Last week, while I was away, I had the occasion to drive on the New Jersey Turnpike quite a bit. At one point I stopped at the Walt Whitman rest stop. I was idly looking around in the convenience store area, stretching my legs, looking at the chintzy souveniers and overpriced candy. I thought I might check out the book selection, and amuse myself by reading the back cover blurbs on the romance novels and the legal dramas.
You can imagine my surprise when I happened to notice that every single book for sale there was about Christianity or written from a Christian perspective! I looked around for any other books — there were magazines and newspapers, but the only other book display was a cardboard tower for the Berenstain Bears series, including The Berenstain Bears Discover God’s Creation. Ridiculous.
I decided to stop again at the Clara Barton rest stop to see if it was all decked out in Christianity too, and of course it was. HMSHost, the company that operates these convenience stores in every turnpike stop and airport in New Jersey (and many elsewhere), has apparently signed some sort of exclusive contract with Choice Books, a company whose mission is “to share the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ in the general marketplace through inspiring and wholesome reading materials.”
As atheists, we talk a lot about the really huge violations of separation of church and state. Mandatory prayer in public schools, the Ten Commandments on a pedestal in a courtroom, the stamp of theism on our currency, an unnecessary special proclamation endorsed by the government just to say we are a “nation under God.” That’s all important, of course, and we should be focusing on those major cases. But I think it’s worth remembering that they’re the tip of an iceberg, that entanglement between government and religion goes (or, is constantly encouraged by some to go) much deeper. A lot of it may seem small, but this many small things do add up. And, even if they are smaller than other issues, things like this are no less idiotic.
I would have no problem if HMSHost was just trying to pick the books that sold the best, and happened to end up with a couple Christian books. There are a lot of Christians in the US, so it’s not an impossible outcome. But I have a really hard time imagining that most of these titles are real big sellers. And it seems very unlikely that the top 40 or so best-selling paperbacks would all be about Christianity. So, I don’t really think that’s how it went down. What it looks like to me is, we have a government-created monopoly along a government-run toll road, in which every book you can buy is specially selected to “share the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ.”
Yes, Secrets of a Prayer Warrior. And Satan’s Dirty Little Secret. Also, many copies of Comfort for Troubled Christians, to say nothing of Prayers that Rout Demons. Rout? Who even says rout? (Also, demons?!)
You might think that a few of these titles are not religious, but they are. And Thereby Hangs a Tale has the subtitle (half cut-off in this picture) “What I Really Know About the Devoted Life I Learned from My Dogs.” The 24-Hour Turn-Around is a pastor’s advice on how to live a good life. The Influential Leader contains tips on how to “influence people, inspire results, and accomplish great things for God.”
Oh! But what about One Minute Mysteries and Brain Teasers? Surely that one’s got no connection to Christianity, right? Well, the blurb on the front (in the two detectives’ speech bubbles) reads, “Good clean puzzles for kids of all ages!” Good, clean puzzles? Because all those other lateral thinking puzzle books are just full of smut, or what? The first author, Sandy Silverthorne, has written such other classics as The Awesome Book of Bible Facts and Sarah is Scared! And Other Good Reasons to Have Faith.
I include this picture primarily to show that they’ve got The New Bible Cure for Diabetes. Because religion wasn’t enough, they had to mix in pseudoscience as well. I suppose it’s also interesting to note that they’ve kindly offered some of their Jesus books in Spanish. How inclusive.
Here is the entire display from the Clara Barton stop:
They do seem to have a Weber grilling cookbook, which seems pretty random and anomalous, but Choice Books does apparently distribute cookbooks. (I don’t know why, but there’s a lot I don’t understand about this company.) Anyway, this is more than canceled out by the far right book on the second shelf, Ray Comfort’s Scientific Facts in the Bible (!!).
I’m going to leave you with a close-up of one of my favorite selections. In addition to two or three other, more generic, Bible word search books on the shelves, they offered this:
(In case you don’t get the title of the post — I’ve got this song in my head while I write this. Happens every time I talk about the New Jersey Turnpike.)