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Banning the Bible:

A reader points to this story:

Campaign mail with a return address of the Republican National Committee warns West Virginia voters that the Bible will be prohibited and men will marry men if liberals win in November.

The literature shows a Bible with the word "BANNED" across it and a photo of a man, on his knees, placing a ring on the hand of another man with the word "ALLOWED." The mailing tells West Virginians to "vote Republican to protect our families" and defeat the "liberal agenda." . . .

Does anyone have any more details on what the mailer says inside? Does it specifically refer to the "liberal agenda" being banning the Bibles in public schools, banning anti-gay messages from the Bible, banning Bibles generally, or something else?

Certainly if the claim is that the liberal agenda includes actually banning the Bible as such, that seems quite false. (Unfortunately, hostile environment law may sometimes be interpreted as restricting the publication of Bible verses when this may offend people based on religion, sexual orientation, sex, and the like; but though I quite oppose that, it still seems wrong to say that liberals would ban the Bible more generally.) On the other hand, if the mailer makes clear that it's discussing banning Bibles in schools, or something else that's at least plausible, then it's the AP story that's misleading for not mentioning this.

If anyone has a copy of the mailer, please e-mail me at volokh at law.ucla.edu — I'd love to see it. Thanks!

UPDATE: Several people sent me the links to this copy of the cover of a flyer that was apparently sent in Arkansas -- but it seems to be just the cover, not the inside contents. Does anyone have a copy of the material inside as well, so I can see whether the inside elaborates on the claim on the cover?

"Banning" the Bible:

Reader Matt Johnson reminds me that the American Library Association -- hardly known as a bastion of Republicanism -- defines "banning" of books to include "remov[al of] material from the curriculum" of a public school. Under that definition, many liberals do support "banning" the Bible: If a school teaches the Bible as part of its normal curriculum (except in unusual contexts, such as for instance a comparative religion class, likely in the upper grades), then liberals would want it to be "removed . . . from the curriculum."

This is, of course, apropos the Republican mailer that suggests that the "liberal agenda" would lead to the Bible being "banned" and same-sex marriage being "allowed." As I mentioned in my original post, it's hard to tell whether this is "dishonest" (as one correspondent of mine suggested) without seeing the inside of the mailer. If the senders are really claiming that liberals would want to criminalize all distribution and reading of the Bible, even on private property, then that charge is pretty dishonest. But if the inside of the mailer makes clear that they are just claiming that liberals would want to ban the distribution and use of the Bible in public schools (again, except in certain unusual contexts) -- the very meaning that the American Library Association uses -- then there's no dishonesty there.

Incidentally, I would not use the word "ban" myself to refer to removal of a book from a curriculum; government agents must select what's in the government-run schools, and if a lower-level employee (a teacher) selects a book, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong in a higher-level official (a principal or a school board) changing that selection. The particular choice may be foolish, but because it's an unwise decision to remove a book from the curriculum, not because all such decisions are wrong. Nor would I call them "bans," since the book is still available elsewhere.

Nonetheless, if this is what the Republican mailer meant by the Bible being "banned," then the American Library Association usage further illustrates that such a meaning isn't inherently dishonest, and -- even if imprecise -- probably within the boundaries of legitimate political hyperbole. But, as I've said before, if anyone can pass along to me the contents of the inside of the mailer, we may get a better idea of what meaning of "banned" was involved.

More about "Banning" the Bible:

A reader writes, apropos the Republican mailer whose cover suggested that the "liberal agenda" involved "Banning" the Bible:

I understand the legalistic impulse to look at the fine print but could you explain your readers how fine print regarding the precise intention of the word "banning" would invalidate that the mailer is dishonest? By contrasting the "gay marriage allowed" to the "Bible banned" in such a graphic manner, the mailer unambiguously creates the IMPRESSION (which is what it intends to do) that bibles will not will be allowed in Arkansas if "liberals" would have it their way. No fine print is going to change that. Surely creating such an impression is dishonest.

A reference to "banning" the Bible is ambiguous. It could mean utterly prohibiting it, subject to criminal penalties for private possession and distribution — the literal meaning, but of course not a very plausible one. Or it could also mean, as this post points out (citing the usage by the American Library Association), excluding the Bible from some places, such as public school curricula, monuments in government buildings (e.g., Ten Commandments displays), and so on. It could also mean legally punishing certain uses of the Bible, such as workplace postings of anti-homosexual verses (perhaps under the rubrics of hostile work environment law, hostile educational environment law, or hostile public accommodations environment law).

Consider an analogy: Say that a Democratic flyer complained of a "conservative agenda" that involved "destroying a woman's right to choose." Literally, "right to choose" might be read as meaning the right to, well, choose things — like one's husband, one's religion, whether to own a gun, and so on. But we wouldn't condemn the flyer as dishonest, on the grounds that conservatives have no desire to interfere with many choices on women's part. In context, it's pretty clear that the flyer is referring to a particular thing that's often labeled (though controversially so) as the "right to choose": the right to choose to have an abortion. And many conservatives do indeed want to (whether rightly or wrongly) block women from being able to choose abortions, at least in many circumstances.

Before we condemned the flyer, we'd have to see what it said on the inside: If it elaborated the cover claim as "conservatives want to reduce women to slavery, as property of their husbands," then one would certainly condemn that as dishonest. If it elaborated it as "conservatives want to prevent women from being able to choose abortion," then it would not be dishonest (though it might not be as nuanced as what a more careful academic analysis would provide). If it didn't elaborate at all, then we'd ask how most readers would perceive the statement — especially keeping in mind that readers expect political mailers to involve some degree of hyperbole and oversimplification — and if we concluded that they would perceive it as applying only to abortion, we'd again say that the statement isn't dishonest.

Likewise here. "Right to choose" is somewhat less ambiguous than a reference to a book being "banned" — the purely literal meaning of "right to choose" (right to choose generally, as opposed to abortions in particular) is more rarely used than the purely literal meaning of "banning" books. Still, in context, I suspect that most people seeing a claim that the "liberal agenda" involves "bann[ing]" the Bible would understand it as referring to something less than a criminal prohibition on all possession of the Bible; rather, I suspect that they'd probably see it as something more like the American Library Association's definition, or some other more modest meaning. The insides of the mailer could confirm this suspicion, or rebut it. But without seeing the insides, I don't think that we can condemn the mailer cover as dishonest.

Banned Bibles, books, and stem cell research:

Last week, I blogged about a Republican political mailing whose "cover shows a Bible with the word 'BANNED' across it and a photo of a man, on his knees, placing a ring on the hand of another man with the word 'ALLOWED.' The mailing tells West Virginians to 'vote Republican to protect our families' and defeat the 'liberal agenda.'" (The quote is from an AP story.)

Some readers complained, quite harshly, that this mailing was "dishonest," because of course liberals aren't trying to ban the Bible. I was skeptical: It seemed to me that in context this would be understood as referring not to outright criminalization of the Bible (precisely because that's so highly implausible), but rather to the exclusion of the Bible and Bible verses (such as the Ten Commandments) from public school curricula and from posting in government buildings and parks.

I've thought a bit more about this over the weekend. In response to my request for the full text of the mailer, readers sent me this page and this one; the covers had already been posted here. Readers also pointed to two other uses of "banned": (1) the American Library Association's use of "banned books" to refer to books that were merely excluded from public school curricula, and (2) the references to a "stem cell research ban" to describe the Bush Administration's decision to substantially limit federal funding for stem cell research. (See, for instance, this Kerry press release, and the Spinsanity criticism of the "stem cell research ban" locution; thanks to Jim Christiansen and John Vecchione for reminding me about the stem cell research point.)

Here's what I've tentatively come to on this. First, I agree the use of "ban" in any of these situations is imprecise and potentially misleading — it may make people assume that someone really is flatly outlawing something, rather than just denying it government funding or a place in government schools or on government property.

But, second, whether the usage is actually misleading depends on how people are likely to perceive it. If the literal meaning is clearly extremely implausible (such as that the liberals would actually criminalize private possession and distribution of Bibles), then people are more likely to recognize the alternative meaning. And this is especially so if the usage is in a medium that's known for hyperbole (such as political mailers), then I suspect that people will discount it in some measure. This is why, having read both the cover separately and the cover and the insides together, it seems to me that the flyer is likely to be understood as making a plausible allegation — that liberals are seeking to ban the Bible from public schools (at least in most contexts) and from government-run displays — rather than a wildly implausible one (that they're seeking a total outlawing of the Bible).

Some of my correspondents suggested that the mailers would reach such a partisan and unreasonable audience that the readers would believe that liberals are really trying to prohibit anyone from owning or distributing Bibles. That just strikes me as implausible — but in any event, presumably anyone who believes this of the liberals is already a very firm conservative, and one who's likely to vote against liberals. The swing voters, or the ones who might not show up, are probably not going to make such an extreme assumption about liberals.

Finally, I think that the talk of the supposedly already implemented "stem cell research ban" is more likely to be misleading, especially if it's in a supposedly neutral press account but also if it's in a political press release. A total ban on stem cell research, federally funded or not, is (unfortunately) not implausible. Many people who haven't been following this debate might reasonably assume that a "stem cell research ban" is referring to a true criminalizing of stem cell research, and might thus come away with a mistaken impression of what the Administration has done. But I don't think that many people would reasonably assume that the "liberal agenda"/Bible/"banned" claim is indeed referring to a true criminalizing of Bible possession and distribution.

(Note that if the claim were simply that the "conservative agenda" would include a total ban on stem cell research, this would not be unreasonable — I'm not sure that a second Bush Administration or a heavily Republican Senate would do this, but it's possible that they might. I object here to claims that the Bush Administration has implemented a stem cell research ban.)

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Banned Bibles, books, and stem cell research:
  2. More about "Banning" the Bible:
  3. "Banning" the Bible:
  4. Banning the Bible: