Religion & Philosophy

Prisons culling books on faith from libraries – why…?

In a move that seems slightly out of character (at first glance) for the Bush administration, chaplains in federal prisons are culling prison libraries of books on faith.

Notice I said “at first glance.” This is the Bush administration. So there’s got to be an agenda, right?

Of course, there is. As usual with these guardians of “the homeland” (is there a term in common usage that makes the gorge rise more than”the homeland”? I mean if they’d chosen something/anything else -say, “the mother ship” – at least we’d get a laugh out of it instead of always feeling that the term sounds discomfortingly jarring in Bush’s “silver-spoon-fed hick boy” Texas accent rather than in a clipped Teutonic one), there’s a “9/11” connection. A report from the Inspector General’s Office in the Department of Justice (that bastion of civil liberty and freedom in this administration) stated in 2004 that prisons might become recruiting grounds for “militant Islamic and other religious groups.” (Italics mine)

I know I’ve been concerned about Leavenworth and Atlanta becoming madrassas rather about than Gitmo and Abu Ghraib being proven to be American secret prisons practicing torture….

Lucky for us, the DOJ under that patriot Alberto Gonzalez has realized how dangerous books on faith can be. As Bureau of Prisons mouthpiece spokesperson Traci Billingsley notes in her defense of this new policy:

We really wanted consistently available information for all religious groups to assure reliable teachings as determined by reliable subject experts. (Italics mine)

This policy seems incongruent in an administration that’s looking for “faith based” solutions to social problems, doesn’t it. Other people think so, too:

It’s swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. There’s no need to get rid of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are fine simply because you have a problem with an isolated book or piece of literature that presents extremism. – Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian group.

The lists of acceptable texts, chosen by those “reliable subject experts,” seem inconsistent to the point of quirkiness. There’s lots of C.S. Lewis, no Karl Barth or Reinhold Niebuhr. There’s also no Robert Schuller, a minister one would think that Busheviks would find perfectly acceptable. Then, too, there’s the problem of funding. The removal of “unacceptable” faith books and the replacing of them with “acceptable” ones is, like so many Bushevik “education” mandates, unfunded:

The bureau (of prisons) has not provided additional money to prisons to buy the books on the lists, so in some prisons, after the shelves were cleared of books not on the lists, few remained.

Many prison chaplains, tasked with removing the “unacceptable” books, find this new purging policy unnecessary. As they point out, books that espouse extremist ideas or violence are rejected regularly, and all materials that were in prison libraries already had to be approved.

All this suggests the obvious – is there a 1st Amendment issue at stake? Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Michigan law school believes that there is – mainly because (as usual) the Bush government has overreached:

Government does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons. But once they say, ‘We’re going to pick 150 good books for your religion, and that’s all you get,’ the criteria has become more than just inciting violence. They’re picking out what is accessible religious teaching for prisoners, and the government can’t do that without a compelling justification. Here the justification is, the government is too busy to look at all the books, so they’re going to make their own preferred list to save a little time, a little money.

Finally, there’s the nature of the list itself. Although the government hasn’t made the list public, it’s been leaked, and even evangelical scholars are baffled at some of the choices. Timothy Larsen, professor of Christian Thought at the evangelical Wheaton College, thinks the list is skewed:

There are some well-chosen things in here. I’m particularly glad that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. If I was in prison I would want to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But there’s a lot about it that’s weird. The lists show a bias toward evangelical popularism and Calvinism, and lack materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations.

Besides the predictable exclusion of Islamic texts, the list also shows a bias against Catholic and Jewish scholarship. And forget about areas like Wiccan studies.

One can only guess at the why of this latest assault on free speech by the Bush administration. Maybe it’s their foolish and futile attempt to derail the education of an American Osama – or another Malcolm X. Maybe purging prison libraries is a first step toward purging any libraries that receive federal funding of any kind of books that Bush – or those like him – find unacceptable.

As with most every policy of the Busheviks, it’s difficult to tell bad intent from stupidity.

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5 replies »

  1. What, no Drawing Down the Moon?

    I can’t say I’m surprised. I remember a while back there were people calling for a part time Wiccan prison minister to be fired because, as one evangelical minister said, “the focus in prison should be on forgiveness (paraphrased).”

    Some people should really learn more about other religions before they open their mouths.

  2. Some people should really learn more about other religions before they open their mouths.

    That sentence is a little wordy. Let me see if I can tighten it up a bit.

    Some people should really learn more about other religions.

    There. That’s better.

  3. “The lists show a bias toward evangelical popularism and Calvinism, and lack materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations.”

    There’s your answer. There’s only one ‘flavor’ of faith that is permitted- the most repressive, zealous, biblotrous and top-down controllable sects of Christianity. This same bias is very evident in the military- they’ve permitted a flood of Assemblies pastors to the near-exclusion of nearly all others, and the Assemblies of God is a very zealous, overweening and evangelical sect whose chaplains do not adhere to the ecumenical requirements of the chaplain code, and actively and aggressively proselytize young military members- including other Christian sects. Non-Christians and non religious people are especially target.

    I can see the same sort of blanket coverage in prisons. This does not surprise me at all.

    I hate the use of the word ‘homeland’, too. We’re a country. A nation. Not a ‘homeland’. That term smacks of some sort of religious supremacy that I do not wish to be part of.

  4. The repressive, ignorant, Puritanical streak that runs deep in our culture is the root of why our approach to religion is so skewed. We can’t be happy with our beliefs and our relationship with God (or lack of one), no–we have to make sure EVERYONE ELSE thinks the way we do. And these people make religion such a joyless, unhappy, unpleasant, and frightening experience that it’s no wonder people mouth the words and ignore the meaning.

    Then again, I’m Jewish–I’ve always thought the idea of a denomination where you could sin like a mofo all your life and still get into Heaven just by asking forgiveness was a helluva racket. 😉

    And yes, I hate “homeland” too. There is something so ominously fascist and creepy about that. Can you recall anyone using that word before 9/11? We used to call those things “National security,” “National defense,” etc. Every time I see the word “homeland,” I think of black uniforms, jackboots, and book burnings. And that’s not something I want to see.

  5. Speaking of puritanical attitudes, I could probably write for days on the stupidity of ranking sex as more corrosive and corrupting than violence. An NC-17 rating for sex is easy to earn, but the same for violence? I’ve never heard of it unless it was sex and violence combined.