Trade war could disrupt Bible supply, publishers warn

by Grace Thornton, posted Thursday, July 11, 2019 (12 days ago)

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NASHVILLE (BP) -- Americans could see a disruption in the nation's Bible supply if President Trump enforces tariffs on printed materials from China, according to Christian publishers.

The 25 percent tariff on books -- part of a long list of tariffs proposed by President Trump as tensions with China escalated in recent months -- would effectively be a "Bible Tax," according to Mark Schoenwald, president of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, which owns both Thomas Nelson and Zondervan.

Trump put the book tariffs on hold in late June when he resumed talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But observers say the reprieve is tenuous -- the countries' differences that started the trade war haven't changed.

The Bible printing process is highly specialized, as pages are printed on "unusually thin paper" and have complex features and illustrations, Schoenwald wrote in public comments submitted to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. No U.S. printer has the machines or skilled staff to print Bibles at that volume anymore -- those processes have been unique to China for decades, and it would be too costly and risky for U.S. companies to try to fill the gap.

"We believe the Administration was unaware of the potential negative impact these proposed tariffs would have on the publishing industry generally, and that it never intended to impose a 'Bible Tax' on consumers and religious organizations," Schoenwald wrote.

The Bible continues to be the best-selling book in the U.S. -- HarperCollins estimates roughly 20 million Bibles are sold in the U.S. each year, according to the Associated Press. But if printed books stay on the list of products subject to tariffs -- and the tariffs go into effect -- publishers will reduce investment, prices will skyrocket and churches, schools, ministries and nonprofits will have fewer resources, Schoenwald said.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the tariff would make the ministry of Southern Baptist publisher LifeWay Christian Resources "infeasible" and would harm seminaries, ministries and missions organizations who couldn't get the Bibles or other printed materials they need.

"The Bible is often the starting point for Christians to share the gospel with others," Moore wrote in his comments to Lighthizer's office. "Further, the Bible is often given as a gift to others for them to further study free of charge. Many religious organizations participate in low-cost Bible distribution programs, such as prison ministry, as part of their religious convictions. Physical Bibles are a crucial tool in this spiritual work as recipients in free or low-cost Bible distribution programs typically do not have reliable access to digital Bible services."

Moore said the tariff would also hinder Christians from exercising their faith.

"The Bible plays a central role in the daily life of all Southern Baptists, and the ERLC is committed to ensuring that every person who seeks the Word of God has access to it," he said. "Extending the tariffs to include the Bible will impact the religious liberty of millions of Americans."

The full text of Moore's comments can be accessed at https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=USTR-2019-0004-2392.

Grace Thornton is a writer based in Birmingham, Ala.
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