September 10, 2007

Whaaa? Worthy

by PG

When the Bureau of Prisons instructed prisons to remove all works from nine publishers that were on a list of dangerous religious reading materials, the ban raised relatively little fuss. Although the right of prisoners to practice their faith has Constitutional backing as well as legislative reinforcement through the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, that right tends to be manifested through behaviors such as diet, prayer and personal appearance (e.g. Jews' keeping kosher, Muslims' worshipping five times a day or Sikhs' wearing a turban). Even practices related to dangerous, violent and racist belief systems* receive some protection, as with the Five Percent Nation, a nontheistic offshoot of the black supremacist Nation of Islam. However, the right with regard to religious literature is a negative one; a right to receive, rather than a right to have the prison provide such information. A Five Percenter must be allowed to read whatever ridiculous pamphlets he has brought to prison, but the prison has no affirmative obligation to furnish them to him.

Therefore I am inclined to think that the Bush Administration's decision to have the Bureau ban all reading material from prison libraries that does not appear on a short list of what is permitted falls into the category of "stupid, possibly financially biased, but not unconstitutional." (Cf. the awarding of military contracts.) If the Bureau of Prisons wanted to burn every book in the prison libraries, or just the ones with red covers, it could do so without infringing the First Amendment, so long as it didn't single out a particular religion for such persecution. Nonetheless, it is the sort of policy that makes for good Daily Show material: an idiotic overreaction to legitimate concerns about prisons as a breeding ground for conversion to violent religious ideologies. I can see why the government would perceive particular material as dangerous and thus appropriate for excising, but assuming that Reinhold Niebuhr must promote dangerous beliefs because he didn't make a C.S Lewis-heavy list of Approved Christian Theology (and given Lewis's views on the need for women to obey their husbands, I don't see him as a pure beacon of enlightened thought) is grotesquely bad thinking. If the chaplains at individual prisons are so bad at vetting what comes into their libraries that the system needs to be managed from Washington, perhaps the Bureau should look at where it gets the chaplains instead.

* The Southern Poverty Law Center is a wonderful resource, but I concur with Tim Wise that the name doesn't seem apropos:

To that effect, we have groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center spending all their time taking a handful of Nazis to court, tracking hate groups on the Internet, and sending out stamps that say "teach tolerance" to folks on their mailing list so as to raise more money (despite an endowment in the tens of millions of dollars) -- all so they can do anything but help poor people -- which, given their name, I had always assumed was the point. In addition to the Center, there are at least a half-dozen organizations nationwide that focus almost exclusively on doing battle with "the far-right." They can tell you everything you’d ever want to know about even the most insignificant Christian Identity church (members of which believe Jews are Satanic and persons of color are "mud people" without souls), or let you know who attended the most recent meeting at the Aryan Nations compound, all of which might be helpful the next time you’re sitting around playing militia trivia with Morris Dees, but is likely of little use the rest of the year.

September 10, 2007 12:57 AM | TrackBack

I agree that this development is Whaaa? worthy. Karl Barth, an inciter to terrorism? Reinhold Niebuhr, an inciter to terrorism? Or maybe they're just too academic for those stupid prisoners to handle?

But as a Christian and a fan of both Reinhold Niebuhr and C.S. Lewis, I take exception to your sweeping dismissal of the latter. Anyone can be dismissed out of hand for voicing some opinion that one disagrees with, and for every questionable opinion that Lewis voiced, he said so much that was right on target. Do you approve only of writers who agree 100% with you? That being said, Lewis is not enough.

I notice with pleasure, though, that Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison is on the list. Now there's a dangerous writer for prisoners to read--a man who was unjustly imprisoned for opposing the government, a man who took part in a plot to kill the head of state!

Posted by: mim at September 12, 2007 11:06 AM


The only works of Lewis's that I've read are the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Mere Christianity; and The Screwtape Letters. I found Mere Christianity reasonably convincing on why one ought to believe in God(s), but not particularly so on why one ought to be a Christian. Mere Christianity also isn't useful in some of its arguments on practical morality, as with its explanation of why the husband ought to be the head of the family. I also am skeptical of Lewis's praise for joie de guerre, i.e. the notion that soldiers ought to be quite cheerful about their job of bringing death and destruction to others.

As for Screwtape Letters, it's clever and entertaining, but the voice is inconsistent; too often one hears Lewis, not a senior devil. Inasmuch as Lewis is writing for his existing audience, that's not a problem, but for someone not already in the choir, the breaks in the fiction actually make the moral point less convincing. If I am a Christian liberal who doubts the devil's existence (and thus am all the more susceptible to evil influence), The Screwtape Letters ought to be making clear how Satan delights in what may seem like small sins of pride and vanity. But each time I hear Lewis's sermonizing, that impression is broken.

I think therefore my trouble with Lewis goes beyond a single opinion, and more to do with some of his style of argument. I can disagree with Lewis's view on family hierarchy and still approve of him as a writer, but my approval takes a hit when I not only disagree with the view but find his argument for it so incredibly poor that it seems impossible for anyone who doesn't already agree with him to be convinced by it. This is what the blogger whom I linked is criticizing: not Lewis's opinion, but his shoddy attempts to find a basis for it. A straightforward Biblical argument that God intended families to operate this way would have worked a lot better than Lewis's bizarre analogies to foreign policy.

Posted by: PG at September 12, 2007 01:49 PM
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