All gone to look for America

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.”

Books at the Walt Whitman service station

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.

More books from the Walt Whitman service station

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:

Books at the Clara Barton rest 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:

New Testament word search

(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.)

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10 Comments

  1. jorge alvarado

     /  August 4, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    “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.”
    Wow! I thought we christians were supposed to be the hostile ones!
    I assume this are public rest stops you visited. I don’t know what your “secular to religious” ratio for a store should be, but it wouldn’t bother me if I could only find a couple of religious books at their bookstore (or any at all).
    The first stop you went to is called the Walt Whitman rest stop, (about him: from Wikipedia: “His work was very controversial in its time, particularly his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sexuality.” Not on my list of people to name a rest stop after.
    The other you mentioned, Clara Barton, was named after a person who professed allegiance to the “Universalist Church in America”; not exactly a “mainstream” church I’d be proud of.
    So, I’ve established they weren’t “religious stores”. Now the thing is, you could have complained to someone to have less christian books (at least on display) so you wouldn’t have to see them. You could have also asked for more secular books to be displayed (I’m sure you could come up with a list). So what’s the real problem here?

  2. Aristarchus

     /  August 4, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Wow, that’s pretty awful.

    @Jorge: The problem isn’t with the presence of Christian books or their exact ratio. The problem is with someone using a government-delegated monopoly power to push a religious agenda. If they were just trying to make money and putting out whatever books sold, then I suspect NFQ would be fine with whatever ratio happened to show up. Normal bookstores have plenty of religious books, but also lots of other things. The fact that it’s 100% religious means that the goal isn’t to make money, but to promote religion, which isn’t something that should be done with government power.

    On the other hand, the selections of Clara Barton and Walt Whitman to name the stop after presumably had more to do with the Red Cross and poetry than with the government really liking Unitarianism. The point is that government power isn’t supposed to be used to promote (or oppose) religion.

  3. jorge alvarado

     /  August 4, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    “If they were just trying to make money and putting out whatever books sold, then I suspect NFQ would be fine with whatever ratio happened to show up”
    I doubt it. I think “NFQ” would be fine if NO religious materials were sold there (the place being a “government-delegated monopoly power”).
    “The fact that it’s 100% religious means that the goal isn’t to make money, but to promote religion”
    That’s quite an assumption. I would not make it. I WILL assume, that they would put up a 100% secular bookshelf if asked.
    “The point is that government power isn’t supposed to be used to promote (or oppose) religion.”
    I don’t think what HMSHost is doing in any way amounts to the government using it’s power to “promote (or oppose)” religion.

  4. @jorge: You doubt it? Then you did not read my post. I wrote:

    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.

    There would be nothing wrong with a 100% secular bookshelf. Secular things include everybody. Religious things exclude the nonreligious, or those of a different religion than the one in question. Choosing to sell only Christian books in these rest stops (by contracting with a company whose stated goal is evangelism) means promoting that exclusivity in the government’s name.

    Also, I linked to the Wikipedia page on Whitman and the UU bio of Barton because I thought it was particularly ironic that this was happening in buildings named for them — not enough to discuss at length in the post, but enough to provide the links and let readers draw their own conclusions. Suffice it to say that the government of New Jersey named all its rest stops after famous and successful people from New Jersey.

  5. jorge alvarado

     /  August 4, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    I apologize, your remarks: “As atheists, we talk a lot about the really huge violations of separation of church and state. ” ..and .. “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” did blind me. After all, all I’ve understood atheists to want more than anything is to do away with God and anything relating to Him from public places.
    As for : “Religious things exclude the nonreligious, or those of a different religion than the one in question.”
    I disagree with that, the “religious things” are, at their core and by nature (at least the “christian” ones), MEANT for anybody who would be interested in that material. I doubt that they would only sell them to religious people and not to atheists or people of other religions.
    And Re: “Choosing to sell only Christian books in these rest stops (by contracting with a company whose stated goal is evangelism) means promoting that exclusivity in the government’s name.”
    I think that statement would only apply if EVERYTHING in that store (not just a book section) WAS 100% religious (like at a “christian store”), without the public’s recourse to demand other kinds of material.

  6. ModerateMoe

     /  October 11, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    NFQ, I am a little confused. The turnpike is a public route, but the stores are privately held, no? They are part of an ‘oasis’ where you get gas, eat, etc., correct? Even as an atheist, I really can’t complain about this. If a corporation gets the right to sell along a public route, that’s fine with me. Is this really any different than a Christian bookstore on any public street? Probably what is bothering you is that someone on a long trip on an extended highway doesn’t have the time (or the information, though GPS is making that easier these days ;-) to hunt down a store with a real selection. However, it doesn’t seem to violate any of my rights.
    But you can bet I’m not going to buy anything they’ve got there to read. I thought it was amusing that there was a magazine featuring Eminem. I would think that there are more ‘wholesome’ secular topics …

  7. ModerateMoe

     /  October 11, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    NFQ, I apologize, but didn’t completely read the entire thread, and saw that you addressed my question. However, you are making the assumption that the government knowingly contracted with a company that is promoting Christian only books. I’m guessing that they did not know that. (Actually, I’m *hoping* that they didn’t know … )
    Hah, I completely missed that the book stores name is “Choice Books”! I think that even Jorge would have to admit that the bookstore’s name is misleading. “Christian Choice Books” would have been more honest.

  8. ModerateMoe

     /  October 11, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    Hello Jorge,

    You made the statement:
    “I think that statement would only apply if EVERYTHING in that store (not just a book section) WAS 100% religious (like at a “christian store”), without the public’s recourse to demand other kinds of material.”
    While they had one rack of secular magazines, it is a book store, and NFQ is claiming that all of the books are Christian oriented. My guess is that they added the magazines for financial reasons, but the store seems to be 80+% Christian oriented (100% if only books are considered). I would say it qualifies as a Christian store.

  9. Hi ModerateMoe — thanks for your comments. You’re right that this is a bit different from the government teaching religion in public schools, or mandating that everybody worship a certain way, or something like that. However, being the only seller on a toll road that you can access without paying a toll is a government-granted monopoly, and that’s a benefit that the government of New Jersey was willing to grant to someone who turned around and sold only Christian books. Even if the government didn’t know that ahead of time, I think they should know now. And I think this company should be held responsible for acting as essentially a government contractor. … In any case, I tend to forget that the toll-road, rest-stop model of interstate highways isn’t consistently used across the country. Not everyone is used to feeling stuck eating either overpriced Roy Rogers or overpriced Burger King for lunch on long road trips. ;) Sorry for the ambiguity.

    By the way, I’m not sure you’ll get much in the way of responses from Jorge at this point, after the comment thread here. It’s up to him, of course, but he hasn’t been back since then.

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