Friday, 21 September 2007

Absurd censorship in America

It hardly seems possible, but the American government has taken to banning certain religious texts from prison libraries.

The ban includes texts by theologians Reinhold Niebuhr or Karl Barth, as well as popular inspirational work such as Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Life or Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

As The New York Times put it, "chaplains have been quietly carrying out a systematic purge of religious books and materials that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries."

The news reports seem implausible. The idea of government bureaucrats drafting a list of approved books on religion seems like something out of Soviet-era Russia, not the United States of America, where freedom of religion – even for those behind prison walls – is supposed to be sacrosanct.

But the reports are true. All of the books and authors named above have been removed from prison libraries. In some instances, according to the Times, chaplains have been forced to dismantle "libraries that had thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups."

The contents of the "approved" list seem capricious. For example, "80 of the 120 titles on the list for Judaism are from the same Orthodox publishing house," and the list for Christianity "lack[s] materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations."

The Bureau of Prisons says they merely want to ensure prisons are not recruiting grounds for terrorists and other militant groups. So why are they removing the vast majority of materials on faith and religion? And if prisoners are not free to pursue their own faith journeys, what cause for hope should they have?

Christians from across the political and theological spectrum are outraged. As Mark Earley, president and chief executive officer of Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship, told the Times, "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."

I wonder if Rick Warren had not so vocally opposed aspects of the Bush Administration, would he still find himself on the banned list?

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