NYT: Library moral equivalency?

book chainsMaybe it’s appropriate to write about this on the morning of Sept. 11. How different would things be today if the terrorist attacks of six years ago had never happened?

On Monday Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times gave us a hugely important story about new policies that are limiting the religion books inmates in federal prisons can freely access from their facilities’ libraries. According to Traci Billingsley, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman, the agency is responding to a Justice Department Inspector General’s report that recommended actions in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to keep prisons from becoming recruiting grounds for Islamic militants. And other groups:

But prison chaplains, and groups that minister to prisoners, say that an administration that put stock in religion-based approaches to social problems has effectively blocked prisoners’ access to religious and spiritual materials — all in the name of preventing terrorism.

“It’s swatting a fly with a sledgehammer,” said Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian group. “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.”

Good for the Times in quoting Earley, but was the organization’s founder, Chuck Colson, unavailable for comment? With his close ties to the Bush administration, it would be interesting to know his thoughts. Obviously this is issue is several steps removed from the White House, but if I’m not mistaken each agency has a White House-designated official who reviews and approves all new agency regulations.

Instead of weeding out books that could be placed into this category, the prison agency talked to a bunch of unnamed people and put together a list of 300 books and multimedia resources comprising 20 religions or religious categories. The Times received a copy of the list from a source who doesn’t like the project. The problem raised by a project like this is, of course, some books won’t be on that list:

The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.

The identities of the bureau’s experts have not been made public, Ms. Billingsley said, but they include chaplains and scholars in seminaries and at the American Academy of Religion. Academy staff members said their organization had met with prison chaplains in the past but was not consulted on this effort, though it is possible that scholars who are academy members were involved.

The bureau 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.

What’s almost as interesting as the list are the book examples provided by the Times. I’ve complained about this before, by why in this era of the Internets can we not just publish the whole list on the Times site and provide a link? All we are given is a list of “http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2007/09/10/us/20070910_PRISON_CHART.html/”>Some Excluded Works.” It’s a good thing the Times qualified that with “some,” since there is no way to compile the list of all the excluded titles. It would be easier if the Times had just given us the list of approved books.

Nevertheless, the legal justification behind this policy sounds like something the government would try to put forward. The coming legal battle could end up being a defining case in determining the federal government’s relationship with religion.

The Times quotes David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group:

Mr. Zwiebel asked, “Since when does the government, even with the assistance of chaplains, decide which are the most basic books in terms of religious study and practice?”

The lawsuit raises serious First Amendment concerns, said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, but he added that it was not a slam-dunk case.

“Government does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons,” Mr. Laycock said. “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.”

Since this is a story about book lists — a genuine news story about lists! — we’re given a few opinions on the thoroughness of the list, which is great. But wouldn’t it be greater for us all to be able to chime in with what we think should be on the list? I’m sure a few of us would have an opinion or two:

Timothy Larsen, who holds the Carolyn and Fred McManis Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, an evangelical school, looked over lists for “Other Christian” and “General Spirituality.”

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

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame (who edited “The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism,” which did make the list), said the Catholic list had some glaring omissions, few spiritual classics and many authors he had never heard of.

“I would be completely sympathetic with Catholic chaplains in federal prisons if they’re complaining that this list is inhibiting,” he said, “because I know they have useful books that are not on this list.”

The next step for the journalist is to determine who was on the committee that put this list together. I certainly hope a Freedom of Information Act request has been filed.

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  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    I agree with you, and with a wide range of religious, library, and civil-liberties groups, that this action is outrageous. Not the least of my objections is the needless secrecy. What are they trying to hide?

    Here’s what I think the key questions are:

    1. What re the 20 approved religions? Given the recent struggle for simple grave markers for my own co-religionists, I am not likely to trust the inclusiveness in a governmental list of approved religions.

    2. What are the permitted books? Some of the exclusions (Maimonides, Hans Kung) were really inexplicable. Do these bibliographies represent the full spectrum of opinion within each faith group, or are they biased in some way? For example, 2/3 of the Jewish books were from one single Orthodox publisher, but according to an article in today’s NY Times, only 21% of American Jews self-identify as Orthodox.

    3. Who were the “experts” they conculted? Again, did these people fairly represent the full spectrum of opinion within that faith group?

    4. Less important: but what, if anything, were any outside advisors paid?

    Knowing the answers to these questions would tell us a lot!

  • Joseph Fox

    I am also distressed by the secrecy associated with the generation of the lists and the resulting lack of accountability. The issue is entangled with “book burnings” and government controlled religion.

  • http://lowly.blogspot.com Undergroundpewster

    Ghosts and specters are lurking in this story as Judy has correctly identified.

  • Jerry

    defining case in determining the federal government’s relationship with religion.

    Indeed. This is going to be a very big case. I think this is one area where both the Christian right and the ACLU will wind up on the same side.

    The key line that raised my hackles was:

    “We really wanted consistently available information for all religious groups to assure reliable teachings as determined by reliable subject experts.”

    With the federal government determining who the reliable subject experts are, of course. That to me is a clear violation of the ‘establishment clause’. We’ll see if the Supreme Court agrees with my lay legal judgment.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Have the usual suspects in the library community screamed bloody murder about this?

    Just asking.

  • Jerry

    To Terry’s question. I’ll leave it to the professional journalists to research whomever the ‘usual suspects in the library community are’. I certainly don’t know. Maybe we should get the government to compile an authoritative list of the usual suspects for us? But I did find this telling quote:

    I never believed I would be defending religion or prison inmates, but when it comes to removing religious material from prisons, I find that I can’t agree with the government.


  • Gary

    Professor Larsen said the list shows a bias towards Calvinism. I for one find that hard to believe.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow


    check out this link for starters:

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Hey, I am married to a librarian.

    I simply wanted to know what the library groups are saying about this, the groups that are, under normal circumstances, so fierce in defense of Free Speech.

  • bobk

    I recall reading that C.S. Lewis was a little disappointed that he wasn’t on a list of dangerous authors to be liquidated had the Nazis succeeded in an invasion of England. Maybe being banned from prison libraries can make amends for this oversight. What Hitler ignored the US Bureau of Prisons has
    found to be dangerous. Hard to make up, isn’t it?

  • Calee

    Is there any outcry from the FOX news set on this one? Will evangelicals hold the Bush administration accountable? I hope there will be some follow-up reporting.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    According to a comment on my blog a FOIA has been filed regarding this list. I have also e-mailed the New York Times reporter to see if she’ll release more information concerning the list, but I’m not holding my breath.

    TMATT, have you tried any of your journalistic contacts to see if you can get your hands on the list?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Professor Laycock writes on Religionlaw that he said “acceptable”, not “accessible”.

    From the Times, it sounds like the “Approved” list is a work in progress, which would explain why the papers did not offer it– they can’t get it.

    What I want to see pursued is what/who was behind the original impulse for the measure? Pressure from Congress? TheBushAdministration? Concerned Citizens? I suspect that that the Bureau of Prisons was facing demands to Do Something, and, as usual, Did the first Something that someone thought of, whether it makes sense or not. (Judy, some of us do not trust TheGovernment (which, remember, means a)bureaucrats b)politicians) to do ANYTHING sensibly.)

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    In the Collected Letters, Lewis writes how he was told that a girl has been Expelliarmus, er, expelled from school for having THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS. When he asked was this a fundamentalist school, or a Catholic school, or what, the reply was “No, it was a SELECT school.” “That really puts one in one’s place!”

  • http://www.philocrites.com/ Philocrites

    A July 10 story on Christianity Today’s website includes this nugget: “The BOP is now working to complete a list of acceptable religious books of all faiths, which will not be available until October. After its initial release, the list will be updated and released annually, said a BOP representative.”

    The American Academy of Religion has released a statement clarifying that the AAR had nothing to do with developing the BOP list, despite the implications of the NYTimes story.

    I’m collecting news about the story at my blog.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Philocrites, where is your blog? I;ve been trying to follow this story. Did you see that the book removals have been protested by both Agudath Israel and Christianity Today — a good start!

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    There’s quite a distance from The report recommended steps that prisons should take, in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups. to Ms. Billingsley said, “We really wanted consistently available information for all religious groups to assure reliable teachings as determined by reliable subject experts.”

    Just what is a reliable teaching? One that gets somebody to heaven or enlightenment? No. The government can’t ensure that. A teaching that accurately represents a group? No. For what if the group is itself militant? On the other hand, what if a book “unreliably” said that a group taught pacifism?

    Aside from any other consideration, why not declare that any book over 100 years old is fair game? The book would then not have been written to stir up the partisan loyalties of the present political situation. Oh, wait. Some of the original texts could still manage to do that anyway.