Watchdogs for decency have had a rough spring.
After Utah enacted a state law intended to keep students from seeing harmful material, a parent proposed banning the Bible. “It’s one of the most sex-ridden books around,” the parent said, tongue apparently in cheek. And after a school district in Florida ousted its principal because she allowed sixth-graders to see images of Michelangelo’s “David” in an art class, the state Department of Education pushed back. The famed statue has “artistic and historical value,” the department declared.
It’s almost as if the wholesale banning of art and literature is a bad idea.
In Florida, the chair of the school board, Barney Bishop III, gave the principal of the Tallahassee Classical School in Leon County an ultimatum after some parents complained about the students’ viewing of the statue. Bishop told The Washington Post that the principal wasn’t fired because of the statue of a nude David. The problem, he said, “was the lack of follow-through on the process.”
That process involved notifying parents in advance that students would be seeing the David, a warning that this year the school failed to provide. There were three complaints — two from parents who objected to not being informed beforehand and one who thought their child was being exposed to pornography.
This was in the wake of several bills proposed in the Florida Legislature giving parents greater power over school curricula.
In Utah, meanwhile, the parent who proposed a Bible ban appeared to be responding to the Sensitive Materials in Schools Act. The Bible is harmful, according to the parent’s complaint, because it contains “incest, onanism, bestiality, prostitution, genital mutilation, fellatio, dildos, rape and even infanticide.”
The Utah law did make some exceptions for material that “when taken as a whole has serious value for minors.” But the parent said that the Bible fails to meet this standard because it is “pornographic by your new definition.”
I have a strong suspicion that the Utah parent doesn’t really believe the Bible to be porn.
Still, it’s not hard to make the case that the Bible contains some, ahem, racy material. The Song of Solomon has reliably caused cheeks to redden in Sunday school since time immemorial — and rightly so. That is some smokin’ Scripture.
“Your waist is a mound of wheat surrounded by lilies,” says our man Solomon. “Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.”
Whoo-hoo! Thou art making it hot in here.
And yet the Song of Solomon is tame compared to some of the other chapters. What about all the transgender stuff?
The what? “There are eunuchs who were born that way,” says Jesus. “And there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others. And there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
Born that way, you say? That doesn’t seem to square with the law Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed in January, banning gender-affirming care for trans people under 18. Neither does Jesus’ counsel on how to treat trans folks: “Let anyone accept this who can.”
The suggestion that we might react to trans folks, or anyone else, really, with acceptance underlines a bigger problem with the Bible than the pornography, or the cannibalism, or the incest. It’s the wokeness of the thing that poses the biggest problem to moralists in Utah, and Florida, and anywhere else where art censors and book banners are in ascendance.
Could there be anything more woke than the idea that we should treat each other with love?
“A new commandment I give to you,” said Jesus. “That you love one another: Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another.”
Teachers in Florida need to be careful about letting students see books in which people are following this commandment. They might well find themselves in violation of the Parental Rights in Education (a.k.a. “Don’t Say Gay”) Act. This is the one that bars classroom instruction on sexual education or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade — and these topics must be delivered in an “age appropriate” way and in “accordance with state standards.”
I’m sure there will be plenty of Republicans in Florida who will say that the Bible is different, that the reverence due to the holiest of Christian teachings trumps any objections.
What’s more age appropriate for children — the story of the rape of Dinah? Or “And Tango Makes Three,” the story of two gentlemen penguins and the son they raise together?
What’s more age appropriate for children — the story of Lot, whose daughters get him drunk and then have sex with him? Or Jodi Picoult’s “The Storyteller,” a tale that suggests that the Holocaust actually happened?
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in ruling on the 1964 Jacobellis v. Ohio case, declined to define pornography, although he famously said, “I know it when I see it.” I suspect that if Stewart were to consider the Bible — or Michelangelo’s David — or even “And Tango Makes Three,” he would be pretty sure of what he was looking at, and it would not be pornography.
Meanwhile, back in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has expanded the Don’t Say Gay law to all grades, a move that could bar high school students from learning about the life of Walt Whitman. Or Shakespeare. Or, you know, Michelangelo.
Are the actions of the governor, and moralists like him, the height of ignorance? I’m not sure I’d use that term, not least because it’s so hard to define.
But I know it when I see it.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is the author of 16 books, a trustee of PEN America, and the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.