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Friday, September 21, 2007

Unitarian books not approved for prison libraries.

Today's New York Times follows up on a story two weeks ago about the federal Bureau of Prisons' purge of all religious books not on an undisclosed approved list called the "Standardized Prison Chapel Project." The online version of today's story includes links to the lists of approved books. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Unitarian Universalism is not one of the "20 religions or religious categories" that prison chapel libraries may contain books about. In other words, no book explicitly about Unitarian Universalism is currently allowed on federal prison bookshelves.

The lists leaked to the Times are divided into these categories: Bahai, Buddhist, Catholic, General Spirituality, Hindu, Islam, Jehovah's Witnesses, Judaism, Messianic, Mormon, Nation of Islam, Native American, Orthodox, Other Religions (a list featuring only two books, both Christian Science-related), Pagan, Protestant (titled "Christian" on the document itself),Rastafarian, Sikh, and Yoruba.

Intriguingly, a number of Beacon Press books are on the approved lists. The "General Spirituality" list includes The Spiritual Emerson, ed. by David Robinson; The Power of Non-Violence by Howard Zinn; The Best Things in Life Aren't Things by Joann Davis; In Our Own Best Interest by William Schulz; Sustainable Planet by Juliet Schor; and Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. The "Buddhist" list includes The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. The "Rastafarians" list includes The Rastafarians: Sounds of Cultural Dissonance by Leonard Barrett. The "Pagan" list includes Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon.

There are two major reasons for Unitarian Universalists to be outraged by the "Standardized Chapel Library Project." First, although one can argue that the government has a limited but real interest in restricting prisoners' access to certain kinds of information, that state interest cannot override prisoners' Constitutional right to a free exercise of religion. The government has no right to identify some religious books and ideas as state-sanctioned. But second, it's outrageous that books presenting Unitarian, Universalist, and other religious liberal ideas are entirely missing from the government's approved list.

You can register your dismay with the Bureau of Prisons by sending a letter from the Sojourners site: Stop censoring prison libraries.

A few tidbits: Despite earlier news reports, Rick Warren is approved. So are a few of Harold Kushner's books. I was struck that several landmark works of feminist and liberation theology are included, but there are virtually no representatives of liberal Protestantism.

My earlier post on this subject includes links to other news reports and updates.

("Prisons purging books on faith from libraries," Laurie Goodstein, New York Times 9.10.07; "Critics right and left protest book removals," Laurie Goodstein, New York Times 9.21.07)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 21 September 2007 at 5:50 PM

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Scott Wells (Boy in the Bands):

September 21, 2007 07:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

But the Other Spirituality list has several Beacon Press titles, including The Spiritual Emerson.

I'd stick to objections on principle.

Jeff W.:

September 22, 2007 12:37 AM | Permalink for this comment

I blogged on the atrocious job they did with the Buddhist list: [Link activated. —Philo]

I agree that the lack of religious liberals is a major mistake. And for that matter, exactly which U/U/UU authors have advocated acts of terrorist violence against the current government? Of course, ANY list is a mistake and infringement on religious rights.


September 22, 2007 07:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

Scott, yes, one should object to the development of an approved list whether or not there are Unitarian Universalist titles on it. I absolutely agree.

Nonetheless, as a pastoral matter, it is also disturbing to see how difficult it is to provide books expressing liberal theological and religious ideas to federal prisoners.


September 22, 2007 08:36 AM | Permalink for this comment

Why isn't the UUAWO already out front-and-center on this? Isn't this exactly the sort of thing they exist for?


September 22, 2007 08:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

By the way, if Scott's arguing that we should anticipate and consede some bureaucrat's assertion that UUs are represented well enough on the list just because several Beacon titles are included, I'd disagree. Those titles aren't about UUism. If the Baha'is, Rastafarians, Sikhs and Yorubas merit their own categories with 150 titles each, so do we. I'd argue both the general case against censorship and the specific case against persecution of our denomination. Do we who made such an institutional fetish out of defending others from discrimination and oppression have no zeal when it comes to defending ourselves?


September 22, 2007 09:11 AM | Permalink for this comment

Fausto, I have forwarded the NYT stories to the Washington Office, to the Church of the Larger Fellowship (which has a prison ministry), and to other UUA leaders. But clamor from constituents helps, too.


September 22, 2007 10:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

I think that "General Spirituality" fits well for UUism. Otherwise, there are Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, Jewish books, so at least hyphenated UUs may feel represented. (Perhaps those of us who are not hyphenated are not so, but that's ok, at least for me.)


September 22, 2007 11:31 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jaume, I suspect there are not very many UUs (hyphenated or otherwise) in federal prison. But it's worth pointing out that Nicene or Evangelical versions of Christianity do not serve especially well as the "Christian" part of "UU Christian" for most of us. In any case, the absence of humanistic, naturalistic, or post-traditional expressions of various religions means that religious liberals are very poorly served by these lists, no matter how many other items there may be.


September 24, 2007 02:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Anyone notice this at the end of the General Spirituality list? I suppose the irony of supplying this to prisoners is unintentional...

"Time and Judgment" Video explains the importance of time management.


September 27, 2007 06:16 PM | Permalink for this comment


Facing pressure from religious groups, civil libertarians and members of Congress, the federal Bureau of Prisons has decided to return religious materials that had been purged from prison chapel libraries because they were not on the bureauís lists of approved resources. . . .

The bureau has not abandoned the idea of creating such lists, Judi Simon Garrett, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message. But rather than packing away everything while those lists were compiled, the religious materials will remain on the shelves, Ms. Garrett explained.

("Prisons to restore purged religious books," Neela Banerjee, New York Times 9.27.07)

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