Book Challenges as Primary Sources in the Study of American Religion

Today's guest post comes from Meredith Ross. Meredith is a doctoral candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University. She holds a Master’s degree in Library and Information Studies, also from Florida State, and her research focuses upon religion and information, particularly mid-20th century church libraries. You can contact her at or on Twitter @Memo_Ross.

In 2011 Jonesboro, Arkansas, concerned adults asked that the critically acclaimed novel The Kite Runner be removed from the high school curriculum of the Valley View School District. Why? Because, they argued, the book “may cause some students to question the validity of our ‘one nation under God’” through its “presentation of Islam as a viable and genuine religion.”

Challenges like this one – the first step in officially banning a book from a school or library – are tracked carefully by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). The OIF’s numbers show that, between 1990 and 2009, 688 challenges were issued to books on the basis of their so-called “religious viewpoint;” challenges citing concerns that books espoused the “occult/Satanism,” which the OIF lists separately from “religious viewpoint” challenges, totaled 1,044 during this same time. These challenges have helped scholars illuminate concerns about the supposed “occult” nature of youth media – particularly as related to the “Satanic panic” and the attempted banning of the Harry Potter series.

Less considered, however, has been the capacity for official book challenges in schools and libraries to provide clear insight into some Americans’ perceptions of the religious other and the place of religion in the public square – especially when, as in Jonesboro, the title in question features Muslim characters or themes.

Book challenges can serve as important primary source data in examining anxiety about the religious other in part because the context surrounding challenges is almost inevitably a charged one. OIF data shows that most challenges are initiated by parents, and that most challenges occur in schools or school libraries. Concerns about what children are reading and internalizing – and what that might mean for their future and that of society – frequently rest at the very heart of book challenges. The initiators in Jonesboro assume that the high school seniors assigned The Kite Runner are deeply vulnerable to the suggestion provided by the text, and require protection from the unpleasant “questioning” it might engender.

The Jonesboro initiators, further, felt strongly enough about their concerns to officially challenge the book’s inclusion in the curriculum. Book challenges are by nature relentlessly documented; initiators are required to identify and clearly explicate what is “wrong” with a given title and what harm may be expected to come from that title if action is not taken (generally in the form of restricting or removing access to the title). As challenges move through school or library bureaucracy, initiators and their supporters must defend that argument to librarians, administrators, journalists, and the public. Book challenges, therefore, offer scholars clear documentation of subjects’ anxieties and concerns around information that they themselves have classified as “religious.” The Jonesboro challenge tells us both that the initiators found The Kite Runner to be “religious” and how and why they found the “religion” in it to be dangerous.

Tellingly, the initiators’ complaints about The Kite Runner went beyond what we might consider a surface-level anti-Islamic reaction. Yes, they implicitly argued that Islam was neither a “viable” nor “genuine” religion, whatever the text may lead “some students” to believe. However, the crux of their argument was that the Muslim themes of the novel may lead students to begin to question the legitimacy of the entire American project, which they cast as implicitly religious. “Is it permissible,” the initiators asked rhetorically, “to have a book which deals with Islam and a man's journey to receive it as truth when most schools are not allowed to teach the same in relation to the Bible?”

This line of rhetorical questioning – perhaps intended to serve as a “gotcha” moment – reveals a theme that often emerges within challenges to books with Muslim themes or characters: the initiators’ very different standards of what constitutes “too religious” when it comes to books assigned in a public school setting. For the initiators, The Kite Runner’s Muslim characters and themes make it “too religious” for public school, constituting a national crisis in which Islam is being “represented” while Christianity is not being “represented.” This reveals what we might call a fundamental “religiosity misalignment”: depictions or mention of Islam are is considered to be more “religious” than similar depictions or mention of Christianity. Consider that while initiators argue The Kite Runner is “too Islamic,” mainstays of high school English like The Crucible – a work about Christian characters actively discussing the boundaries of Christianity within an explicitly Christian context – are not generally challenged for being “too Christian.”

This sort of religiosity misalignment is starkly illustrated in a 2013 challenge to a series of Alabama textbooks. Initiators not only complained that the textbooks’ information on Islam and the Middle East was too “religious,” but that the information provided about Christianity, in contrast, was not “religious” enough: “Jesus is presented as a man who decided to preach to people about his ‘ideas,’” one initiator complained; “no mention of his virgin birth or of his deity as the Son of God. This is offensive and an insult to the Holy Bible scriptures.”

The anxiety that many initiators express in challenges is rooted in an anxiety over how religion should function and be represented in the public square. What books are “religious,” and what books are not? What books are “dangerous,” and what books are not? Book challenges represent a largely unmined source of data, the analysis of which could help scholars consider not only what some Americans find so alarming about the religious other, but what how they believe religion – or at least some religion – should operate in contemporary American public life.


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