As conservative politics has become more extreme, libraries have become more common targets. The New York Times reported in the fall, for example, on a report from the American Library Association that found attempted book bans accelerating at a rate unseen in recent decades.
The same article went on to note that public libraries “have been threatened by politicians and community members with a loss of funding for their refusal to remove books,” and in the ALA’s findings, the library association “cited 27 instances of police reports being filed against library staff over the content of their shelves.”
But it wasn’t until yesterday when I saw a Republican member of Congress suggest that the nation’s public libraries be replaced with “church-owned” alternatives. Consider this missive Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana published on Twitter:
“Over time, American communities will build beautiful, church owned public-access libraries. I’m going to help these churches get funding. We will change the whole public library paradigm. The libraries regular Americans recall are gone. They’ve become liberal grooming centers.”
As best as I can tell, the GOP congressman wasn’t kidding.
Right off the bat, it’s worth emphasizing that despite the growing radicalism of Republican politics, it’s not common for members of Congress to adopt an anti-library agenda. For that matter, the idea that libraries pose some kind of ideological threat to the public is both outlandish and unusual.
And yet, here we are, watching Higgins — a member of the House Oversight and Homeland Security Committees — making just such a pitch.
But let’s also not overlook the first part of his message. The Louisiana congressman not only opposes existing public libraries, he apparently intends to “get funding” for faith-based libraries owned by churches, which will presumably stock shelves with books Higgins finds more ideologically satisfying.
To the extent that reality matters, houses of worship are already free to create libraries if they want to, and they’re welcome to open the facilities to the public. Of course, because the United States honors the separation of church and state, those church libraries are privately financed by voluntary contributions, though Higgins apparently has a new “paradigm” in mind.
None of this makes sense. Americans’ public libraries have not become “grooming centers,” and Congress funding “church-owned” alternatives is obviously at odds with the First Amendment.
But the fact that Higgins felt comfortable espousing such an idea publicly says a great deal about where some on the right find themselves when it comes to libraries, free speech, and church-state separation.
As for Democratic reactions, Rep. Ted Lieu of California, noting his GOP colleague’s tweet, added soon after, “What are MAGA Republicans focused on? Destroying our public libraries and replacing them with church libraries. Imagine how boring: No Lord of the Rings; no dinosaur stories; no books about Charles Darwin.”