Another Sign of the Times: No Bibles in Hotel Room Drawers

The Washington post identifies three causes for the vanishing hotel Bible: declining interest, consumerism, and fear of causing “offense.”

A member of The Gideons International leaves a Bible in a hotel room.
A member of The Gideons International leaves a Bible in a hotel room. (photo: Delfeye/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

G.K. Chesterton once described the United States as “a nation with the soul of a church,” and while both the Englishman and I might not vouch for the absolute truth of the proposition, it’s also clear that for far longer than many parts of Europe it has resisted secularization. True, that resistance might have only been the patina of “civil religion” (plus serious practice of Catholicism in that minority) but, until recent years, Americans showed themselves still more religious than many Western counterparts.

One example of that “civil religiosity” is an American curiosity: the hotel Bible.

For decades, most travelers who checked into an American hotel or motel usually found a Gideons Bible tucked in the bedtable drawer. The Gideons, a charitable organization founded in 1898 by two American businessmen, has put more than 2 billion Protestant Bibles in hotel rooms over the past six score years.

And that’s changing.

A Feb. 11 Washington Post article caught my eye: “Hotel Bibles Are Still a Thing. But for Some Brands, They’re on Their Way Out.”

Sometimes you read something that’s a wake-up call, an “ah-ha” moment that really sums things up. For most Americans, the hotel room Bible was such a standard fixture — like a shower or a television — which one really doesn’t notice it until it’s gone. And then we realize that not only that something familiar is absent, but that there’s something deeper afoot in our culture, a drip-drip-drip that finally busts the dam.

It’s not that the Gideons have gone out of business, run out of money, or abandoned their convictions. The WaPo piece instead identifies three causes for the vanishing hotel Bible: declining interest, consumerism, and eschewing controversy in the name of not causing “offense.”

Declining interest points to the growing secularization of American culture. Sociologists of religion observe that increasing numbers of Americans—particularly younger Americans—are not identifying with religion. They might call themselves “spiritual but not religious” and, in my view, probably regard the Bible as belonging to the “religious” side of the ledger, not necessarily normative for freelance “spiritualities.”

Consumerism also plays a role. Marriott continues to stock hotel rooms of its various brands with Bibles, but many other chains have devolved that decision to local owners. Part of it also comes back to demographics: hotels seeking a niche with younger, “hipper” travelers tend not to provide Bibles.

WaPo discusses it in the context of consumer targeting: in the quest to outfit hotel rooms with today’s “mission-critical amenities” like fast Wi-Fi and at least 50 channels, even “the very night tables that typically house Bibles” are on the chopping block, much less the Bible inside. Ergonomic desks, multi-ply sheets, and reduced-flush toilets are in; Bibles are on the way out.

Now, I really doubt that John Nicholson and Samuel Hill, the businessmen who founded the Gideons, first decided to do a customer survey of late 19th-century travelers to ascertain demand for Bibles. Bible-believing Protestants probably welcomed them when they found them, but I doubt that most travelers of the 1890s who could afford to stay in a hotel wrote back to the manager when they got home asking “Where’s my Bible?” (I also doubt hotels of that day left behind survey cards, “How was your stay?”) No, Bibles appeared because there was a general cultural consensus that this was a good thing for people, even if they didn’t demand or expect it. And that’s the question we have to ask ourselves today: have we lost the cultural consensus that the Bible is a good thing for us?

Perhaps every traveler is not a sola Scriptura Protestant, but once upon a time we recognized that the society in which we live, a society part of the West, is—as George Weigel tirelessly points out—built on a three-legged stool: Greece, Rome and Jerusalem. Our institutions are not to the end comprehensible apart from their Judaeo-Christian roots, in other words, apart from the Bible.

But we don’t believe in something being inherently “good for you.” Consider that while, a decade ago, Marriott began trying to eliminate on-demand pornography from viewing choices. The Atlantic suggests other chains have followed suit, not because “they had a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment” and recognized its deleterious nature, but simply because porn’s ubiquity on the internet has made in-room XXX less profitable. They just couldn’t compete.

[Please note that I don’t believe it’s “just” a matter of consumer choice, independent of the values universe of lifestyle libertinism in which much of our cultural elites, including corporate leaders, live. Reporting in 2016 that McDonald’s and Starbucks had also blocked in-store Wi-Fi access to pornography, The Atlantic article referenced above takes an implicit and gratuitous slap at them for joining “the ranks of … Chick-Fil-A” — a clear cultural pariah — “in restricting access to certain content on personal devices...” One need only look at the “bathroom wars” to know that corporate America at times spurns its consumers in the name of its chosen values].

And, if it’s really just a consumer choice, how long before many hotels go the way of airlines and start charging you for hotel Bibles like planes do for luggage?

Finally, eschewing controversy: Bibles are disappearing so as not to “offend” non-believers, non-Christians and non-Jews. It’s the same idea that governs religion in the public square: avoiding “offense” means everyone pretending that their faith commitments—what should be core aspect of their identity—doesn’t matter, at least as far as one’s public presence is concerned. It’s Richard Neuhaus’ “naked public square.”

Some hotel chains, says WaPo, are trying to square the circle by having “spiritual literature” available at the desk on request, but not placing it proactively in guest rooms “in order not to discriminate against any religion” and “to recognize and honor the diversity of our guests who hail from a myriad of cultural and religious traditions.” No, we prefer to discriminate against all religion by yanking it from public visibility. Furthermore, apart from putting the foundational texts of our common cultural tradition under a bushel basket, we’re confronted with a “diversity” that imposes a stifling secular homogeneity on public life. Go be diverse all by yourself in the corner if you ask to be, but we’re neither going to affirm the religious roots that made us who we are nor afford them affirmative public exposure.

WaPo notes that an organization called the “Freedom from Religion Foundation” asks hotels where it holds conventions to sanitize the space from religious literature and even sells $3 stickers one can affix to hotel Bibles, warning “Literal Belief in This Book May Endanger Your Health and Life.” If you think that’s an exaggeration, just read the “Comments” section to the WaPo article, where various respondents admit how they steal or otherwise deface hotel Bibles.

As a Catholic, I’ve never particularly cherished my King James Bible in my night table, although I’ve found growing appearances of The Book of Mormon a curiosity. But it was reassuring to know that there was a basic consensus among many of my fellow citizens and travelers that this was part of whom we were as Americans and, as secularization continues to corrupt this country, it’s a kind of “civil” or “practical” ecumenism. That consensus, that ecumenism is eroding in lots of places: culture, law, social mores, rituals and ceremonies, everyday life. The Judeo-Christian believer is increasingly an alien—in some ways, almost an illegal alien—in the “nation with the soul of a church.” The disappearing hotel Bible is just one symptom of that trend.