Wild About Harry

Why The Potter Books Upset The Religious Right

Recently, my daughter Christina, a University of California at Berkeley graduate, spent a few weeks with us at home. She left a job at one of the country's biggest advertising agencies so she could return to school and get an advanced degree to do the thing she's really wanted to do all along: teach in the California public school system.

There are plenty of reasons to have your children home, but with Christina an added benefit is she shares my interest in movies. In fact, she is usually willing to go to any movie at any time playing anywhere. One night we discovered that "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was about to have its last showing at the Uptown -- an old-fashioned "movie palace" in Washington with a giant screen, big comfy chairs and even a balcony. We decided we had to go.

Neither of us has actually read any of the Potter books, but as Christina put it, "We've got to see this as a cultural event." I was drawn into the film right away and enjoyed its strong characterizations and clever storylines. Christina was similarly caught up in its richness. Trying to imagine back to when I was 10, I know I would have devoured those books, would have insisted on seeing the movie on the first day of release and pleaded with my mother to make a costume for me to wear to it to boot.

Alas, not everyone is wild about Harry. Outraged fundamentalists have been gunning for the books for years, arguing that the series -- a fanciful depiction of the adventures of an orphan wizard-in-training in England -- promotes witchcraft.

Days after I saw the movie, an item in the paper caught my eye. In Alamogordo, N.M., a congregation held a literal book burning of the Potter series. Pastor Jack Brock of the Christ Community Church consigned 30 of British author J.K. Rowling's Potter novels to the flames. He conceded to reporters that he had not in fact read any of them, but he was sure they were "a masterpiece of satanic deception...that encourage our youth to learn more about witches, warlocks, and sorcerers and those things are an abomination to God."

People have the right to do dumb things. Unless my house happens to be downwind of Brock's bonfire, he has the right to try to convince kids and their parents who have put their hard-earned money into Potter books to destroy them. In this country, private citizens are even allowed to burn their own flags to make a point.

I only get disturbed when Brock's addle-headed analysis leads him to want to burn somebody else's copy of Harry Potter -- literally or figuratively. Unfortunately, that too is now happening around the country as Religious Right-types try to get local officials to ban the volumes. Sometimes the efforts are even successful. A branch of the Jacksonville, Fla., public library actually stopped a reading-incentive program in which "Hogwarts' Certificates of Accomplishment" were handed out to youngsters who read a large number of books of any kind. (Hogwarts, for the uninitiated, is the school where young wizards are trained in the Potter series.) One local fundamentalist started a campaign based on the idea that the certificates were actually "witchcraft certificates"; he complained that no "certificates of righteousness" were available. The library decided to drop the whole program, even though no evidence of certified students flying to school on broomsticks was presented.

I'm sure the Jacksonville critic would shun the moniker of "censor." Indeed, I've never met anyone who would claim it. However, I call them as I see them. Much of the effort to suppress ideas is the deep-seated belief that the censor knows all the truth and that there is nothing of consequence lost if books with "untruths" in them are taken away. They really believe nobody will be missing anything valuable.

To return to Alamogordo, one of the news reports also mentioned a few of the "other items" burned beside Potter novels. These included a ouija board and a copy of The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. How could Shakespeare harm anyone? Let me count the ways: three witches in "Macbeth" alone; teen suicide and gang warfare in "Romeo and Juliet"; interracial dating in "Othello"; and all kinds of racy stuff in those so-called "comedies" of his. All of these claims have been made in high school censorship cases in recent years.

When all is said and done, the world's great literature and the best of contemporary children's fiction often invites young people to be imaginative and creative and to think critically about the world around them. I can understand how threatening critical thinking can be to persons with a dogma to protect. However, I find it a real shame when you respect the power of your beliefs so little that the risk of wind from an imaginary broomstick can blow them all away.

Someone needs to tell the Religious Right that, given enough love, attention and care, kids have a way of turning out all right in the end. My now-adult daughter has adopted my way of thinking in some areas, but she never hesitates to challenge me when she doesn't. We're both better people for that.

I just wish she were still in town. I can't find anyone to go with me to that new foreign film about werewolves in 18th-century France.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.