Magazine November 3, 2014, Issue

The Book in the Drawer

(Getty Images/Alex Hinds)
On the Gideon Bible and American culture

For as long as anyone can remember, the Gideon Bible has been a fixture in hotel rooms. The Gideons started putting them there in 1908. But there is a campaign going on to remove them from hotel rooms. They are still there, in abundance. But the handwriting is on the wall (to quote the Book of Daniel).

At the beginning of this year, the University of Wisconsin removed the Gideon Bibles from its guest rooms. Why? The university had received a letter saying that, in having the Bibles in its rooms, the university was violating the Constitution. Who said so? Who sent the letter? The Freedom from Religion Foundation, in the university’s hometown of Madison.

On its website, FFRF says, “The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion.” And that is how the group generally describes atheists: “persons free from religion.” They also use the word “freethinkers,” as in, “Come Out of the Closet, Freethinker!” On this business of social and moral progress: The abolitionists did their part, I think we can all agree, and they were a notoriously Bible-thumping bunch. Those trying to abolish slavery in places such as Sudan still are.

FFRF has a motto: “In Reason We Trust.” They have even mocked up a coin with this motto, replacing “In God We Trust.” The group has stickers to place on Gideon Bibles, if the book happens to be in your hotel room: “Warning! Literal belief in this book may endanger your health and life!” As a rule, the group spells “Bible” with a lower-case “b.” Tricks like this are attractive to some people. Christopher Hitchens titled one of his books “god Is Not Great.”

So, FFRF sent its letter to the local university, Wisconsin. And the university president, Ray Cross (suspicious name), sent a quick reply: “After carefully reviewing your concern, we have decided to remove the Gideon Bibles from all guest rooms. Thank you for making us aware of this concern.” That was easy.

With one down, FFRF turned to Iowa State University, in Ames. Same letter: The presence of the Gideon Bibles violates the Constitution, which forbids the establishment of religion. Replying for the university was Richard Reynolds, director of ISU’s Memorial Union. He said, “The concern you raised about the availability of Bibles in the guest rooms of the Memorial Union has been taken under advisement and, effective March 1, 2014, the Bibles will be removed from the hotel rooms.” Again, easy. FFRF said that it had “scored another victory for secularism.” The group was “delighted to see reason and the Constitution prevailing. We can all sleep easier knowing secularism is being honored at our public universities.”

After warming up on the two universities, FFRF set its sights on bigger game: the U.S. Navy. Universities are easy prey for an outfit like FFRF; a branch of the military is something else. The Navy has something called NEXCOM, the Navy Exchange Service Command, which runs lodges all over the world. FFRF said to them, “No Bibles.” NEXCOM said, “Okay.” They saluted. The Bibles were to be removed from Navy rooms and sent to lost-and-found bins. But they won a reprieve — the Bibles, that is. After a backlash, Navy brass said they wanted to ponder Bible policy.

In September, FFRF claimed another victory: Penn State University. A university spokesman, Lisa Powers, made a statement of Toynbee-esque sweep: “In the past few decades, the world and its people have changed dramatically.”

Leaving the world aside for the moment, I note the speed with which things can change in the United States. For more than a century, the Gideons have been placing Bibles in hotel rooms, without objection, or at least notable objection. Many people have been grateful for the Bibles; most people have been indifferent, probably. And all it takes is one letter, from one activist group in Wisconsin, to get an institution to crumble.

In April, a fraternity and a sorority at Dartmouth, Phi Delta Alpha and Alpha Phi, were planning their annual “Phiesta.” This is, or was, a fundraiser for cardiac care. And a student complained. “There are various problematic structures and ideologies regarding a Cinco de Mayo-inspired event,” she wrote. The student went on to say, “As a Mexican-born, United-States-raised, first-generation woman of color, it was sadly unsurprising that a culturally-themed party was seen as a casual venture for such a privileged institution as Dartmouth.” The young lady has certainly learned the lingo, if nothing else. Hearing from her, the two Greek houses canceled their Phiesta — immediately. A frat spokesman said, “We felt that the possibility of offending even one member of the Dartmouth community was not worth the potential benefits of having the fundraiser.”

Is there anything under the sun that doesn’t offend at least one member of a community? How would anything ever get done, by this rule of one?

Movements such as the campaign of the Freedom from Religion Foundation concerning Gideon Bibles can gather a certain momentum. When Penn State made its announcement, a reporter for the local paper had an idea. She called up a hotel in town and said, in effect, “Hey! The university is removing the Bibles from its hotel rooms, because they violate the Constitution and make people uncomfortable. How about you?” In her subsequent article, the reporter wrote,

Maggie Biddle, general manager of the Atherton Hotel in downtown State College, said her 149 rooms still have Bibles, but that she appreciated the motivation behind Penn State’s move.

“That’s something we might think about ourselves,” she said.

Note the word “still”: “her 149 rooms still have Bibles.” Of course they do. Two seconds ago, no one said boo about the Bibles. “Still”? How fast was Maggie Biddle supposed to move? And imagine you’re Maggie Biddle, minding your own business, managing your hotel. A reporter calls up and says, “What about those Gideon Bibles, huh?” This must catch you off guard. A reporter is calling? Am I in trouble? Have I been entangled in controversy? Am I violating the U.S. Constitution? Am I making the Atherton’s guests uncomfortable? The university is the big game in town, and it’s full of wise and legally aware people. They’re pulling their Gideons? Uh-oh. You find yourself saying just what Maggie Biddle said: “That’s something we might think about ourselves.”

#page#You bet it is. And that’s how these things work. That’s how activists get their way, with people who simply want to proceed with life, obey the law, and avoid hassle.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation is not waging its campaign unopposed. Its main opposition is the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization in Scottsdale, Ariz. When FFRF sends a letter, ADF sends a counter-letter. FFRF says why the institution is violating the Constitution. ADF says why the institution isn’t. The ADF letters have many legal citations, many arguments. They argue the thing six ways to Sunday (a constitutionally permissible expression). “No court in the country has ever ruled that allowing Bibles to be placed in the guest rooms of government-run guest facilities violates the First Amendment.” “Numerous courts across the country have affirmed the Gideons’ right to distribute Bibles in schools” — blah, blah, blah.

When the Navy flinched on Bibles, a group of Christian leaders sent a letter to the secretary of defense and the secretary of the Navy, telling them to buck up. One of the things they pointed out is that FDR made sure that each serviceman had a Bible. In March 1941 — nine months before Pearl Harbor — he penned an inscription for the flyleaf: “As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration. It is a fountain of strength and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest aspirations of the human soul.”

These arguments from history seldom cut ice. People sense that America was once an overwhelmingly religious place — and now things are different. If someone cites history and tradition, someone else will say, “Oh, yeah, what about slavery? You wanna go back to that?” When the University of Wisconsin jettisoned its Gideon Bibles, a local pastor said, “It seems very sad when a city that is named for a president who declared a ‘National Day of Prayer and Fasting’ is so quick to remove God and His word from its facilities.” Good luck with that. Madison may have written the Constitution, but that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Besides, he owned slaves, didn’t he?

I have no doubt that the Alliance Defending Freedom is right in all of its constitutional and legal arguments. I have no doubt that the Freedom from Religion Foundation is wrong. I also doubt that it matters. A person can tell which way the wind is blowing. The zeitgeist is fairly plain. “The wind bloweth where it listeth” (John 3:8).

Gideons International was founded in 1899 in Janesville, Wis. They named themselves for Gideon of the Book of Judges, who was willing to serve God, no matter what. As I’ve mentioned, they began distributing their Bibles in 1908 (the year Taft beat Bryan). Quite possibly, the last figure to describe America as a Christian nation was the governor of Mississippi, in 1992. It was at a Republican governors’ conference. Kirk Fordice said, “The United States of America is a Christian nation.” Another governor, Carroll Campbell of South Carolina, sensing the political danger, said, “The value base of this country comes from the Judeo-Christian heritage, and that is something we need to realize. I just wanted to add the ‘Judeo’ part.” Fordice snapped back, “If I wanted to do that, I would have done it.”

(He was later revealed to be having an affair with an old high-school flame. He divorced his wife of 40-plus years. He married the flame, and they too divorced. As he lay dying, in 2004, his first wife was at his side.)

Around the world, and also here at home, Americans are known as an arrogant, brash, overly confident bunch. We are heedless of the feelings and desires of others. That is true of some, as how could it not be? But one of the outstanding American traits is fear of giving offense. This is a leading observation and insight of Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative author (who grew up in Bombay and became an American citizen when he was about 30). In an interview with me last summer, he said, “What I resent most of all about the Left is that they exploit American decency.” If you tell Americans they are wrong, he continued, they’re apt to say, “I’m so sorry about that. How can I do better? How can I make it up to you?”

Over the last 25 years, Americans have been told that they can’t have prayer at commencement exercises and football games. They have been told they can’t sing Christmas carols at school concerts. They have been told that all these things are unconstitutional, and that Americans in previous generations were in blatant violation of their Constitution, whether they knew it or not. So, modern Americans simply stopped. Told not to sing carols, they stopped. Most people, I think, would rather quit than fight. Or they may want to pick their battles, and figure that “The First Noël” is not quite worth it. Whatever the case, the secularization of society is remorseless. The public square grows ever more naked.

I myself don’t think that the Gideon Bibles are a battle worth picking. As Penn State and other institutions point out, the Bibles are being made available in hotel libraries and other common areas. They may not be in the rooms, but they are not kicked off the premises altogether. And why, really, should my holy book be privileged over yours? Or yours over mine? That is a hard question to answer. One possible answer is, “We have a common culture!” We certainly had one. Do we still? Does the Bible give us a common culture in 2014? Are we as linked by the Bible as we are by, say, the Kardashians, or whoever is reigning on television at the moment?

#page#Furthermore, everyone can have a Bible, if he wants one. You can download a Bible on your phone as easily as you can porn. One of the motivations of the Gideons, in the early days, was to provide Bibles to people who could not afford one. In our affluent society, everyone can afford a Bible. Our poor have iPhones and air conditioning and cars. Elsewhere in the world, the Gideons are giving Bibles to people who lack the money to buy one. In America, the point is moot.

What’s next? Progressivism never rests, because progress, or someone’s idea of progress, can always be made. There is always a “next”: a next cause, a next campaign. Lately, some of us have been asking, “What follows gay marriage?” (Gay divorce, ha ha ha.) The blink of an eye ago, gay marriage was unthinkable. To oppose it now is to be labeled a “homophobe,” and worse. Today, there is something unthinkable that, tomorrow, will be orthodoxy. What is it? The German Ethics Council suggested an answer a few weeks ago when it called for the decriminalization of incest. Incestuous pairs, said the council, “feel their fundamental freedoms have been violated” and that they “are forced into secrecy or to deny their love.”

If the Freedom from Religion Foundation succeeds in chasing the Gideon Bibles from our hotel rooms, what will be next? In the midst of the Navy debate, a conservative activist said, “A Bible in a hotel room is no more illegal than a chaplain in the military.” Uh-oh. That may be the next cause: chaplains. There are almost 3,000 of them on active duty in our military right now. Are they unconstitutional? Of course not, but does it matter, if the wind is blowing that way, and no one cares to blow back? Getting rid of chaplains would be harder than getting rid of Gideon Bibles, and easier than getting rid of our national motto: “In God We Trust.” It may seem, right now, that this motto is permanent, ineffaceable. It will be on our currency forever. But many things that seem permanent turn out to be effaceable after all.

A Gideon Bible in a nightstand drawer once seemed as natural and harmless as a towel over a rack. But I, for one, can see them disappearing — first in bastions of progressivism (the University of Wisconsin was a beautifully logical starting place), and, at the end of the line, where? The Holiday Inn in Boise?

The Gideons’ first Bibles, in 1908, went to the Superior Hotel in Superior, Mont. Since then, the Gideons have distributed almost 2 billion more Bibles. They have distributed them to schools, hospitals, prisons, police stations, fire stations, and military bases, as well as hotels. Gideons International operates in some 190 countries, which is pretty much all the countries there are. This organization seems a Rock of Gibraltar, hardly vulnerable to a few letters out of Madison (40 miles north of the Gideons’ founding city, Janesville).

And yet organizations, like people, come and go. In the middle of the last century, a group called Moral Re-Armament was a pretty big deal. Its founder and leader was an American evangelist named Frank Buchman. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 85 times. He may be the most nominated person never to have won the prize. Who remembers Buchman or Moral Re-Armament today?

I can certainly bring my own Bible to hotel rooms. And if I forget it, I can turn to my phone. I might even tramp down to some lounge or library. Once, though, I was very glad to have a Gideon Bible in my room. It was in Norway. In the front or back of the book — I forget which — there was a note saying, “If this Bible has been helpful to you, or you have any questions, please write us at” such-and-such an address. I e-mailed the Gideons, thanking them for having placed the Bible, and saying that I was pleased they were still about this activity, after all these years. Someone wrote me back, telling me that fewer hotels were now accepting the book, but that the Gideons would keep at it, as long as there was any receptivity at all.

Like you, probably, I am offended, or could be offended, by many things, all the day long: what’s on television, what’s on the radio, what’s in print advertising. On the tops of New York taxis, there are quasi-pornographic ads. They aren’t hidden away in some drawer, like a Gideon Bible. I am offended, or could be offended, from the moment I open my eyes till the moment I close them at night. And so what? It would never occur to me that I had a right not to be offended. In this world, you have to live and let live a little, or a lot. Couldn’t those who object to the Gideon Bible — you know, suck it up a little? No, they can’t, some of them. The impulse to destroy or reshape is too strong.

I don’t say that Gideon Bibles are the hill to die on, for reasons I have outlined. And I think that a respect for other people’s feelings (to say nothing of their rights) is part of decency. But there must be some hill to die on, or we may die from a thousand cuts by the perpetually offended and activist and litigious and mean.

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