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Books Tore Us Apart … Now They Can Unite Us

- November 13, 2023

Since Tuesday night, there have been celebrations across Spotsylvania over the demise of the School Board regime that openly supported book banning. There has also been talk of next steps among the outgoing board’s supporters who saw their 15 minutes of fame burn bright, then burn out.

Both need to be wary. The voters weren’t advocating for a liberal bloc on Tuesday (Megan Jackson and Belen Rodas are decidedly independent), nor were they voting out a Tea Party bloc (concerns about books and what’s being taught remain among parents in the county). Rather, the voters made clear that they’re tired of the chaos.

And they want it to stop – now.

Whether that occurs is now firmly in the hands of the newly elected school board – as well as those who put them in power.

How does Spotsylvania get back to a functioning school board? And restore a school system that had made significant gains over the past decade? How does it get past 9-hour School Board meetings and actually get work done?

Return to the ideal of the common good, and the dignity of all people. Even those we dislike.

For two years, the School Board and Superintendent Mark Taylor consistently disrespected parents by refusing to answer emails, return phone calls, or allow free-and-open debate in School Board meetings.

They thumbed their nose at committees established to review library books that had been challenged by a lone parent. Instead of respecting these committees’ decisions, they overrode their decisions and removed books from the library shelves the community decided were appropriate.

The incoming Board has promised to do better. In an encouraging step forward, the Advance has learned through multiple sources that at least one of the Tea Party board members staying on the dais – April Gillespie – is already reaching out to the incoming Board and working to find common ground.

This is an encouraging sign, as Gillespie – who took the gavel on the nights Lisa Phelps was absent – accomplished what neither current Board chair Phelps nor former Board chair Kirk Twigg ever could. She ran meetings that followed Robert’s Rules of Order and respected everyone’s voices.

Let’s hope that this reaching out and reaching back continues at the Board level, and among those who’ve backed the opposing sides in this recent election struggle.

Everyone Has a Part to Play

Books divided Board members and community members alike for two years.

On December 2, the incoming majority and the people who supported them have an opportunity to model how books can bring us together.

Taylor is holding a celebration at Riverbend High School that will feature Christmas music, food trucks, and former child-actor-turned-born-again-activist-and-book-author Kirk Cameron of Brave Books.

According to Brave Books website, “cultural forces are hard at work attempting to steal the hearts and minds of your most prized possession, your children. This enemy would love nothing more than to leave your family weak, your children confused, and their value system destroyed.”

I certainly don’t share Cameron’s apocalyptic narrative about books and literature, nor his belief that educators and writers are looking to destroy children.

Nor do I agree with Cameron’s or Taylor’s narrow reading of Christianity. They both live in a world of Christian belief that Reformed Evangelical Christian and scholar Mark Noll described thusly in his classic book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind:

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling thongs of evangelical protestants, in North America … however, evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.

In the 2022 preface to the new edition of this book that was originally published in 1994, Noll was no more optimistic:

… when the American population is divided into constituencies defined by religion, “white evangelicals” invariably show up on the extreme end of whatever question is being asked.

There are two undeniable facts, however:

  1. In Spotsylvania, many parents and their children embrace this evangelicalism
  2. They are also a part of our school system and have every right to a free, public education. And they have a right to be active participants in that process.

As surely as I disagree with evangelicalism, it’s equally sure that Taylor and – I would guess – Cameron just as strongly disagree with me.

And this is where the common good comes in.

Our nation is not founded on the ideals of religion. And for good reason. Our nation was founded on the heels of the wars of religion that tore Europe apart. The Founders wanted nothing to do with the trauma that religious practice could have on political life.

None other than Thomas Jefferson understood well the danger in mixing church and state. And it was he who most strongly advocated for the idea of “separation of church and state.” The idea is enshrined in the First Amendment. And Jefferson spells out this idea in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I believe firmly in that separation, as well as the idea that personal religious belief is an intensely personal matter (which, itself, is grounded in Protestant thinking, a la Martin Luther).

What I don’t agree with is stifling the written expression of anyone, or shielding students to those ideas – even those I profoundly disagree with.

Even books that I believe to be as poorly written and, yes, in some ways dangerous, to the ideals of multiculturalism and American freedom that Brave Books are.

My personal feelings – or yours – about Brave Books, however, is not the point. Protecting the right of Brave Books to express their view is what must be protected. Then let the citizens decide how to navigate the tensions that exist between Cameron’s worldview and that of Toni Morrison, or mine or yours.

So let tens of millions of titles be printed – those we agree with, and those we don’t.

We should fear no published words. Only those people who would limit our access to them and their ideas.

This new School Board, and its supporters, must do better than the last. But putting book titles back on the shelves isn’t enough. They must be willing to read, and hear, the words of those with whom they profoundly disagree. And find a way to work with them in a multicultural institution built to support the common good.

So welcome, Mr. Cameron. We at the FXBG Advance look forward to seeing and speaking with you at Riverbend High School on December 2.

We hope you, our readers, will, welcome him, too. Whether you agree with what he has to say or not.

I welcome the debate with Cameron, as well as finding a pathway forward to make our schools work as efficiently as possible for as many people as possible.

Let the debates burn long and bright.

But the chaos has to go. It’s up to this new School Board and its supporters to ensure that it does.

Martin Davis is editor-in-chief of FXBG Advance

- Published posts: 58

Martin Davis is the founder and editor of the Fredericksburg Advance.

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