John E. Shaffett
22 Nov 2013
Intellectual Freedom and the Evangelical College Library
Can intellectual freedom exist at an evangelical college? Many people think it cannot. The reason they believe it is incompatible is that the secular concept of intellectual freedom is absolutist and in conflict with Christian commitments. Most evangelicals are conservative in their theological beliefs. They believe the Bible should be interpreted literally. Evangelicals are often considered fundamentalist and intolerable of other beliefs. For example, most evangelicals oppose pornography, homosexuality, and other practices believed to be sinful. Should materials endorsing these practices be censored in the library?
Donald G. Davis, Jr., argues for “few limitations (if any)” in his article, “Intellectual Freedom and Evangelical Faith.” Davis believes that intellectual freedom can coexist with evangelical faith because of two theological beliefs: sovereignty of God and “all truth is God’s truth.” Since God is sovereign, we can trust in His providence that He will watch over the truth to guarantee that it is ultimately successful. Since all truth is God’s truth, Christians can find truth even in non-Christian writings.
A big advocate for unlimited intellectual freedom is the American Library Association. This professional organization of librarians has produced many documents to guide library users against the threats of censorship. One of these documents, the “ALA Library Bill of Rights,” lists different policies that should guide the library in defending intellectual freedom. ALA opposes all form of censorship.
Another position would seek to place severe restrictions on collections. This position opposes collecting materials considered un-Christian or dangerous. For example, it would not want materials that encourage the practice of the occult. Therefore, it might oppose the Harry Potter books because many conservative Christians believe these books encourage the occult. This position would be represented by the Religious Right. The RR would not want libraries to collect materials that contain vulgar language, sexual material, or pornography. These conservative Christians would want to protect the users of the collection. This view believes that a Christian institution should not collect material that would oppose its Christian beliefs and moral values. This type of library might allow purchasing some materials the institution thought was false for the purpose of refuting it.
Jessica L. Cooper in her article, “Intellectual Freedom and Censorship in the Library,” defends intellectual freedom. However, she recognizes some limitations to intellectual freedom. For example, she states that individuals under eighteen are “legally considered children.” There are certain laws restricting the freedoms of minors. She lists such examples as using alcohol, tobacco products, and voting. Also, children are under the supervision of parents who may restrict their freedoms. She also thinks it would be helpful for librarians to acquire knowledge of the concerns of parents and other groups who seek to censor materials while doing what they can to uphold intellectual freedom. What about college students? Should any restrictions be placed on materials accessible to college students? These two positions would disagree here. Davis and groups like ALA would not want to put any restrictions on materials available to college students. The other group would argue for restrictions. Does the acceptance of restrictions on children imply that restrictions can be placed on other groups?
There is much to like in Davis’s arguments. He is an evangelical Christian who spent most of his academic life serving as a professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Texas at Austin. His belief in the sovereignty and providence of God to govern the world is accepted by this writer. Davis’s point about all truth is God’s truth is also accepted by this writer. However, the idea that accepting these two beliefs requires Christians to accept the secular concept of intellectual freedom does not follow.
This writer sympathizes with the concern to nurture young people in the Christian faith. He also takes seriously the words of Jesus about causing one of these little ones to fall. It does seem that there are not only individual rights, but also rights for the community. There are also laws to protect children. Some materials would not be appropriate for some age groups.
A middle position can be taken that will include the strengths of these two positions and eliminate their weaknesses. James R. Johnson argues for a middle position in his article, “A Christian Approach to Intellectual Freedom in Libraries.” Johnson disagrees with the idea of unlimited freedom. He thinks the biblical idea of freedom endorses the search for truth. Johnson believes that truth is an absolute, but intellectual freedom is not. Intellectual freedom is subordinate to truth. In addition, Johnson thinks the idea of unlimited freedom developed from the enlightenment and that it emphasizes individual rights to the detriment of the community. Johnson’s view would allow for intellectual freedom to pursue truth, but not unlimited freedom.
There are at least three positions on the relationship between intellectual freedom and the evangelical faith. The first position, endorsed by Donald Davis and the American Library Association is that both unlimited intellectual freedom and the Christian conservative beliefs can co-exist. Davis believes in the compatibility of unlimited intellectual freedom and the evangelical faith because of the sovereignty of God and the idea that all truth is God’s truth. The second view would put the most restrictions on the collection. It sees the library as an arm of the institution and the need to nurture the students in the Christian faith. The third view would probably be endorsed by many conservative Christian colleges. This view disputes the idea of unlimited freedom but believes that intellectual freedom is necessary for the pursuit of truth. It would also endorse some restrictions on the collection because of the beliefs of the college. This position would not want these restrictions to be too numerous or unnecessary. The writer of this essay affirms this middle position. He believes it is supported by a Christian world view. There must be enough freedom to pursue truth.