Did the US Government BAN the Bible?!


The Bible is no stranger to being banned. But when I read about the U.S. government trying to ban the Bible recently, I was shocked. Apparently, so were a lot of other people: some of the top trending web search terms about the Bible over the past month were things like “Bible ban USA” and “bill to ban bible”. Could it be? Or is this just one big misunderstanding? Here is what I found out.  

What Happened?

On May 1, 2024, the U.S. House of Representatives passed “The Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023.” In light of anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian student protests at some of our nation’s most influential Ivy League schools, which some have accused of spreading antisemitism, and a failure of leadership at said schools, the bill seeks to create a definition of antisemitism for the sake of enforcing anti-discrimination laws on college campuses.  

By looking at the rhetoric of a protestor and comparing it to the definition provided in the bill, one may be able to discern if the rhetoric—which may on the face of it seem merely against Israeli military and geopolitical policy—is antisemitic. It is common for hate groups to use seemingly innocent phrases with malicious intent. So, on the face of it, one can see how the bill would be helpful. It seeks to maintain free speech while judging if it crosses a particular line that already exists in U.S. law.  

The Controversy

The bill is now in the Senate where success is anything but assured. Both sides of the aisle have criticized it. Progressives and conservatives have accused it of infringing free speech rights. But some conservatives have warned that the bill will effectively ban the Bible or, at least, certain Bible teachings.  

Notably, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who prefaces her statement by affirming that “Antisemitism is wrong,” states that she will not support the bill because it “could convict Christians of antisemitism for believing the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews.” (U.S. News & World Report’s Aneeta Mathur-Ashton clarified that the legislation is civil, ruling out criminal conviction).  

Likewise, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida remarked that it would be “ridiculous” to label as antisemitic the claim that Jews killed Jesus. This is a matter of historical record, he seems to be saying, and not an antisemitic barb. “The Gospel itself would meet the definition of antisemitism under the terms of this bill!” he tweeted (or “X’d” … how do we verbify this thing now?).  

From there, other conservative voices like Charlie Kirk amplified the concern by questioning if the House tried to partially ban the Bible. And, indeed, it is a major concern if true. But what does the bill actually say? What is the problematic definition of antisemitism?  And does it, in fact, ban the bible?

Reading the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023

The Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023 states that its purpose is “for the enforcement of Federal anti-discrimination laws concerning education programs or activities, and for other purposes.”  

After outlining how antisemitism is a type of discrimination prohibited in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that “[a]ntisemitism is on the rise on the United States” in educational institutions, the bill states that it will follow the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism as a guide for the Department of Education to judge when there has been a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

The bill adds that “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to diminish or infringe upon any right protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” So, it seems that this bill is seeking not to alter free speech, but to create a Federal definition of antisemitism for the sake of determining when this form of discrimination has indeed taken place in an educational setting. It will then be up to the educational institution where the discrimination occurred to formulate and enforce the consequences. Notably, this will take the power out of the administrator’s hands to determine what is antisemitic and will give impacted Jewish students recourse when anti-Israel demonstrations turn antisemitic.  

How to Ban the Bible: Defining Antisemitism

The bill has its issues. For instance, some wonder how you can enforce it without diminishing or infringing upon the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech. And some may seek more clarification on what the vaguely-stated “other purposes” of the Act are, precisely. But the main criticism lobbed against the bill by political conservatives and Christians is focused on the IHRA definition of antisemitism.  

For the most part, the definition of antisemitism is straightforward: 

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. 

To this definition is added examples of antisemitism: 

Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits. 

When the definition lists “contemporary examples” of antisemitism, however, the New Testament is invoked as a source of antisemitism. The other examples are rather clear examples of antisemitism, but the statement about New Testament teachings left people quite confused and understandably alarmed. If you wanted to ban the Bible, this would certainly be a good place to start.    

The definition refers to “Using symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.” This is the statement that has caused all the trouble. It is essentially saying that one of the key points of historical fact of the Gospels is antisemitic. While it is true that Jews in Jesus’s time did not physically cause Jesus’s death—that was the work of Gentiles—it is also true that some Jews caused Jesus to be condemned to death

But I don’t believe the definition is calling the New Testament inherently antisemitic, even if the drafters of the definition believe that to be the case (I do not know either way). I think it has a lot more to do with the misuse of Jesus’s trial narrative rather than its mere recitation. 

What the Antisemitism Definition is Really Saying

Most critics of the IHRA’s definition have focused on the “Jews killing Jesus” part as the crux of the apparent move to ban some of the Bible’s teachings. The nuance they’ve missed is the end of the sentence: “…to characterize Israel or Israelis.” The definition is referencing the finagling of the past to weaponize the present and create a Jew-free future.  

While the law would no doubt be tested by those of bad faith to discriminate against Christian teaching and ban the Bible’s teachings on a number of social issues, the definition clearly states the context in which that teaching would be considered antisemitic. It is not prohibiting the teaching of the Gospel narrative, which includes a group of Jewish people (not all Jews) calling for the death of Jesus (which, again, was ultimately carried out by Gentiles). It is saying that someone would be teaching an antisemitic trope if they used that story to stereotype all Jewish people as damnable “Christ Killers” who do not deserve to live.  

This is the same issue that arose recently with the “Christ is King” controversy. Many Christians, including myself, were confused. How can it be hateful to declare “Christ is King”? But apparently it has been said by certain ideologically-driven people in certain hateful contexts and, therefore, has been used for hateful purposes.  The Daily Wire’s Jeremy Boreing explained simply how a phrase about Jesus’s messianic kingship can become antisemitic: 

How is saying “Christ is King” antisemitic?

The same way anything becomes antisemitic – when it is used for the purpose of expressing antisemitism. It’s like asking “how does a shovel become a murder weapon?” When it is used to murder someone. This isn’t hard. A shovel is not innately a murder weapon. Saying “Christ is King” is not innately antisemitic. It’s all about how a thing is used. Saying “Christ is King” for an evil purpose – like using it as a weapon to express your hatred or disdain for the Jews – is a grave sin… God will not be mocked. Invoking Him in vain self-promotion, or to troll Jews, or to attack your political rivals is to carry forth His Name in vain. 

So, these Christian teachings aren’t innately antisemitic at all. Yes, some Jews (and Gentiles) wanted Jesus dead and achieved their goal. Yet that’s what Jesus was there to do, to die for those very people. For he is the (Jewish) shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11-16).  

But when antisemitic people use these stories for antisemitic purposes—that is, when they say “Jews killed Jesus” to mean “all Jews are evil”—they are no longer making a mere historical point. They are making a rhetorical point meant to discriminate against Jewish people based solely on the fact that they are Jewish.  

To see the picture more clearly, consider the way some modern skeptical scientists tell stories about Copernicus, Galileo, and Giordano Bruno in relation to the Church. They are not telling mere historical narratives. They are telling stories about these figures (which are largely untrue) because they want to make a larger rhetorical point: Christianity, and religion in general, is anti-science (and implicitly, being anti-science means being anti-reality, and you don’t want to be anti-reality, do you?). Stories are not always just stories. Oftentimes, a story is hijacked to subversively tell a different story.  

The Dangers That Lie Ahead

What I’ve described above is a benefit of the doubt reading of the IHRA’s antisemitism definition. Some very stringent protections would need to be in place to avoid the very real dangers of the slippery slope. While I believe the IHRA’s definition is technically only referring to a particular usage of a New Testament teaching, some influential Jewish people have accused the New Testament of being inherently antisemitic (even though the hero of the story enters humanity as a Jewish man, and all but maybe one or two of the authors of the writings in the New Testament are Jewish).  

Is this bill going to ban the Bible or the New Testament? I don’t think so. But is it the slippery slope? Quite possibly, especially given cultural trends away from Christianity in the last few decades and the penchant for silencing opponents that has grown in those Christianity-averse communities, academic or otherwise.

Interestingly, the Jewish scriptures themselves could be lumped into the list of “hate speech” books that would be de facto banned in the wake of any ban of the New Testament (which are also largely Jewish scriptures, by the way), in that we-don’t-say-Voldemort’s-name type of ban at the very least. For, once we partially ban the Bible, what could stop us from a full ban? The threat of legal action, even the hint of a threat, is sometimes enough to chill free speech generally and silence political rivals. And while it doesn’t seem to be the intent here yet, I’ve long ago stopped hoping in the “better angels of our nature.” This article has given several examples as to why.  

In thinking through this issue, I asked my colleague Abdu Murray, a former lawyer himself, about his thoughts on this bill. He too has reservations.  

While many laws in the past have been well-intentioned, aimed at curtailing what the drafters characterize as “harmful speech,” we have in the United States judicial precedent of finding such laws unconstitutional because they need a compelling reason to curtail—in any way—First Amendment rights to free speech. This proposed Act, assuming all the best intentions, could create the same problems that Scotland’s recent Hate Crimes Act is causing. Simplifying things, when it comes to free speech, American jurisprudence has had a “when in doubt, throw it out” policy about these kinds of laws. 

The Heart of the Matter

This is not an attempt to ban the Bible or the New Testament as some have made it out to be. However, it may become a pathway that could be exploited to essentially ban the Bible in a number of ways, from using the case as a precedent in increasingly strict speech laws concerning the Bible to using the case to convict everyone of antisemitic hate speech who teaches or preaches about certain past historical events. But we must remain nuanced in our discussions, for if we create a cacophony of hyperbolic accusations, the real critiques may be effectively muted. We risk losing credibility for our critiques, too, if we cry wolf at every four-legged animal we see.  

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antisemitism,Bible ban,Gaza,government,Israel,Palestine,Passion,protests