The top 10 most challenged books for 2015 includes an entry that may seem unlikely for the United States, which is home to more Christians than any other country in the world.
According to the American Library Association’s latest “State of America’s Libraries” report, The Holy Bible was ranked as the sixth most challenged book in America because of its “religious viewpoint.”
The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has been collecting data about books that have either been challenged or banned from American schools or libraries since 1990. James LaRue, OIF’s director, told The Huffington Post that the Bible pops up regularly on the organization’s annual challenged books list, but that it has never before breached the top 10.
Some conservatives in the media have already started using the Bible’s appearance on this list as fodder for the idea that American Christians are somehow losing their right to practice their religion freely. But is that what’s really happening?
The ALA defines “challenge” as a “formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” In 2015, it recorded 275 challenges to books, down from 311 from the year before. This year’s list of challenges have mostly taken place in high schools in the South and Southwest. The book that topped this year’s list was Looking for Alaska, by John Green, which was challenged for having offensive language and being sexually explicit.
LaRue said that the Bible is sometimes challenged because of “sexual content inappropriate to minors” and “incitement to violence.” More often, he said, people mistakenly believe that just having the Bible in a library violates the separation of church and state.
Four other books also made it to the most recent top 10 list because of their “religious viewpoints” — including Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, a story about a young girl trying to get an education in Afghanistan, which came in at number nine. One complaint about the book that originated in Florida reportedly criticized it for promoting prayer directed at Allah.
Even though the Bible has worked its way into the top 10, the truth is that a high percentage of these attempts at censorship are aimed at what the ALA calls “diverse content“ — in other words, “books by and about people of color, LGBT people and/or disabled people.”
The ALA wrote on its website in a statement about the 2015 list: “While ‘diversity’ is seldom given as a reason for a challenge, it may in fact be an underlying and unspoken factor: The work is about people and issues others would prefer not to consider.”
Ryan Cragun, a sociologist at The University of Tampa who has studied secularization, told The Huffington Post that the Bible’s appearance on the Frequently Challenged Books list is likely the result of secular activists getting better organized and more vocal. He suggested that the “privileging of religion in American society” was what these activists could be retaliating against.
“In other words, secular activists likely don’t really want the Bible banned,” Cragun told The Huffington Post in an email. “What they want is to point out there is a double standard that allows the Bible in but not other books, even though the Bible is a book filled with morally questionable actions.”
For his part, the LaRue maintains that as long as publicly funded institutions aren’t promoting one religion over another, it is essential for religious texts from many different faiths to remain in libraries.
“In fact there are thousands of editions of the Bible in tens of thousands of libraries in the United States, along with other world religious texts — and that’s well within the First Amendment,” LaRue told The Huffington Post. “Here in the home of the brave, free people read freely.”