AMERICA is caught up in a new wave of book banning. It remains to be seen if the craze is a flair up of hysteria or an actual turn in the trajectory of the American experiment. But what is playing out in our legislative chambers is chilling.

Just last week, the Tennessee legislature ­debated a book banning bill for its public schools. State ­Representative Jerry Sexton, a Republican, ­responded to a pointed question: what would the State do with books banned under the bill? He also shared what he would do: “I don’t have a clue [what the State will do], but I would burn them.”

I have a vested interest in these events. I’m an American expat in Scotland; I’m also a sort of ­evangelical-in-exile. As a pastor, I witnessed the ­ongoing collapse of white evangelical American Christianity into a political, culture war ideology. I’ve heard the political conspiracies, felt the backlash for addressing racism, and struggled to help young Christians find the difference between following ­Jesus of Nazareth and being American and Republican.

In 2020, I resigned my pastorate near Washington DC. A few months later, and just a week after the Capitol Insurrection, we arrived in Scotland. I now study with my incredible colleagues at the University of Aberdeen.

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These events still have my attention an ocean away. Partly because these bans and bills have ­immediate consequences for all Americans. But in a broader sense, the long-term consequences of these bills are not confined to Americans or people of faith. Now with some distance, I find myself trying to ask a ­different set of questions that I think rightly concern people of any nationality or creed. But first, some ­observations about the present situation in the United States.

The state of Florida appears to be the political and cultural epicentre for this latest trend. There are a few reasons for this observation. Under Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida notably passed the “Stop W.O.K.E” Act. This Act recently led the Florida ­Department of Education to reject 41% of new maths textbooks, on the grounds they contained evidence of “Critical Race Theory”.

The theory is more commonly known by its ­acronym: CRT. As an academic theory, it ­developed after the American Civil Rights Movement. It ­attempts to critically correct the American legal ­system with regards to continued racial disparities. But now, the right has largely reduced “CRT” to a ­polemical, tribal term alongside “woke”. Both are used to signal reactionary backlash to perceived ­identity politics ­centring on race across a wide ­variety of disciplines, in history, literature and STEM.

In addition to curriculum, some counties in ­Florida have banned books in their school libraries. These books tend to fall into under the outlawed (and incredibly nebulous) category of “CRT”. Other banned books contain the gender ideology targeted under DeSantis’s recently passed “Parental Rights in ­Education Bill”. The Bill restricts classroom ­discussion of gender ideology and sexuality among children in P1 to P4.

Race, gender, and the place of the parent in ­public education are not small matters. They represent less of an abstract partisan issue, and more concrete and complex human lives behind the political frenzy. Trying to understand the book banning craze by the current political winds and historical context points to some disappointing and discouraging explanations.

Politically informed readers know that DeSantis is in an election year. He faces ­multiple Democratic challengers. But just beyond the gubernatorial race, a larger ­political battle looms. The shadow of a ­fellow Florida resident and former ­president has covered DeSantis’s entire term. A clash between DeSantis and ­Donald Trump for the GOP ­Presidential nomination in 2024 seems ­increasingly likely. With this coming clash, bills and bans are a good way to cement an ­ideological track record and build a ­campaign.

ANOTHER explanation is historical ­context. It’s ironic because, ­historically, banned books tend to be read and ­remembered more, not less. Yet the move remains popular in a certain political playbook. It points to a particular style of politics that surfaces throughout history. We think of the Third Reich, especially.

But in the United States, political commentator Richard Hofstadter witnessed the hysteria of McCarthyism’s Red Scare against communism in the 1950s, and the racist dog-whistle campaigning of ­Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. He didn’t like what he saw, but he needed to describe it first. Looking at these events, Hofstadter conceived of what he referred to as the “paranoid style”. It is more of an art form than a clinical diagnosis.

The paranoid style is characterised by a sense of persecution, a fear over the “loss of caste”, and conspiratorial ­projections about ones opponent. ­Perhaps this style today has come of age in the era of Trump. We see the paranoid style in today’s right wing appeals to “protect” ­Christianity, the resurgence of ethno-nationalism, and of course the “Big Lie” conspiracy.

The National: Floridian Governor Ron Desantis’s new book banning legislation is at the front of America's culture warFloridian Governor Ron Desantis’s new book banning legislation is at the front of America's culture war

Book banning is historically explained as, perhaps, a way to protect and ­preserve an imagined communal identity.

One way then to understand the book banning craze led by US Republicans today is just a fresh political expression of “Make America Great Again”. It’s not just a slogan. The phrase is an ideal that predates former President Trump. It speaks to an imagined identity, and a ­collective past, shared by many Americans. Many today see this identity as ­threatened.

Beyond the politics and ­history that ­offer explanations for the banning craze is a deeper moral crisis. As a moral ­crisis, it is not just a problem of the right, or the left for that matter.

Let me explain. All this talk of ­banning books has me thinking about Harry ­Potter. In the evangelical spaces I grew up in, Harry Potter was basically censored by many of the evangelical networks and communities I intersected with. That was in the 90s, when concerns over witchcraft and magic clashed with the moral consensus of the Christian Right in America.

But I’m also aware that, in the UK ­today, Harry Potter has clashed with the moral consensus of the LGBT ­community. The concerns, criticism, and cancelling of JK Rowling for her views on gender reassignment surgery has ­given Harry Potter today the sort of black mark previously bestowed by yesterday’s evangelical Christians. Quite ironic, yes? Harry Potter, one day, the chosen moral scorn of evangelical Christians, now the LGBT community.

At this intersection, we’re forced into some difficult questions. What determines the “good” for society when competing moral visions clash? We might be used to stepping around this deeper question to a simpler one, namely “who will be in charge?”. The immediacy of political power acts as a sort of brute shaper of moral consensus, a sort of “moral authority by violence”. This power is both promised and wielded by the right and the left.

Can a moral consensus be forged above the fray of immediate partisan ­confrontations?

I USED to think of right and left as ­opposing points on a line. But that doesn’t fully account for how this ­concept short-circuits moral development and threatens liberal democracy. Here, it’s better to see left and right forming a circle. The ­extremes of right and left both come around to “touch” the other. Both conservatives and progressives ­possess radical impulses. The kind that defend their own moral consensus by the ­violence of censorship, “cancel culture”, and the like.

It’s true, only one party is talking about book burnings, and we should ­acknowledge that. As I mentioned at the start, I’m an American expat. I’m also a person of faith, a sort of ­evangelical Christian in exile. And evangelicalism is largely associated with right-wing ­politics in the US.

I lived and pastored in a community that is – for all intents and purposes – a ­politically conservative frontier outpost. Something of a last stand before the ­progressive communities up the road leading to Washington DC.

I do think it’s important as a Christian myself to own how the particular culture war politics among Christians today, ­expressed in moments like these ­

book bannings, tends to surface the phantoms of Catholic inquisitions, Nazi purges, and Puritanical witch trials in the haunted vestiges of our Western cultural memory.

The path from book bannings to ­burnings, to fascism and tyranny, are the worst parts of Christendom. This legacy is not far from my mind. I share in the hope and honesty of David Bentley Hart who reflects, “the most potent solvent of Christendom was the eradicable presence of Christianity within it”.

If we are honest about our own ­traditions, we earn the brief ­opportunity to observe outside our house. There is a littered trail of violence ­behind ­Christendom, yes, but so too in ­communism. That each share a ­legacy of violence is a testament to this ­fundamental human dilemma of ­choosing order or striving towards peace, a tension of liberty with security, of rights with ­obligations.

The moral crisis beyond this ­moment is how neither ideological side can be seen as giving ground to the other.

And so, ­backlash. It’s already playing out in ­Florida, where a parent has filed a ­complaint over the Bible in school ­libraries for its depictions of sexuality. The tension of liberty with security is a moral problem and also the bond of a free society. This tension must be ­maintained with vigilance, but not ­vindictiveness.

We need a new starting point. In this political and moral showdown, we stand to lose more than we could ever hope to win – not as conservatives or progressives, but as human beings living concretely next to one another.

Each of us not only possesses rights but also obligations to each other. This means taking our moral convictions seriously, as well as those of our neighbour.

We must reject brute culture war as a way to declare moral consensus, rather than develop it. We must be curiously but vigilantly committed to finding fresh ways to construct a moral consensus among differing communities, whose ­obligations to one another I believe are just as strong as the disagreements with one another.

BEHIND every banned book lies a precedent. One that says one day, depending on the political winds, my ideology might ban your ideology, or yours mine. This precedent, continually reinforced, becomes rehearsed every changing of the political guard.

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Here, negotiation and accommodation are seen as weakness, as ­compromising postures. How can society survive this seemingly untenable position of ­conflicting moral consensuses, distilled and weaponised into punitive ­ideologies? Here we must keep the tension and widen the common ground by reminding ­ourselves of our obligations.

I’ll conclude with a practical note, if readers of the Sunday National are ­serious about and supportive of Scottish independence, this question of moral consensus is of immediate concern.

The pro-independence demographic has, no doubt, fresh memories of life ­under a consensus far from their own preferences. Granted the opportunity to forge an independent Scotland in the next century, would a free Scotland ­perpetuate this same punitive, culture war vindictiveness?

Or would a free Scotland become a ­harbour for political and moral ­development and disagreement, in the context of shared obligations and mutual commitment?