It has been amusing to watch some people pretend to be in high dudgeon about a decision by the company that owns the Dr. Seuss books to stop publishing six titles because they contain racist imagery.
Let’s be clear about a few things: One, this isn’t censorship. When a company decides to stop printing or selling a book – something that happens all the time – that’s a marketing decision, not censorship.
Two, there are serious censorship attempts in America – and extremist religious groups are responsible for just about all of them.
Politically and theologically conservative religious groups have a long, sorry track record of trying to control what we can read, see and experience. The historical cases of censorship in the U.S. follow a familiar pattern: Usually, a religious organization or a member of the clergy would get worked up about a book and demand local merchants stop selling it. Government officials would apply pressure, and the book would disappear. In some cases, the books (many of which are now considered classics) were unavailable for years.
In more recent times, censorship campaigns tend to focus on books being used in public schools or that are available in public libraries. Here are just a few examples:
- A band of fundamentalist parents in Hawkins County, Tenn., attempted to remove a number of books from a public school in 1983 because, they said, the books promoted witchcraft and immorality. Among the books targeted was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The classic fairy tale “Goldilocks and Three Bears” came under fire because Goldilocks was never punished for breaking into the bears’ cabin and stealing their food.
- In the late 1980s and ’90s, a series of school readers called “Impressions” came under attack from fundamentalist Christians around the country. The books, which contained selections of various types of literature, were accused of promoting witchcraft and humanism. In one case, a North Carolina pastor launched a crusade against the readers because he apparently confused the word “humanities” with “humanism.”
- Pastor Robert Jeffress, who became a national figure due to his close relationship with former president Donald Trump, was a big censorship advocate. In 1998, Jeffress was pastoring a Baptist church in Wichita Falls, Texas, when a member brought him two LGBTQ-themed books, Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate, that the congregant had checked out of the public library. Jeffress confiscated the books and refused to return them. 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 be off limits to anyone under 13. City residents spoke out against the plan, and the library board rejected it.
- A charming children’s book about two male chinstrap penguins at New York City’s Central Park Zoo who adopted a fertilized egg and raised the chick drove Christian nationalist groups to distraction in 2008. The book, And Tango Makes Three, was, according to Focus on the Family, “a very disingenuous, inaccurate way to promote a political agenda to little kids.”
- A school board in Republic, Mo., voted unanimously to ban Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer in 2011. One board member called the books “contrary to the Bible.”
- An anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ activist in Orange City, Iowa, named Paul Dorr checked four LGBTQ-themed books out of the public library in 2018 and set them on fire. Dorr made a video of the event, which he posted to Facebook. As he tossed the books into the fire, Dorr remarked, “I cannot stand by and let the shameful adults at the Orange City Library Board bring the next group of little children into their foul, sexual reality without a firm resistance.”
- Last year, a bill was introduced in the Missouri legislature that threatened public libraries with revocation of funding and even jail time for librarians if they allow children to get their hands on “age-inappropriate” materials – which is usually coded language for LGBTQ-themed content.
Remember, these are just a few examples from AU’s archives; there are plenty more.
Christian nationalists love to prattle on and on about “cancel culture.” They should know a few things about that. After all, they pioneered it.