshard, an AU-affiliated researcher, published The Right To Read: The Battle Against Censorship. Blanshard chronicled several attacks on books that are today considered classics. Many of these censorship campaigns were led by religious groups, usually under the aegis of “vice suppression.”
Conservative religious groups like the Watch and Ward Society and the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice often worked alongside government officials to suppress books they found objectionable. But it wasn’t just books – magazines, films and stage plays could be banned if they were deemed “sacrilegious” or “blasphemous.”
U.S. law does not recognize blasphemy
The 1950s were a fairly Puritanical period, but that didn’t stop Americans United from building a groundswell of public support to oppose laws and policies allowing large religious groups to determine what people could read. The effort bore good fruit: Federal courts eventually dealt a blow to the vice crusaders by ruling that U.S. law does not recognize blasphemy.
The struggle to secure the right to read goes on today. Join us this week in protecting that right and opposing Christian Nationalists who believe their narrow definition of faith should control us all.
Remember, when you do so, you’ll be honoring Americans United’s proud history.