Two Cheers for the Bush Administration and Religious Freedom

Reasons to be sad about the Bush administration abound. But here’s a happy note: Team Bush has repaired its mistake on religious freedom that I and many others complained about last month.

The problem then was the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ "Standardized Chapel Library Program," which created lists averaging 150 allowable items for each of 20 religions or religious categories. By my rough count, six authors had at least five books on the authorized Protestant list: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Calvin, Chuck Colson, C.S. Lewis, Max Lucado and … Stormie Omartian.

The approved list included "Praying" by J.I. Packer, but if a library had Packer’s "Knowing God," it would have to be purged. The list included "Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came To Die" by John Piper, but if a library had Piper’s "Desiring God," it would have to go. Chaplains had to purge many great works, but authorized books included Elisabeth Schussler Florenza’s "In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins" and Elizabeth Johnson’s "She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse."

Curiously, Tony Campolo and liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez made it in; Jonathan Edwards did not. Some of the specific choices seem curious, but the main concern was larger. It’s reasonable for officials to remove books that urge prisoners to murder their guards, but why was the government banning "Knowing God," "Desiring God" and thousands of other books that could help prisoners?

The book ban was based in the same type of thinking that leads airport security folks to frisk gray old ladies rather than young Muslim men: fear of discrimination. Prisons have long knocked out new religious books that urge violence, but that policy takes out a disproportionate number of Muslim works, particularly because the extremist Wahhabi sect is strong in prisons and well-represented among Muslim prison chaplains.

As the outcry about its policy grew, the Bureau of Prisons backpedaled and said it would allow books not on the list to enter prison libraries — but only if (a) a prisoner requested it, (b) the prison chaplain read the book carefully and sent a certification request to the bureau in Washington and (c) the book made it to an updated approval list. That’s an exceedingly bureaucratic solution, clerics rightly responded. They couldn’t write book reports on every work that a prisoner requests.

The noise finally registered among higher-ups in Washington, and late last week, the Bureau of Prisons fully reversed itself. Its announcement read, "In response to concerns expressed by members of several religious communities, the Bureau of Prisons has decided to alter its planned course of action with respect to the Chapel Library Project. The bureau will begin immediately to return to chapel libraries materials that were removed in June 2007 …"

The bureau said it would not return materials that "incite violence." That’s fine; courts have long recognized prisons as a special case where some liberties obviously are lost. We can contain the bad without abandoning the good. And that leads me to a concluding note about the overall posture of conservatives toward the Bush administration.

Sure, we’ve all had disappointments, particularly on domestic budgetary matters, education and the wrong turns of the faith-based initiative. But the administration should be credited with the ability to respond to errors on the biggest issue, the Iraq war, and to develop a winning strategy at last. The same holds for its response to some relatively small matters such as religious books in prison libraries.

Some conservatives give the Bush presidency an F, but in Washington’s difficult terrain, it probably deserves a C. We hoped for more, but we probably will miss it when it’s gone.