Are evangelical Christians an underserved population?
Even though large numbers of Americans identify as evangelical Christians, the public library profession in the United States has been reluctant to reach out to evangelicals as a population with distinct information needs. This essay explores some of the possible reasons for this reluctance. The author takes stock of research indicating that evangelical publishers are well-represented in the collections of American public libraries, but calls for the library profession to ramp up its commitment to programming and outreach—even as it refuses to compromise on core values of religious neutrality and intellectual freedom.
If you're inclined to think that evangelical Christians are an embattled minority hunkered down in the American Bible Belt, then think again. Researchers estimate that some 25% of all adult Americans are practicing evangelical, or "born again," Christians.1 That's sixty million people (Sheler, 2006, p. 43). One of them, of course, is the President of the United States. Yet as evangelical Christianity has become an increasingly powerful force in American culture over the past thirty years, most Americans outside the movement have been embarrassingly slow on the uptake. In her 2006 book God and Country, former evangelical Monique el-Faizy blasted the secular media for suddenly rediscovering born-again Christians after the 2004 presidential election, writing "gee whiz" stories that "in their incredulous tone, sometimes seem[ed] worthy of the cover of National Geographic magazine" (pp. 5-6). Even as evangelical Christianity has carved out a place for itself within the cultural mainstream, el-Faizy concludes, "it is still a mystery to those on the outside" (p. 6).
The library profession is no exception. Although books put out by evangelical publishers are regularly reviewed in the pages of Library Journal and Booklist, full-length articles about Christian collection development are few and far between. And while last year's ALA Annual Conference featured workshops about reaching out to aging GLBT patrons and Spanish-speaking patrons with disabilities, I did not hear one word about reaching out to sixty million evangelicals. This is not to say that aging gay men or wheelchair-bound abuelas do not deserve to have their information needs taken seriously. But it is to say that conversations about how we as librarians could better serve evangelicals remain curiously absent from our professional discourse. In this essay, I want to suggest that evangelical Christians today represent an underserved population whose information needs are just not fashionable to consider. I want to give credit where credit is due, acknowledging that books aimed at an evangelical audience can be found on the shelves of our public libraries. Yet I want to insist that there is more we can do, and I want to challenge us to engage more actively with evangelical Christian patrons—even as we preserve our profession's foundational commitments to religious neutrality and intellectual freedom.
During the first half of the twentieth century, American evangelicals developed a robust infrastructure of cultural institutions intended to support them in their faith: Christian colleges, Christian bookstores, and (crucially, for our purposes) Christian publishers. By the 1980s, evangelical publishers were branching out beyond devotional guides and parenting manuals to bring out a new wave of evangelical fiction. The early years of the Christian fiction boom were dominated by formulaic "prairie romances," but today the landscape of evangelical publishing has expanded to include genres like science fiction, suspense, and mystery—as well as a growing strain of African-American Christian fiction. And while many of these titles may not be destined for literary greatness, it is impossible to argue with their commercial success. Most famously, the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have sold more than 65 million copies to date (Tyndale House Publishers, n.d., ¶ 1), spawning a subgenre of "prophecy fiction" that has attracted a substantial following among secular readers. So as Christian fiction continues to gain both evangelical and crossover appeal, are public libraries doing their part to get these materials into the hands of patrons?
According to Juris Dilevko and Esther Atkinson, the answer is yes. In a 2002 article for Library & Information Science Research, Dilevko and Atkinson set out to determine the extent of Christian fiction collections in American public libraries. Using item records in the OCLC catalog, the authors confirmed that libraries in all fifty states were purchasing titles put out by evangelical publishers; in fact, Christian fiction made up a surprising 37.3% of the bestsellers that libraries across the nation were acquiring (p. 381). Dilevko and Atkinson also found some correlation between the proportion of Christian bestsellers that libraries acquired and the proportion of evangelical Christians living in the libraries' home states. More evangelicals meant more Christian titles. Now, it is encouraging to think that libraries in a service area with a substantial evangelical population would make an effort to acquire Christian fiction. But it is even more encouraging to think that libraries in states without an especially large evangelical population would do the same. When Dilevko and Atkinson created a ranking of all fifty states based on the number of Christian fiction holdings per evangelical resident, the state with the most favorable ratio was by no means deep in the Bible Belt. In fact, it was that bluest of blue states: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (p. 385).
If librarians in blue and red states alike are acquiring materials put out by evangelical publishers, then why is there so little discussion at our conferences and in our professional literature about evangelicals' information needs? Why, until very recently, did the Simmons College Library, which is "committed to serving as New England's library 'of record' for the library and information science profession" (Simmons College, n.d., ¶ 1), not have an active subscription to a journal like The Christian Librarian? I want to suggest that there are three principal reasons for our profession's coolness toward a cultural movement as influential as evangelical Christianity. First, and most practically, evangelicals have traditionally relied on a network of specialized Christian bookstores for Christian books and other media. Yet surely it is unfair to exclude materials of interest to evangelicals from library collections, simply because they are available elsewhere. Second, librarians may worry that using public funds to acquire materials associated with a particular religion would violate the separation of church and state. Legal scholar Stephen Bainbridge has tried to allay this concern, explaining that the acquisition of religious materials does not violate the Establishment Clause in the Bill of Rights unless librarians use the materials to proselytize library patrons. Simply putting Christian books on the shelves does not make librarians into evangelists (Bainbridge, 1998, ¶ 11). Third, and perhaps most controversially, I want to suggest that the left-leaning politics of the American Library Association and the culture of secularism at many American library schools too often give license to attitudes of snobbery and condescension with respect to evangelical Christians. As we have learned to speak with greater and greater sensitivity about racial minorities, sexual minorities, and members of non-Western faiths, it is as though evangelical Christians remain the one group that Americans of a certain class and educational status feel entitled to hold in disdain. This attitude is unprofessional, and it is wrong.
So what else can we as public librarians do to reach out to evangelicals? First of all, we can build relationships with pastors in our communities, expressing our genuine admiration for the ministries they oversee and educating them about library services that might be of interest to their congregations. Libraries must never get into the business of endorsing particular churches, but churches are perfectly free to endorse their local library—and a few approving words from the pulpit of a thriving megachurch could translate into a huge spike in library foot traffic. Michael Wessells, an ordained minister and a librarian in Washington State, suggests promoting the library directly to Christian teens by appearing at church youth group meetings. He also encourages librarians to include a Christian teen on libraries' teen advisory boards, thereby "including a major service population in your program planning" and "giving you a trusted person on which to practice your 'Evangelical Christian language' skills" (Wessells, 2004, p. 43). Reaching out to the Christian schools in our communities is another way that we can engage with evangelicals, even if we simply open up lines of communication about summer reading lists and upcoming research assignments for which students might need help. And as homeschooling continues to gain in popularity among evangelical (and nonevangelical) families, public libraries need to be proactive about supporting this community of teachers and learners.
But, but, I can hear some librarians sputtering, what about the book-banning brigade? In 2006, Georgia mother and former missionary Laura Mallory raised eyebrows throughout the library world when she called for a ban on Harry Potter books at school libraries in Gwinnett County; Mallory argued that the books promoted witchcraft. Public libraries have weathered similar challenges over the years, and the result in our profession has been to stereotype all evangelicals as censorious Bible-thumpers with axes to grind. This is unfair. Not all evangelical Christians have it out for Harry Potter, and those who do raise concerns about materials in our collections deserve to be treated with respect. This is not to say that we as librarians should compromise our commitment to intellectual freedom, nor that we should ever let our interest in reaching out to evangelicals extend to the point of allowing them to dictate our collection development policies. But I am convinced that it is possible to navigate issues of intellectual freedom with evangelical patrons without compromising our professionalism, by shifting the conversation away from restrictions on the library's collection and focusing instead on the addition of materials that reflect Christian points of view. In Michael Wessells' words, "instead of concentrating on throwing the Devil out of the library, lets concentrate on putting more of Jesus in" (Wessells, 2004, p. 46). I believe that these words can be understood as marching orders for our profession. As public librarians, it is time for us to set aside our smug, secularist elitism and to engage with evangelical America. It is time for us to start seeing evangelical Christians as literate, opinionated consumers of information, as active citizens who are engaged with the world around themand who deserve the best, most imaginative library service that we can possibly provide.
Because evangelical Christianity emphasizes the believer's personal relationship with Jesus Christ over his or her allegiance to a particular denomination or creed, the question "what is an evangelical?" is notoriously difficult to answer. However, Marsden (1991) has suggested that essential evangelical beliefs include "(1) the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of the Bible, (2) the real historical character of God's saving work recorded in Scripture, (3) salvation to eternal life based on the redemptive work of Christ, (4) the importance of evangelism and missions, and (5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life" (pp. 4-5). The Barna Group, an influential market research firm, uses a more stringent nine-point litmus test of evangelical belief (2007) for polling purposes, although critics (Cartledge, 2007) have charged that this definition is too restrictive and undercounts self-identified evangelicals.
Bainbridge, S. M. (1998, March/April). Nothing for us. Liberty: A Magazine of Religious Freedom. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from http://www.libertymagazine.org/article/articleview/100/1/48.
The Barna Group. (2007, January 18). Survey explores who qualifies as an evangelical. Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdateNarrowPreview&BarnaUpdateID=263.
Cartledge, T. (2007, March 9). Are you a nine-point evangelical? Biblical Recorder. Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.biblicalrecorder.org/content/opinion/2007/03_09_2007/ed090307are.shtml.
Dilevko, J. & Atkinson, E. (2002). Myth or reality: the absence of evangelical Christian fiction titles in the public libraries of the United States. Library & Information Science Research 24(4), 373-396.
Simmons College. (n.d.). GSLIS Collection. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from http://my.simmons.edu/library/collections/gslis/about.shtml.
Tyndale House Publishers. (n.d.). ECPA presents New Pinnacle Award to the Left Behind series. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from http://www.leftbehind.com.
Wessells, M. (2004). Evangelical Christianity. In L.K. Carman & C.S. Reich (Eds.), Reaching out to religious youth: a guide to services, programs, and collections (pp. 31-56). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Marcel LaFlamme is the director of the Learning Resource Center at Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas. He received his MLS from the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science in January 2008.
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