How Book Bans Hurt Kids and Hinder the Gospel | Sojourners

How Book Bans Hurt Kids and Hinder the Gospel

Image of books (top to bottom): The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie; Burned by Ellen Hopkins; Looking for Alaska by John Green; Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman, USA Today via Reuters.

Right now, countless books are being banned in schools and libraries across the country. In Texas, conservative politicians are insisting that books on race and sexuality be pulled from shelves. In Tennessee, a school board voted unanimously to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel, Maus, from its curriculum because the book contains nudity and curse words. Meanwhile, conservative organizations like Moms for Liberty have accused numerous titles of impropriety, while also seeking to replace them with more “liberty-minded” alternatives. Book bans are unfortunately nothing new in the United States, but the speed and severity of this latest wave have left both students and onlookers feeling shocked. Even more troubling is the fact that many of these bans are finding strong support amongst Christians.

On numerous occasions, Christians have taken the lead in attempting to remove specific books from the public square. For example, Rep. Matt Krause (R-Texas) created a list of 850 books to target. Krause is an outspoken Christian and former attorney for the Liberty Counsel, a conservative nonprofit that engages in litigation on behalf of evangelical Christians. In one Austin school district, a parent proposed replacing four books about racism with copies of the Bible.

A recent news story out of Mississippi reported that mayor Gene McGee (R-Miss.) withheld funds from the local library, citing his Christian beliefs as the reason for doing so. It is no coincidence that these bans are being fueled by fears of critical race theory and a call for parents to have more say in dictating what their kids do and do not learn. Whether it is anti-CRT propaganda or parents’ belief that they should exercise special privilege in determining what public schools teach their children, Christian leaders have been beating these drums for quite some time.

This latest crusade threatens to leave a generation of students dangerously uninformed about the world around them. The cornerstone of education is learning how to engage and assess complex ideas. By dictating what public schools can and cannot teach, Christian parents aren’t merely censoring information, they’re fostering a soldier mentality within their children. This mindset shuts out knowledge to protect an entrenched worldview. Worse, the voices of queer people and people of color, who already face high levels of bullying and suicide, are often depicted as the enemy. This doesn’t just leave students unprepared to face the real world; it means they trample over their minority peers while trying to avoid it.

As a Christian who works in education, I know all too well how devastating these bans will be for students. Adolescence is hard, even in the best of times, but books can help students find clarity in the chaos of homework and hormones. They also provide something our social media-obsessed culture is in short supply of — privacy. Within the pages of a good novel, kids are allowed to navigate awkward thoughts and emotions away from judgmental eyes. Their conversations with fictional characters become a kind of dress rehearsal for those talks they’re not ready to have in real life. These books also cause young readers to formulate questions that they should be encouraged to ask a teacher or another trusted adult.

For an LGBTQ teens experiencing their first pangs of attraction, stories with queer protagonists impart a message they may not hear in their local church. They are told that they are loved. That they deserve to be loved and love others in return. That their life can be rich and beautiful and full of wonder. Simply having a novel like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which sees young men overcoming shame and toxic masculinity, can help teens find the courage to do the same. (Aristotle and Dante is currently one of the books being targeted by Krause’s list.)

Many of the books currently under attack proclaim that the voices and experiences of children of color are just as valid as their white peers. New Kid by Jerry Craft made waves in literary circles when it became the first graphic novel to be awarded the Newbery Medal. The story follows a young African American boy as he begins attending a predominantly white school. New Kid explores themes of identity and interracial friendships. Craft has stated that he wanted New Kid to be a resource for children who weren’t strong readers and who don’t often see themselves represented in books. Unfortunately, the novel has since been accused of promoting critical race theory. The Katy Independent School District in Texas even postponed a virtual event with the author after parents expressed concerns about the book.

These are kids who hunger to know they are not bit players in someone else’s story. Yet each day they see books about people like them, written by people like them, removed from places of learning. This, combined with new laws seeking to ensure white students don’t feel “discomfort” in their lessons, makes it abundantly clear that these bans are a deliberate attempt to erase marginalized perspectives from the classroom.

Some Christian parents will argue that the bans have nothing to do with censorship or hate. They simply wish to address subjects like racism and human sexuality with their children on their own terms. But what is preventing them from doing so now? As parents, they already possess more influence over their children than any school library or piece of writing. And what many don’t seem to realize is that by joining in these fiery crusades, they have already sent a clear message to their child about what they believe: namely, that kids should regard certain individuals with fear and suspicion, and if they themselves identify as LGBTQ, that they have no place in their own family.

When Christians label books about queer people as perverse and fight to have them removed from public spaces, we are telling queer kids that they are undeserving of both love and dignity. When racist moments in history are sanitized for the benefit of white students, it shows that the Christian commitment to truth and justice extends no further than our own comfort. And when the church helps silence marginalized voices for the sake of politics, we show that our true allegiance is not to God, but to party lines. Banning books will not protect students. It will only cause them harm and hinder our ability to share the gospel.

Looking at the Bible, we can see how antithetical these bans are to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Christ did not seek to shield his disciples from uncomfortable truths. On the contrary, much of his ministry involved pushing them into conversations they’d rather avoid. Consider how scandalized his followers must have been to watch him interact with a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42). Imagine their outrage to learn that a Roman centurion had greater faith than they did (Matthew 8:1-13), or hear Jesus challenge the prevailing narrative that a disability was divine punishment (John 9). Christians should want their children to be well-read because diverse stories are what allow us to grasp the fullness and beauty of Christ’s teachings.

The kingdom of God cannot be served by locking children in a perpetual Sunday school where they receive only a filtered version of reality. Students deserve the chance to wrestle with their own stories. They deserve to see themselves reflected in characters who are both flawed and heroic. Most of all, they deserve to know that regardless of how ugly life becomes, the arms of God will always be wide enough to embrace them. These are the fundamental truths on which the gospel is built.

Life and faith are never easy. The books our students read shouldn’t be either.

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