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'Potter' fight reflects religion's growing role in public debate

Laura Mallory is the hero of the moment. Or goat. To me, she's the fault line running through the spiritual foundation of America.

Mallory wants to ban Harry Potter from Gwinnett County school libraries. She says the wordy novels by J.K. Rowling are anti-Christian.

That interests me. I have two kids at Brookwood High. I'm a Christian. And, I'm a Potter loyalist.

The Loganville mom doesn't like what she believes the Potter books teach: witchcraft, demons, murder, evil, evil and more evil. That she hasn't actually read the books opens her to criticism of being uninformed and alarmist.

I believe in Mallory's sincerity. Like many religious Americans, she feels beleaguered. A poll commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League last November showed 57 percent of Americans feel religion is under assault.

In Cobb County, school officials three years ago placed a sticker in biology texts that undermined the primacy of evolution. That issue divides the faithful. My pastor, a theologically conservative Methodist minister, says evolution is "a great tool for the Creator to use."

That's not the opinion of most Americans, however. A 2004 Newsweek poll showed 55 percent of Americans believe the Bible is literally accurate, and the Anti-Defamation League survey showed about the same percentage want creationism taught in public schools.

To understand Mallory, keep those numbers in mind and recall a little history. Beginning in 1926, with the Scopes "monkey" trial in Tennessee, religion has been in retreat. Courts have tossed prayer out of school and banned religious symbols from courthouses. Time magazine's cover, on April 8, 1966, asked: "Is God Dead?"

The answer, at least from the standpoint of the Deity's role in American public life, appeared to be in the affirmative. Religion turned inward, away from politics. Even the Rev. Jerry Falwell in 1965 was saying: "Preachers are not called upon to be politicians but to be soul-winners."

There has been, of course, a counter-movement. Many date it back to the 1981 book, "A Christian Manifesto," by Presbyterian theologian Francis Schaeffer. He elevated abortion, largely a Catholic issue at that time, to a primary cause among many Protestants. He challenged Christian soldiers to fight. Many did.

Today we see religion dominating public debate. Alabama's Roy Moore plants the Ten Commandments in courthouses. South Dakota adopts what may be the definitive challenge to abortion. And, Laura Mallory seeks to purge Potter from schools. Our countrymen are engaged in holy warfare. Republican strategist Kevin Phillips, in his recently published "American Theocracy," chides his own GOP as the nation's first religious party.

America is in danger of spinning out of control, propelled by religious dissension.

There are about 3,000 flavors of Christianity. In Gwinnett, we have Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and virtually every religion in the world. We even have witches, or Wiccans, but I've witnessed none of them playing Quidditch.

Our Constitution says we have a right to seek God in our own way. It declares there should never be a religious test for public office. The Founding Fathers clearly didn't want one doctrine dictating what all of us believe.

Replace Potter with "Christian" books, Mallory says. One suggestion is Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind" series.

Mallory doesn't want her children exposed to books that offend her beliefs. Yet, many good Christians recoil at LaHaye's bloody depiction of the Final Conflict. The "rapture," a linchpin of his writings, is rejected by many denominations. It's a word not found in the Bible, and other Christians vigorously dispute the meaning of verses cited by "rapture" proponents.

I wouldn't stop my children from reading LaHaye's science fiction novels, although the violence in them borders on pornography. Definitely, put them on the school library shelves. But I'd show my children the passage in Matthew where Jesus warns that no man knows when he'll return, and that includes LaHaye. I'd counsel that the Jesus I know would not, as LaHaye depicts, return to become the greatest and most sadistic mass murderer in the world's history.

But those are my beliefs. I don't demand Mallory embrace them. I hope she'll respect them, as I respect hers. I'd also suggest she read Potter - the books are an eloquent depiction of the complex fight of good against evil. Harry Potter's struggle to triumph over evil includes confronting his own weaknesses, a lesson of great depth and value.

Is Potter a Christian? The novels depict joyous celebration of Christmas among the Hogwarts students. The Potter novels champion love, fidelity and morality, issues that certainly align with Christian beliefs. Potter's resistance to evil begins with the blessing of his mother's love.

This volatile issue received a hearing Thursday, and the school board will render a decision within two weeks. It should be a slam-dunk. Schools shouldn't be in the business of banning books. And, as Mallory knows, no student is compelled to read Harry Potter.

Beyond that, however, I think this discussion is worthy, and I'm glad Mallory has had the courage to stand up and state her convictions. I'd welcome her to my soapbox, and I'd listen to her.

John Sugg is senior editor of the Creative Loafing group of newspapers. He lives in Lilburn.