Forida's "Just Read, Forida!" program has an event, funded in part by No Child Left Behind, focused on the book, The Lion, the witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. The project is tied to the release of the Disney movie based on this book later this year.
The event comes with a list of prizes. In order to win a prize, a student must read the book. No student who does not read the book qualifies for a prize.
The issue here is that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is widely regarded to be a child’s primer to Christianity. The main character Aslan the Lion is meant to represent Jesus in a way that is child-friendly. This is, in short, a propaganda piece for the Christian religion.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a letter to Governor Jeb Bush of Florida requesting that he make other options available. There may be parents in Florida who do not want their children reading a book designed to market Christianity to children. Americans United suggests in its letter that it is fundamentally wrong for the State of Florida to be offering prize money to students based on their willingness to consume Christian propaganda aimed at children.
I am going to grant that there is some merit to AU’s case. I believe that it is almost certain that Governor Bush and his followers have decided to take advantage of an opportunity to use state and federal taxpayer’s money to promote and pay for the marketing of Christianity to young children.
This counts as an abuse of power; government officials should not be using taxpayer-funded resources to pay for missionary propaganda for any particular religion – particularly propaganda aimed at children.
However, though I may have made the offense sound quite egregious, I do not see the wrong being done here as being worthy of a great deal of protest. I particularly do not see it as being worthy of a lawsuit.
At this time, no lawsuit is being planned or threatened. All that has happened is that AU has brought to the Governor’s attention the fact that his abuse of state authority and funds to promote a specific religion has not gone unnoticed.
Florida vs. North Carolina
This situation is similar to one that came up in 2002, when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill required all freshmen and transfer students to read Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. Several Christian organizations protested that this involved a violation of the separation of church and state.
They protested that there was a double standard at work because, if this were the Bible being offered as mandatory reading liberals would be protesting. Yet, they were remaining silent on this issue, betraying the fact that their position is not actually anti-religious, but more specifically anti-Christian.
In Florida, we do not have the Bible being offered, but a Bible primer, and we do in fact have protests that options are not being made available.
However, we have hypocrisy on the other side as well. Those who protested the Chapel Hill reading requirement assert that, with respect to Florida’s program, this there is nothing wrong with the State offering the sole option for participation in this program a tool for marketing Christianity to children.
With respect to the University of North Carolina, there was a lawsuit filed. The University also voluntarily adopted an opt-out policy; a student merely had to write a paper stating why they refuse to read the book. Yet, this was not good enough for those who file the lawsuit. Merely using this book as their reading program book was offensive to them and they sought to have it removed.
With respect to Florida, no lawsuit has yet been filed, and none is yet planned. However, we can expect that if there were to be such a lawsuit, many who protested the University of North Carolina requirement would be hurling moral contempt at those who would dare say that requiring children wishing to participate in this program to read a Christian marketing piece is perfectly acceptable.
Compare and Contrast Two Reading Requirements
One may want to try to make the case that there is an important distinction here in that the Chapel Hill students were required to read the book, write a one-page essay, and attend a discussion session. On the other hand, the Narnia book is not required – children are free not to participate in the program.
Yet, students are also free to attend a university other than the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There was not state law in force at the time that required attendance at this particular school. Therefore, there was just as much liberty not to enroll in UNC then there is not to enroll in Florida’s “Just Read, Florida” program.
If we were going to draw a distinction between the two cases, we can draw one based on the fact that the University of North Carolina was having its book read almost exclusively by adults and, of these, adults who had sufficient intelligence and critical analysis skills to get into college. In contrast, Governor Bush of Florida is targeting young children with a book designed to target young children.
We may question whether Governor Bush and others who are supporting this program truly do intend to use this opportunity to market Christianity to young children. Yet, their refusal to allow children to have options suggests that they are particularly interested in having the children read this particular book.
The fact that they do not want children to have any options but to read this book if they are to participate in the program begs for an explanation. The best explanation is that it is particularly important to the organizers that children read this Christian primer and not some other book.
It does not matter to those who are defending this program that they are abandoning the very principles that they claimed needed defending in the University of North Carolina case. This, also, is an observation that begs for an explanation.
The best explanation for this is that these people are only pretending to base their decisions on principle. In fact, they accept those principles only when they are useful, and abandon moral principle the instant that violating the principle is expedient. At these times, they even go so far as to condemn those who would actually assert that same principle. This is the mark of people who only pretend to care about morality insofar as they can seduce people with their insincere virtue.
My view is that both of these books describe important aspects of our world.
I believe that the University of North Carolina requirement was particularly valuable. We were just entering into a conflict with Islamic fundamentalists. I felt that it would be useful if more Americans understood the Islamic culture, so that we can better understand and communicate with them. I was particularly grateful that the University of North Carolina was training young adults to fill this very important need. It does not harm somebody to learn something useful about a religion that has significant influence over such a large and important segment of the population.
For the same reason, the parents and children of Florida should accept the fact that they live in a culture in which a great many people are Christian. Even if they are not Christians themselves, it would not harm them to understand that point of view. It makes it easier for them to understand and to communicate with their neighbors. If they are concerned that their children may become Christian, the best way to deal with that is to teach their own beliefs to their children at home.
Yes, Governor Bush and others are abusing their power and position to market Christianity to young children. There is a shade of moral vice in government officials using their power and our money in this way. We should keep in mind their lack of respect for the principle of government neutrality in matters of religion. They should recognize the fact that they represent all citizens, not just Christian citizens, and should show some respect for those citizens who are non-Christian.