Civil Liberties

Burning Sensations

How would-be censors promote free speech.


In December, just as author J.K. Rowling—the world's most famous living single mother—was about to be made an honest woman again, New Mexico pastor Jack Brock announced a most generous and unlikely wedding present. Brock, the leader of the Alamogordo Christ Community Church, scheduled a "holy bonfire" of all his congregants' Harry Potter books for December 30. The popular novels about a boy wizard, the 74-year-old parson told Reuters, "are an abomination to God and to me" and are liable to "destroy the lives of many young people." His Christmas Eve sermon asked the tough question, "Baby Jesus or Harry Potter?"

Rowling, a member in good standing of the Church of Scotland, declined to comment. But one suspects that the she had to suppress a chuckle when she thought of all those kids sneaking out to buy new copies of the destroyed contraband.

Some fundamentalists cheered the Rev. Brock's efforts to burn Harry Potter and other suspect works. More commonly, however, they and their more moderate co-religionists winced. Certainly, the overwhelming majority of residents in Alamogordo (population: 30,000) were mortified, as their town was inundated with mass media scrutiny of the least flattering sort.

In the end, more than a dozen big press outfits, including The Associated Press, CNN, and the BBC, showed up to cover the spectacle. As an annoyed reader wrote to the local paper of record, the Alamogordo Daily News, "There's nothing better than showing the entire state that blind ignorance is alive somewhere in [our town]." In the suddenly lively letters page of the Daily News, opinion ran heavily, if not quite unanimously, against the book burning, with Brock and his flock routinely compared to the Nazis and Osama bin Laden.

Upward of 800 demonstrators—including a coalition of Unitarians, Pagans, Democrats, Methodists, Presbyterians, and one Adolf Hitler impersonator—protested the wanton destruction of best-selling literature. (Other items burned included J.R.R. Tolkein novels and the works of Shakespeare.) As the 400 members of the Christ Community Church put flame to paper in a private ceremony, one agitator held up a sandwich board sign that read "'God' hates book burners," and another claimed to have surreptitiously saved a Stephen King novel from the flames.

Many of the demonstrators said that the book burning reminded them of Fahrenheit 451, the Taliban's destruction of ancient Buddha statues, and similar acts of cultural repression. The protesters could draw on a long, sad string of historic precedents by which to denounce the event. Even John Calvin, that great exponent of Christian liberty, famously forced his godless opponents to burn their own books publicly in order to escape execution.

But to characterize the book burning as a serious threat to free expression, as several demonstrators and many outside commentators did, is to misunderstand completely how such actions resonate in contemporary America. The United States has certain features built into its legal framework, including theoretically inviolable property rights and freedoms of speech and the press, that make it very difficult for would-be Ayatollahs to coerce the rejection of certain writings or ideas.

Granted, the Constitution also guarantees freedom of religion; but these mechanisms force religion to bend in such a way that, in effect, the pastors propose and the congregations dispose. Brock himself acknowledged this, writing in a church newsletter that "if you do not feel led to participate in tonight's [book burning], then please do not feel condemned or excluded, just follow God's leading for your family."

Worse (from Brock's perspective, at least), civic habits have collided with technology to create an automatic response to any hint of censorship. When a concerned citizen takes it upon himself to publicly burn books, it invites press coverage. Which, in turn, invites outraged charges of "censorship" by enlightened souls everywhere. Which, in turn, invites more press coverage—and on and on.

The upshot is inevitably an outcome similar to the one in New Mexico in December: disproportionate protest and ridicule for the burners, bigger sales and near immortality for the targeted book. The work, whatever its merits, automatically joins the American Library Association's coveted list of "challenged and banned books," ensuring that it will be stocked and read well into the next century.

Which for an author is a far more thoughtful wedding gift than a crockpot or place setting.