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Was a Utah District's Decision to Remove the Bible from Shelves a Win for the Anti-Anti-Woke? History Says Maybe Not

The latest twist in America’s culture wars saw crowds at the capitol in Salt Lake City this summer, protesting a book ban from the elementary and middle school libraries of Davis County, Utah. Such bans are increasingly prevalent in American public life, with issues of race and sexuality proving especially controversial. In this instance, though, contention arose because an unexpected book was deemed too “violent or vulgar” for children.

The Davis School District’s decision to ban the Bible has riled many, but Utah’s case is not unprecedented. Although the cultural context has changed, controversy over scripture in America’s public schools dates back to the “Bible Wars” of the 1840s, when use of the Protestant King James Bible came under fire. In cities throughout the United States, Protestants clashed with Catholics over the Bible’s place in the nation’s nominally secular but culturally evangelical public schools. In Philadelphia, rumors that Catholics sought to ban the King James Bible from city classrooms sparked deadly riots in 1844, with over twenty killed and dozens injured.

In Utah—at the time of writing—the controversy has not yet triggered physical violence, although today’s “Bible War” is entangled with broader conflict. The angry ambivalence of cancel culture is well illustrated in the placard of one protestor at the Utah Capitol, urging lawmakers to “Remove Porn Not the Holy Bible.”

The Davis School District Bible ban stems from H.B. 374—a “sensitive content” law enacted by Utah’s State Legislature last year. This legislation, backed by activist groups such as Utah Parents United, targets “pornographic or indecent material,” and provides a fast track for the removal of offending literature. Davis had already banned such books as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and John Green’s Looking for Alaska when it received an anonymous complaint in December 2022. “Utah Parents United left off one of the most sex-ridden books around: The Bible,” asserted the plaintiff. “You’ll no doubt find that the Bible (under state law) has ‘no serious values for minors’ because it’s pornographic by our new definition.” Tellingly, the Davis school board upheld this objection and removed the Bible, although this decision is under appeal. A similar complaint has since been lodged within the district against the Book of Mormon.

Support for the Utah Bible ban comes from unexpected quarters. Republican state representative Ken Ivory, a co-sponsor of H. B. 374, initially criticized this removal, but since reversed his position. Ivory admitted that the Bible is a “challenging read” for children. More to the point, he questioned whether the school library was the best place for them to encounter scripture. “Traditionally, in America,” he added, “the Bible is best taught, and best understood, in the home, and around the hearth.” Doubling down on his broader skepticism of public education, Ivory demanded Utah school boards review “all instructional materials” for content, though failing to address how such sweeping assessment might work.

Ivory’s appeal to hearth and home hints at a deeper ideology; one that evokes the tradition of limited government and what Thomas Jefferson called the “wall of separation between church and State.” Such historical parallels, though beguiling, are misleading. Jefferson was neither the consistent partisan idealized by today’s libertarians, nor the die-hard secularist admired by critics of religion. On the contrary, his pragmatism was reflected in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which framed the territories between the Ohio River and Great Lakes as a political template for American expansion. This ordinance stated that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” In so doing, it earmarked public lands for future schools and colleges, while accepting the generally porous boundaries then maintained between the pulpit and the classroom.

Even as the Northwest Ordinance established public education in the Midwest, immigrants from Catholic Europe challenged the region’s dominant Protestant culture by the 1830s. Tensions peaked in Cincinnati, the urban hub of the Ohio Valley and America’s sixth-largest city by 1840. Cincinnati largely escaped the ethnic violence experienced in Philadelphia, but nativist demagogues flooded in by the score. Among them was Lyman Beecher, the notorious New England evangelical who strove to redeem the frontier for Christ. In his 1835 anti-Catholic tract, A Plea for the West, Beecher declaimed: “We must educate! We must educate! Or we must perish by our own prosperity.” Beecher demanded militant Protestant nationalism to stanch the foreign influence of Catholicism. The growing competition between the secular public and Catholic parochial school systems, both of which developed in close competition through the early nineteenth century, only intensified such demands.

Rivalry between Cincinnati’s public and parochial schools culminated shortly after the Civil War. In 1869, hoping to appeal to Catholic and Jewish parents, the public school board voted to ban the King James Bible, which had been assigned “without note or comment.” Outraged citizens took to streets and to the courts in protest. In Minor v. Board of Education (1869), Cincinnati’s Superior Court upheld plaintiff John D. Minor’s assertion that the board acted illegally. Many children, Minor insisted, “receive no religious instruction or knowledge of the Holy Bible, except that communicated as aforesaid in said schools.” In a dissenting opinion, Judge Alphonso Taft defended the board’s position. “This great principle of equality in the enjoyment of religious liberty, and the faithful preservation of the rights of each individual conscience is important in itself ... But in a city and State whose people have been drawn from the four quarters of the world, with a great diversity of inherited religious opinions, it is indispensable.” Ohio’s Supreme Court later overruled Minor v. Board following appeal by the school district. The later ruling, Board of Education v. Minor (1873) “broke open the floodgates,” wrote historian Steven K. Green, “ushering in a national conversation about the meaning of separation of church and state.” Ohio became the first state to authorize (but not require) the Bible to be banned in public schools. The Buckeye State’s decision predated by nearly a century Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), whereby the U.S. Supreme Court banned Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer in public schools, leading to complaints that “the Supreme Court has made God unconstitutional.”

Cincinnati’s Bible War exposed a nerve. In his Second Inaugural Address, a few years before, Abraham Lincoln reflected on the Civil War: “Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Goaded and consoled by the same text, Americans slaughtered each another. As historian Mark A. Noll argued in America’s Book (2022), “the importance of the Bible for explaining the meaning of America,” and “the importance of America for explaining the history of the Bible” are tightly woven motifs. Following the Civil War, “the inability of Bible believers to find common ground in the Book they championed as the comprehensive guide to all truth” signaled the demise of a distinctly Protestant “Bible civilization,” among other consequences, heralding a more multicultural—apparently more secular—nation.

As Utah’s controversy suggests, the Bible may have fallen from grace, yet it remains a potent symbol. No longer assigned as a devotional text in America’s public schools, its mere presence on library shelves remains incendiary. The context surrounding its removal has shifted from nineteenth century sectarianism to twenty-first century culture wars, but continuities ignite destructive passions. Cynics might contend that Utah’s anti-woke warriors have been hoisted on their own censorious petard. However tempting this conclusion, we should also recognize the bitterness of old wine in a new wineskin, as the Bible once more becomes a focus of partisan discord.