Voices

Throw the book at 'em

Why isn't President Bush banishing a foolish prison book ban?

Issue: "Preach it," Oct. 6, 2007

Where have you gone, George W? The nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

My first close look at Governor Bush in action came in 1995. That's when Texas state officials tried, with bureaucratic nincompoopery, to shut down an evangelical organization, Teen Challenge of South Texas, that had helped to free hundreds of young men from alcoholism and drug addiction.

I wrote columns in WORLD and The Wall Street Journal about the attack and soon received a call: Could I meet with the governor and suggest ways out of the mess? Sure-and Bush responded right away with an order to his bureaucrats to shut up and sit down. He also convened a citizens' task force that recommended legislative changes to keep officials from circumscribing religious freedom.

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The Washington W and his aides have been at times similarly quick on the uptake: Two years ago, when WORLD reported an illogical Department of Agriculture rule that hurt religious groups, the Bush administration quickly changed it (WORLD, Aug. 27 and Sept. 10, 2005). But this year, as of Sept. 25, the White House had not overruled a foolish federal Bureau of Prisons decision to remove from prison libraries all religious books and materials not on the Bureau's list of approved readings.

WORLD and many others complained last month about the Bureau's "Standardized Chapel Library Program" that created lists averaging 150 allowable items for each of 20 religions or religious categories. By my rough count six authors have at least five books on the authorized Protestant list: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Calvin, Chuck Colson, C.S. Lewis, Max Lucado, and . . . Stormie Omartian. The list includes Praying by J.I. Packer, but if a library had Packer's Knowing God it would have to be purged. The list includes 50 Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die by John Piper, but if a library had Piper's Desiring God it would have to go.

Chaplains had to purge many great works, but authorized books include Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins and Elizabeth Johnson's She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. Tony Campolo and liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez made it in; Jonathan Edwards did not. Some of the specific choices seem curious, but there's a larger point: It's reasonable for officials to remove books that urge prisoners to murder their guards, but why is the government banning Knowing God, Desiring God, and thousands of other books that could help prisoners?

The prison bureaucracy has responded to criticism by saying that it will allow books not on the list to enter prison libraries. Here's how: (a) a prisoner has to request it, (b) the prison chaplain has to read it carefully and send a certification request to the Bureau in Washington and (c) the book has to make it to an updated approval list. That's no solution, clerics have rightly responded. One, Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, put it well: "I find it almost impossible that they can expect a prison chaplaincy department, which is already so strained, to take the time to review all these materials."

The better policy is one that prisons long have followed: Knock out the relatively few incendiary books, leave in everything else. Courts have long recognized prisons as a special case where some liberties are obviously lost-but there's no reason, as some bathwater is thrown out, to toss out babies as well.

So why the White House inaction in the face of criticism from both conservative House of Representative members and voices of the left like Sojourners and The New York Times? The thinking, I suspect, is the same that leads airport security folks to frisk gray old ladies rather than young Muslim men: fear of discrimination. A ban only of contemporary religious books that urge violence would take out many Muslim books, particularly because the extremist Wahhabi sect is strong in prisons and well-represented among Muslim prison chaplains.

The immediate choice now is between banning incitement to murder and banning anything not on an official list. That's easy: Bureaucrats like to use shotguns rather than lasers, but President Bush or his staffers should remember how Governor Bush acted.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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