Back in the early- to mid-2000s, I would guest-host a Christian talk radio program from time to time, and I learned a lot from the experience. One thing I discovered is that two issues, more than any others, would prompt rage from the listeners calling in.
One of those subjects was any critique of Christian romance novels. And the other was any positive assessment of Harry Potter.
I said to a friend at the time, “I’m never talking about Harry Potter again; it brings out crazy.” Ah, for those innocent days of youth! I could never have imagined what would happen when the whole country turned into a call-in talk radio show. I thought the days were long past when I would even have occasion to talk about Harry Potter again—until today.
In the past several weeks, three friends—all from different social spheres—recommended that I listen to a new podcast documentary series, The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling, hosted by Megan Phelps-Roper (an exile from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church). The series traces how Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter novels, became an incendiary object of rage by two very different communities in two very different times.
Twenty years ago, conservative evangelical Christians were the ones trying to ban Rowling’s books, painting her as a threat leading the next generation into witchcraft and occult practices. Many believed that narrating the life of a wizard training to practice magic would lead Christian kids to want to emulate it. But that wasn’t the only danger—some felt that the very presence of Harry Potter books could be a gateway to the satanic.
These days, Rowling is still denounced as a devilish influence, but usually from the Left rather than the Right. She’s been outspoken against the kind of gender theories that would diminish “women” as a biological category. At a time when at least some culture-making institutions are going to great pains to change their wording to “pregnant persons” or “menstruating persons” rather than “women,” her views are strikingly out of step.
Many in the LGBT community see her as the embodiment of “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” or TERFS for short. Her outspoken views, they say, exemplify a bigotry that disrespects and maybe even endangers transgender people.
Many conservative Christians of twenty years ago had sincere, good-faith reasons to be worried about the Harry Potter series. I reject occultism and real witchcraft too; I just don’t think fantasy and fictional magic lead to it.
Likewise, many on the Left who are angered by Rowling today are arguing in sincerity and good faith. Most of us who may have sharp theological differences on the transgender debate don’t want to see people bullied, harassed, or left alone in suicidal despair.
But on their own, these sorts of good-faith disagreements rarely lead to “witch trials,” whether literal or metaphorical. That level of targeted attack requires what journalist Amanda Ripley calls “conflict entrepreneurs”—those who can leverage someone else’s fear and anxiety for their own gain.
The typical pattern of such attacks is to suggest that the people on the “other side” are not just wrong; they are inhuman and powerful and will soon take everything you love away from you. Once this is established, all avenues of debate and persuasion are off the table. All that’s left is to “fight fire with fire” by silencing them before they silence you. In one’s mind, it becomes a battle of good versus bad, or of Gryffindor versus Slytherin.
That’s why we see calls for banning books, whether from right-wing parents screaming at school board meetings or from left-wing activists chanting on picket lines. Because, regardless of the books or ideologies being targeted, the language used by their adversaries indicates not just that the ideas in these books are wrong or lead to bad things—but that the very existence of the ideas themselves is an act of aggression.
These sorts of witch trials may suppress ideas for a while, but they never ultimately achieve what those stoking them want them to do. They can also hurt a lot of people.
An entire generation of evangelical youth heard some pastors and church leaders tell them that Dumbledore was a slippery slope to Baphomet. But what happened when they saw that wasn’t true? Ultimately, they realized their elders missed a crucial part of the Christian imagination—George MacDonald’s fairy stories, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, for instance.
They eventually saw that some of these fictional stories of witches and wizards, spells and incantations, were far more Christian than talk radio.
Others grew up assuming that what they saw in their childhood contexts was representative of 2,000 years of Christianity and began questioning their leaders’ legitimacy: “If I can’t trust these people to understand how to approach Harry Potter books, how can I trust them to teach me the Bible? How can I trust them to explain the meaning of life, forgiveness of sin, or life after death?”
Some of these young people then went looking for answers in whatever group they deemed to be the opposite of the book burners—and in some cases ended up in another group of book burners.
Now, the same pattern is playing out on the illiberal Left. On the question of whether gender is part of the givenness of created human nature or a spectrum of countless alternatives, is any and every person who disagrees with them truly a bigot—whose views, whenever articulated, are an inherent act of violence?
If so, what happens when their children or grandchildren grow up to realize that their leaders’ definition of a violent cauldron of bigotry fits not just virtually all of Christianity—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—but also every other major world religion and nearly every human society, past or present?
But that’s where the danger of this type of witch-trial discourse really lies.
Most conservative Christians in my talk radio days didn’t really think that Gandalf and Dumbledore were equivalent to Simon Magus or the Witch of Endor. They didn’t truly believe that Mr. Tumnus, with his horns and hooves, was the devil. But few people wanted to say that—because who wants to get hounded as an occultist by the person in the next pew?
A lot of progressives, even in the LGBT rights movement, privately believe there are problems with putting young children on puberty blockers. But they find it easier to just be quiet on the subject for fear of being exiled as bigots.
Political scientist John G. Grove observed in National Affairs that extreme illiberal “wokeness” and extreme illiberal “anti-wokeness” are remarkably similar. He points to the “post-liberal” thinkers on the Right who argue that authoritarian Hungary—where about 10 percent of the population regularly attend worship—is a model for “Christian civilization.”
He writes, “This idea of enforcing the outer signs and symbols of religion bears striking resemblance to the kind of coerced virtue signaling that makes woke causes appear to be universally accepted, even by those who don’t truly believe the dogma.”
But saying whatever shibboleths need to be said to stay in your herd is a poor substitute for original thought. Doing so represents a dangerous lack of the literal meaning of integrity—of “holding together.”
By contrast, Jesus referred to a kind of inner and outer congruence when he said “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’” (Matt. 5:37, NKJV) and when he warned against performing outward displays of devotion “to be honored by others” (Matt. 6:2). Even when it comes to the gospel, one must “declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (Rom. 10:9, emphasis mine). Our inner belief and outward confession must be aligned and connected.
Lacking this kind of integrity can lead us to give up on debate, argument, and persuasion. Ultimately, it can lead us to join the mob in calling out the witches from among us, even when we can see there are none—just fallen, fallible, wrong-headed people like us. And once that happens, it’s a short trip from Hogwarts to Salem.
I think we can do better than that.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.