The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

It’s Wednesday, September 21st, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

What’s Missing from Banned Books Week in the US? Banned Books, Of Course — So What’s Behind All This?

Well, yes, it’s that time of the year again. It is Banned Books Week in the United States, the week in which there’s much discussion about banned books, but almost no books that are banned. But we are talking about an issue of vast moral significance. It tells us a great deal more about books. It tells us about how moral change takes place within our society, or at least how many people want to see change take place. It tells us a lot about authority in our society, the influencers, who gets to decide what is read and what is not, who decides what will be the curriculum in the schools and who does not, who should not. Those are huge questions. But first of all, we are talking about something that’s getting a lot of media attention in many of the nation’s newspapers, front page stories this week, sometimes over the weekend in anticipation of what’s called Banned Books Week. Now, what is it actually?

Well, Banned Books Week is a week in which there is much attention being given, particularly by literary free expression, civil liberties groups, to what they claim is a phenomenon of banned books.

Now, here’s something you need to just keep in mind. First of all, we’re going to consider the fact that even though this is called Banned Books Week by the definition of those who have labeled it such, very few if any of these books have actually ever been banned, but it is an effort nonetheless to get public attention and to make a moral point. And that moral point is a progressivist point. It’s an exceedingly important point to the progressives because they understand the power of literature, they understand the power of books, and they understand that in this society, when you go outside and you grab a megaphone and you say someone’s trying to ban books, that gets attention.

Something else you need to recognize is that this Banned Books Week has been going on for years. And so even as there is now a lot of attention, a good many headlines to these kinds of issues, particularly as relate to the public schools, the reality is this has been a theme of many on the cultural left for a long time. Now let’s also stop for a moment and say, yes, it is true that repressive regimes, regimes that do not allow the free expression of ideas, autocratic regimes that want a total control. That’s what totalitarian means. A total control on the flow of information and political power and cultural influence and ultimate allegiance. Well, there are those regimes that have, and indeed right now do ban books.

Now, just to give you an example right now, let’s just think of two countries, Iran and China. Iran is a nation famous for the fact that it bans books. It doesn’t allow the free expression of ideas, and this covers an entire range of ideas. And the penalties for violating those particular scriptures, including possession of the Christian Scriptures, they can be draconian. They can be extremely dire. They can be matters of life and of death. The same thing is true, by the way, as you’re thinking of China and the Chinese Communist Party is a bit less effective because of the integration of the economy and blocking some things. But nonetheless, they try and they also use a very, very sophisticated system of cameras and internet trackers and all the rest to try to understand who just might be subversive by trying to read the wrong material. Perhaps the most oppressive nation on earth right now is North Korea. Again, just the possession of a fragment of a New Testament is a capital crime.

Just keep that in mind and recognize that in the 20th century, Banned Books Week was largely directed at fascist and communist regimes, regimes that did by their totalitarian nature, try to forbid the free exchange of ideas and did try to shut down the publication, dissemination, publishing of books in such a way that the government could basically control the totality of the culture. And Christians also understand. I’ve mentioned the Bible as one of the censored texts in so many of these repressive regimes. We understand that it is indeed a matter of whether or not we can preach and communicate the gospel, whether or not we can publish the Scripture in Christian truth. So we have a stake when it comes to understanding the danger of the wrong kind of government control and government censorship.

But when you switch the scene to the United States of America to put the matter bluntly, there is no real honest problem of a lack of access to just about anything anyone wants to see, anyone wants to hear, anyone wants to read. But there are a couple of other dimensions here that it is crucially important and the Christian worldview, by the way, just underlines the fact that the printed word is and always has been, as you even go back to the Old Testament, it has been essentially important to the Christian movement. We are talking about the publication, not only of say books in general, but of the Holy Scriptures and translations of the Bible. But as we are thinking about other dimensions that are just really important to us, one of them is looking at why there would be the claim that books are being banned in the United States when they’re not, and instead what’s actually going on. And then we also need to come to understand what is the agenda of those behind this particular observance and the media giving so much attention to so-called Banned Books Week. And also, who are those behind this movement targeting as the problem? Who is the problem? Who is trying to ban books? Who by their definition is succeeding in banning books in the United States of America?

Well, first of all, one of the groups, certainly behind Banned Books Week in a big way this year in particular is PEN America. That’s capital P, capital E, capital N, America. That’s a group of writers that has been activists in the political sphere going all the way back to the 1920s. There was an initial PEN group formed outside the United States in 1921, but just the next year, PEN organized in the United States. First, it was known as the PEN American Center. Now it is simply PEN America.

Now what’s crucially important to us this year is that that organization has released a massive new study that’s getting a lot of attention and what you are hearing in the press. And again, almost all the mainstream newspapers and news sources have run some story, if not on the front page, then the equivalent on what they say is now a plethora of books banned in the United States, a tidal wave of repression and censorship in the United States. Now let me just push back again. There is no such censorship in the United States. So this tells us right off that they’ve had to redefine what it means for a book to be banned. And that’s intellectually dishonest, by the way. When you’re talking about books actually being banned, even at the point of physical threat or death in some countries. In the United States, that’s just not what’s happening. And the acknowledgement of that is actually buried in this report, but that’s after they begin to use the language of being banned, even as the first word in the title of the report. The title is this, “Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools.”

So I said the issue would be on the one hand who’s behind what they claim is the threat to the freedom of books. And that would turn out to be parents and organizations representing and activating parents. But let’s take a closer look at how they introduce and define the issue. First of all, ominous words in the beginning of this report. And I quote: “more books banned, more districts, more states, more students losing access to literature.” Now you should have some kind of ominous soundtrack playing in the background of your mind as you hear those threats, “more books banned, more districts, more states, more students losing access to literature.” Right off the report tells us that the problem is not just reactive parents, but it is also organizations that are trying to put pressure on schools, school boards, school libraries, school teachers to censor or ban books.

Then there is what is identified as a snapshot of data. “From July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles.” Now, one of the things you need to note is that there is no supporting documentation here. The other thing you just need to keep in mind is that when an activist organization releases this kind of self-serving so-called research, it has every reason to want to lift those numbers as high as possible. We’re then told, “The 1,648 titles are by 1,261 different authors, 290 illustrators, and 18 translators ‘impacting the literary scholarly and creative work of 1,553 people altogether.'” Again, you’re supposed to be horrified by these numbers. You’re supposed to be absolutely repulsed by this argument.

Now indeed, the word banned is the first word in the title of this report and all the media coverage is about banned books. The language of how this report begins is about banned books in the United States, particularly in the public schools. So what do they mean by that? How do they define banned? Because it certainly doesn’t mean banned in any sense, like it would mean in Iran, North Korea, or many other parts of the world. So they asked the question, what is a book ban? Now, listen to how they define it, because this tells you the whole story. “PEN America defines a school book ban as any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.”

Now, by that definition, if any parent complains about any book and it is placed on say a higher or lower shelf on the library, it can be claimed that’s now a banned book. The book can be right there on the library shelf. It can be right there available, certainly for sale on the internet or available in the local bookstore. It might be in the school library, but in so far as any action has been taken on the basis of any complaint coming from a single parent in which there is any action that even by the definition of PEN America… They’re telling us the definition right here, if there is any change in the status of the book, well, then it qualifies as being banned. That’s just intellectually dishonest.

But I pointed out for a number of years in Banned Book Weeks, the entire premise is based upon a lie, but that’s significant in itself. It’s not the most significant issue here. The most significant issue here is what’s revealed in this report and in the media coverage, which is this, that the school systems, that experts, professionals such as librarians, teachers, curriculum designers, and all the rest, they are right to overrule parents, to ignore parents, and to contradict parents when it comes to the materials to be presented to the students in America’s public schools. They are saying that if these parents or groups representing parents get involved, that is so wrong, that it is tantamount to banning books and they know just how inflammatory that language is. But the bigger issue here is not just the intellectual dishonesty in the language, it is the progressivist impulse that is made obvious in terms of the agenda behind the report and the argument itself.

By the way, in their definition, they make very clear that just about anything they want to claim as a ban on a book can be claimed within this report. They write this: “School book bans take varied forms, and can include prohibitions on books in libraries to classrooms, as well as a range of other restrictions, some of which may be temporary.” So in other words, they’re saying even if a book for a temporary period is removed in some way, from what they define as absolutely full access, then the book is banned. Again, that’s just dishonest, but at least they’re honest in telling us about their dishonesty.

Part II

The Bottom Line of Banned Books Week: A Progressivist Agenda to Nullify Parental Rights

Now, PEN America, as it is now known, along with other international affiliates, at least has had a major emphasis. It’s a major cause of its mission to protect writers against repression. Now, I think we can understand the need for that. Certainly in many parts of the world. And the First Amendment rights that Americans have in terms of free expression, free speech, those are the very things that PEN argues for, not only in the United States, but elsewhere indeed by their own argument, virtually everywhere by their extension in the world. But when it comes to this particular report, the interesting thing is how they define what they declare to be the First Amendment rights of students in the public schools. Now they go on to say something that’s absolutely correct. In 1969, the Supreme Court of the United States said that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

That’s absolutely right, but there is nothing in this entire report about anyone censoring a student. Instead, it is all about who gets to decide what students in the public schools will and will not read. Well, let’s get again to the bottom line. A lot of the material that parents are objecting to here is I simply want to say objectionable. So objectionable on moral terms, especially when it comes to sexuality issues, LGBTQ issues, the entire gender array of issues. The reality is that on The Briefing, because of my respect for you as listeners, I can’t even cite much of many of the books on these lists because they are so absolutely explicit.

By the way, this PEN America report goes on to raise the issue asking, what if a book is obscene? And then the report says this: “The term obscenity holds particular meaning in the legal sense. Obscene material is not protected under the First Amendment, but a finding of obscenity requires satisfaction of a tripartite test, which requires, among other aspects, a holistic consideration of the material at issue. Simply declaring a book obscene does not make it so.” Well, that’s true. Simply declaring a book obscene does not make it so. I want you to trust me on this and I invite you to go find this report. It’s widely available by PEN America. And you decide for yourself if this material is rightly defined as obscene. And remember, we’re not talking about adults walking into a bookstore, we are talking about books that would be made available in school libraries or assigned to students in public school curriculum. It’s really important when the report takes a turn about page seven of 25 pages, asking what types of content are being banned.

I think you won’t be surprised to know that the most objectionable content in terms of many of these challenges has to do with sex, sex education, sexuality, gender expression, LGBTQ issues, and all the rest. The report states, “These subject areas have long been the targets of censorship and been controversial from the perspective of age appropriateness, with standards and approaches varying from community to community about what is seen as the right age level for such material, as well as the degree to which these topics should be addressed in school as opposed to in the home. As book banning has resurged, some individuals and groups have sought to reignite debate about sexual content in books, and sexual education in schools generally. While debate on these issues recurs, wholesale bans on books deny young people the opportunity to learn, to get answers to pressing questions, and to obtain crucial information.”

Now, listen to the next sentence. It explains what is going on here. “At the same time, the efforts to target books containing LGBTQ+ characters or themes are frequently drawing on long-standing, denigrating stereotypes that suggest LGBTQ+ content is inherently sexual or pornographic.”

I’m only going to mention one title and it tells you just about everything because this is, we are told in the report, the most banned title by the definition of book banning by this organization. The most banned book is entitled, Gender Queer: A Memoir.

Part III

Professions and Professional Associations Pushing Left Together: How the Media and Education Elites Influence Culture and Shape Morality

But this report also specifically complains about activist groups that include parents, collect parents, represent parents. And this includes groups such as Moms for Liberty formed just last year in 1921. And the suggestion is these are far right extremist groups that are acting in a way to bring influence on the public schools and they should have no such role. But again, when you peel back the onion here, the big enemy is parents. And that’s made clear as the report nears its end when we read this: “Although ‘parents rights'” –that’s put in quotation marks as if it’s not a real thing–“‘although ‘parents’ rights’ is a powerful piece of political rhetoric, in most instances, it is being invoked to mean rights for a particular group of parents with distinct ideological views, rather than a neutral effort to engage all parents and students in ensuring that schools uphold free speech rights.”

Now, again, you’ll notice the shift to free speech rights when that’s really not even what’s being discussed here. We’re talking about books being assigned in a curriculum or being made available in a school library or resource center. We are not talking about students being told what they can and cannot say. Then this sentence: “While parents and guardians ought to be partners with educators in their children’s education, and need channels for communicating with school administrators, teachers, and librarians, particularly concerning the education of their own children…” Notice that. As if they just had to put that in as if it might be important. Particularly concerning the education of their own children. “Public schools are by design supposed to rely on the expertise, ethics, and discretion of educational professionals to make decisions.” In too many places, “today’s political rhetoric of parents’ rights is being weaponized to undermine, intimidate, and chill the practices of these professionals, with potentially profound impacts on how students learn and access ideas and information in schools.”

You’ll notice the explicit statement here: “These parents need to go home.” Who do they think they are? There’s a tip of the hat to the role of parents, but that’s all undermined when we are told that the public schools are designed to be controlled by… In terms of expertise, ethics, and discretion, to be controlled by educational professionals who should be trusted to make the right decisions. Now we’ve often talked on The Briefing about how control of the professions is another way that our culture is being fundamentally reshaped. And here we see how these different bans of professions and cultural influences basically continue together to push in a common direction. It’s one of the reasons why the LGBTQ+ revolution has come about so quickly and consolidated so comprehensively, just in a matter of an incredibly short amount of time.

All of this of course raises important issues about the future of the public schools in the United States. We have to come back to that again and again, but I want to end by going back to the fact that so much of this is now also driven by the media and just about every major newspaper, as I said, has run a story. The headline in The New York Times, Groups Organized to Ban Books. And again, as you look at the report, we’re not actually talking about any books being banned, but the headlines tell you something else. And when you think about how these different professional organizations push left together, I would look at a full page ad that ran in the New York Times yesterday, published by the American Federation of Teachers as a labor union for teachers. And it comes out in a full page ad sponsored by many labor unions and others in order to claim that the banning of books is a threat to intellectual freedom and that it is being driven by “extremist politicians who want to dictate what everyone can read.” Again, we’re talking here primarily, if not exclusively about the public schools. That’s not everyone. That is children and teenagers.

And then here’s something else very important in that statement. “Parents make decisions for their own kids. and particularly in our public schools and libraries, we need to protect the ability of young people to have universal access to books that will help them learn about and understand different perspectives and help them grow into adults who can think for themselves.” Now, I just hope you noticed what happened there. It begins by saying parents make decisions for their own kids, but then goes on to say, but they shouldn’t. And by being completely cut out from decisions made in the public schools and libraries, then those institutions will protect the ability of young people to have… Here’s the term in their actual statement, universal access to books. The books chosen by, who would that be? Oh yeah, the experts.

Part IV

A Campaign Promise Fulfilled and a Win for Parents in Virginia: Glenn Youngkin Ends Policy that Allowed Schools to Conceal Transgender Transition of Students from Parents

But next, very quickly, I just want us to take a look at a development in the state of Virginia related to the public schools because the governor there, Glenn Youngkin, has followed through with a campaign pledge to change the state’s school policy on transgender issues. The opening paragraph in The New York Times article says this: “In a move that could further inflame the debate over how to handle transgender rights in schools, Virginia will no longer allow students to use facilities marked for the gender they identify with and will mandate that they file legal documents if they wish to be called by different pronouns.” We’re then told these directives “were among several guidelines for schools that the Virginia Department of Education announced last Friday in a reversal of transgender policies that the school outlined last year.”

Now here’s just something as you’re thinking about how culture operates to watch and how the media also operate, because you’ll notice that we are told right in this first paragraph that this is a change, a reversal in one sense of a policy that was put in place by the Virginia Department of Education just last year, but then reversing that policy is identified in the opening statement of the article as “a move that could further inflame the debate over how to handle transgender rights in schools.” Now you’ll notice that the liberal position it’s not identified as something that might further inflame the debate, but when that policy is reversed, just something like a year later, all of a sudden those who are pushing against the LGBTQ revolution are described as inflaming the debate. That’s just how this works in the mainstream media, but there’s something else I think most important in this article.

It turns out that the previous policy allowed a child at school to claim and present as a gender identity different than their birth gender, or gender that was assigned at birth. That means being physically, biologically male or female. And we are told that they were under the previous policy from last year, able to claim and present as a transgender or non-gender binary identity. And that would include pronouns and names and all the rest without parents even being informed. I just hope parents are hearing this. In other words, this policy reverses one that allowed children at various ages in the public schools in Virginia to present themselves even in a different gender identity at school and parents never even to be informed. One clue as to just how bad the previous policy was, is the fact that the new policy states that the schools must not “encourage or instruct teachers to conceal material information about a student from the student’s parent, including information related to gender.”

Now, again, notice that this new story began with arguing that this new policy by the governor could further inflame the debate. And then notice what the governor was addressing here. What the governor was correcting here. A policy that actually by the varying language here encouraged and allowed schools to facilitate gender transition of children and teenagers explicitly without informing parents or involving parents in any way.

There’s much for us to consider in all of this, but time is running out and I’ll simply say this. I hope you understand that the most important common denominator in all that we’ve discussed today is the fact that whether it’s PEN America or so many who are supposedly the professionals running the public schools in a place like Virginia. Well, the reality is that the parents are the problem. That the great threat to all kinds of goods, whether it’s civil liberty or freedom of expression or the freedom to read, all of this is supposedly endangered by a mass of very dangerous people. And it turns out that the common theme in all these developments is that it is parents who are understood to be dangerous.

And if nothing else, I hope this message is clear in today’s edition to The Briefing. When you hear the argument that parents need to get out of the way so that professionals can educate and raise their children, well, just understand what you’re hearing. You’re hearing the reversal of the logic of human civilization. You are hearing the rejection of any kind of biblical and historical understanding of the role of parents. You’re hearing the kind of language that Americans in a previous generation would have understood as antithetical to our national project. And I’ll just end with this thought, you’re hearing that language over and over again because the people using this language actually mean it.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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