Piety and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom

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The Reverend Barry Lynn explains why the Religious Right has it all wrong.

In the wake of the 2004 presidential election, the Religious Right insisted that George Bush had been handed a mandate for an ideology-based social agenda, including the passage of a “marriage amendment” to ban same-sex unions, diversion of tax money to religious groups through “faith-based initiatives,” the teaching of creationism in public schools, and restrictions on abortion. Led by an aggressive band...

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The Reverend Barry Lynn explains why the Religious Right has it all wrong.

In the wake of the 2004 presidential election, the Religious Right insisted that George Bush had been handed a mandate for an ideology-based social agenda, including the passage of a “marriage amendment” to ban same-sex unions, diversion of tax money to religious groups through “faith-based initiatives,” the teaching of creationism in public schools, and restrictions on abortion. Led by an aggressive band of television preachers and extremist radio personalities, the Religious Right set its sights on demolishing the wall of separation between church and state.

The Reverend Barry Lynn is a devout Christian, but this propaganda effort disturbs him deeply. He argues that politicians need to stop looking to the Bible to justify their actions and should consult another source instead: the U.S. Constitution.

When the Founding Fathers of our great nation created the Constitution, they had seen firsthand the dangers of an injudicious mix of religion and government. They knew what it was like to live under the yoke of state-imposed faith. They drew up a model for the new nation that would allow absolute freedom of religion. They knew that religion, united with the raw power of government, spawns tyranny.

Yet the Religious Right now seems distrustful of those principles inherent in the Constitution, viewing the separation of church and state only as a dangerous anti-Christian principle imposed upon our nation. In reality, the separation between church and state has been an important ally to religion: with the state out of the picture, hundreds of religions have grown and prospered. Religion doesn’t need the government’s assistance, any more than it is practical or appropriate for religious doctrine to be fostered in the government or taught in public schools.

As an explicitly religious figure speaking out against the Religious Right, Lynn has incurred the wrath of such personalities as Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, who once said Lynn was “lower than a child molester.” Lynn has continuously taken on these radicals of the Religious Right calmly and rationally, using their own statements and religious fervor to prove that when they attack the constitutionally mandated separation, they’re actually attacking freedom of religion.

In Piety & Politics, the Reverend Barry Lynn continues the fight—educating Americans about what is at stake, explaining why it is crucial that we maintain the separation of church and state, and galvanizing us to defend the honor of our religious freedom.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
An advocate for religious freedom accuses the religious right of trying to set up a United States theocracy. Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ and syndicated radio host, accuses Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and their colleagues of attempting to establish their brand of Christianity as the de facto state religion. Their open rejection of the separation of church and state, he argues, is part of a conscious strategy to build their own power. The right wing's claim that government is stacked against religion is belied by the effective veto conservatives hold over judicial nominees or legislation that runs counter to their doctrines on such subjects as gay marriage or abortion. Point by point, Lynn skewers the right's stand on religion in schools, open display of religious symbols on government property, "faith-based initiatives" and sexual conduct. In each case, he argues, the right seeks not to advance the welfare of religion but its own narrow sectarian doctrines. A classic example is the much ballyhooed "war on Christmas," in which the right claims merchants and media are suppressing the celebration of Jesus' birth-at the same time asserting its own claim to exclusive recognition of the Christian holiday as the reason for year-end retail sales. The author calmly demonstrates the twisted logic and outright hypocrisy of the right-almost too calmly. While his opponents in the "culture war" relentlessly fan the passions of their followers, offering the faithful a self-image of persecution and martyrdom, Lynn maintains a reasonable demeanor, largely foregoing cheap shots and one-liners. He remains convinced that most Americans want a government that backs no religion andsuppresses no religion-as mandated by the Constitution. Those who share his concerns can only hope that his optimism is justified. Essential reading. Agent: Candice Fuhrman/Candice Fuhrman Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307346544
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/3/2006
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

The Reverend Barry W. Lynn is an ordained United Church of Christ minister and an attorney. In 1992, he became executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Lynn’s nationally syndicated radio talk show, Culture Shocks with Barry Lynn, can be heard at cultureshocks.com.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt


Freedom of Religion


I AM A CHRISTIAN MINISTER who strongly supports the separation of church and state--and some leaders of the Religious Right simply cannot deal with that. You've read about some of their personal attacks already.

TV preacher Pat Robertson regularly calls me names. He has also asserted, on numerous occasions, that I take things so far I believe that if a house of worship catches on fire, a municipal fire department cannot extinguish the blaze. (For the record, this is crazy, and I don't believe it.)

The Reverend Jerry Falwell routinely tells reporters that I'm not a real minister. I received my master's of divinity from Boston University School of Theology in 1973 and was ordained in the United Church of Christ later that year--yet Falwell says I'm a phony cleric because right now, instead of pastoring a church, I run Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

By Falwell's rather rigid standards, his crony Robertson isn't a real preacher either. After all, Robertson also does not pastor a church and hasn't done so for many years. These days, he mainly claims to heal people over the television.

In fact, as Falwell well knows, a minister does not have to pastor a church to be considered fully ordained. Every year, I preside at weddings, speak at funerals, and deliver sermons as a guest minister in pulpits all over America. Unless Falwell knows something I don't, I have not forfeited my ordination, and my denomination has not revoked it. This means I have the right to function as a minister regularly and consider that a part of my identity. I also hold a law degree, and although I have not argued a case in court for a number of years, being an attorney is also part of who I am.

So what's going on here? Why the personal attacks? Why the need to (literally) put words into my mouth and attack my credentials?

The principal reason is that the Falwell-Robertson line of argument has little support in law, history, or culture. I support complete religious/philosophical freedom for all and believe that only the separation of church and state can give us that. Falwell and Robertson want to see a state based on a religion--theirs.

It's an old story. The Religious Right desperately wants to shift the focus of the debate. The plain truth is that Falwell is angry that any of his fellow Christians would dare to publicly support the separation of church and state, a principle he despises. That a man who believes in God and long ago accepted Jesus Christ would do it outrages him. Therefore, he'd rather attack me personally instead of responding to my views and engaging in a vigorous debate over specific issues. It's called an ad hominem attack--shifting the discussion from issues to personalities--and it's one of the oldest tricks in the book.

What's really bothering guys like Falwell, Robertson, TV preacher D. James Kennedy, and James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family is that the wall of separation between church and state stands as a bulwark against their schemes to force all of us to live under their narrow view of Christianity. They know that. That's why they work overtime to undermine that wall and discredit those who defend it. They want it to collapse and don't care that when it falls, so will the very religious liberty that gives America a special place in the world.

Why is the wall so important? That wall means no one can force your children to pray in public schools against your wishes. It means schoolchildren will learn modern biology, not Bible stories masquerading as science. It means religious groups must rely on moral suasion, not the raw power of the state, to convince people to adopt their views. It means religious organizations must pay their own way in this world, not rely on government-provided handouts coerced from the taxpayer.

All of this drives Falwell and his pals up some other metaphorical wall. What they are really after is a type of theocratic state--with themselves as chief "theo," of course. That may sound harsh, but I mean it. I am convinced that these folks would have felt better in the world of the Puritans, where heretics could be labeled witches and hanged. (This is probably why the late Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, about parallels between the Salem witch trials and 1950s McCarthyism, is so frequently the target of censorship efforts.) I've studied the tactics of these groups for more than thirty years. I know what they want. They want to run your life, mine, and everyone else's as much as they possibly can.

Amazingly, Religious Right groups that now claim to control both houses of Congress, have an open line to the White House, and have four or five ideological cohorts on the U.S. Supreme Court still carp about being victims of persecution. Are we seriously to believe these groups are somehow marginalized and frozen out of American society?

Far from being cast out of public life, the Religious Right all too often seems to dominate our national dialogue, bringing to bear only a loud voice of intolerance and division. Issues like same-sex marriage, legal abortion, and the proper role of religion in public schools and government are marred by abrasive Religious Right leaders whose rhetoric usually simplifies complex issues, providing far more heat than light.

Falwell rode a wave of political activism in the early 1980s. By all rights, he should be considered a has-been today. Yet he practically lives on the FOX News Channel and visits CNN and MSNBC as regularly as you'd drop by a friend's house. Falwell is constantly sought out by the media as if his narrow, fundamentalist version of Christianity, which in my view has little in common with what Jesus taught, sets the gold standard.

Pat Robertson, too, routinely says things that can only be described as bizarre and offensive. Two days after the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Falwell and Robertson joined forces on Robertson's 700 Club to muse about how the nation had finally gotten what it deserved for turning its back on God. The two blamed the horrific attack not on cold-blooded terrorists but on liberals and the ACLU, opining that the assault was a form of punishment from God.

"What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve," Falwell said.

Robertson replied, "Jerry, that's my feeling."

There was an uproar, but it did not last. Those comments should have forever exiled Falwell and Robertson from polite society. Instead they soon returned and still retain access to the halls of power.

Robertson's track record in this area is long and strange. He is a wealthy man, and it's a good thing for him that he is; otherwise, he would have been marginalized a long time ago. This is a man, after all, who believes that God punishes communities that displease him with hurricanes, floods, and meteors; who asserts that demons control major U.S. cities and who thinks Harry Potter books lure children into practicing witchcraft. Most recently, he advocated assassinating the democratically elected president of Venezuela and told his national television audience that God smote Ariel Sharon with a stroke because Sharon gave land to the Palestinians. Robertson's views come straight out of the Middle Ages but are disseminated worldwide by twenty-first-century technology.

Robertson is a big booster of the "poor persecuted Christians" line. Here's one of his gems from the 700 Club: "Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians. It's no different. It is the same thing. It is happening all over again."

Oh, really? Six million evangelical Christians have been sent to concentration camps and gassed to death? The fact that Robertson would equate the alleged "persecution" of evangelicals in America with the Holocaust shows how deeply twisted his worldview really is. What Robertson calls persecution is really the attempt by the courts to enforce a reasonable separation of church and state so that theocrats are not permitted to employ the engine of the government to run and ruin the lives of the rest of us.

Let's take a closer look at the so-called persecution Robertson, Falwell, Dobson, and other Religious Right honchos must labor under:

Jerry Falwell Ministries took in $15,266,689 tax free in fiscal year 2004. Falwell runs his own university, several political groups, and is aligned with a legal organization called Liberty Counsel. When you add it all up, these Falwell-related organizations, all of which enjoy tax-exempt status, pulled in $95,348,265 in twelve months alone.

Robertson, like Falwell, oversees a powerful Religious Right octopus with many tentacles. His Christian Broadcasting Network reaches one million viewers a day and collected $186,482,060 tax free in 2004. Operation Blessing, a controversial charity run by Robertson, has received millions in direct government grants and in-kind aid. After Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Administration Web site listed recommended groups that were helping provide relief. Operation Blessing was number two, right after the American Red Cross.

Robertson runs his own graduate-level university and a legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice. Adding it all up, Robertson's tax-free empire in 2004 took in $461,475,115. Robertson's CBN has an endowment of $2 billion--ensuring that the operation will live on even after Robertson is gone.

James Dobson, a powerful Religious Right broadcaster and psychologist, reaches five million U.S. radio listeners every day. Dobson's Focus on the Family broadcasts worldwide, even in countries like China that are not usually welcoming to evangelicals. He presides over not a building but a campus in Colorado Springs. In 2004 Dobson groups brought in $150,017,629 in tax-free donations.

Even smaller Religious Right outfits do quite well. The Family Research Council, a Washington-based political lobby started by Dobson that still works hand in glove with him, has an annual budget of $10 million. D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries collected $37,403,206 in fiscal year 2004. Even the Reverend Louis P. Sheldon, who along with his daughter runs an outfit with an antigay focus called the Traditional Values Coalition, brought in $8,795,084 in 2004.

So this is persecution--unlimited access to the airwaves, huge, tax-free empires, and direct-mail operations that bring in millions annually. Get me in line for some! I should also note that especially in the case of TV preachers, there is virtually no government oversight of the activities of these religious organizations. Many TV preachers and their top lawyers and advisers lead flashy lifestyles, own several homes and fancy cars, and continue to collect millions tax free every year.

The fact is, far from being persecuted, religious organizations in America enjoy substantial benefits and reap great respect. Tax exemption, in and of itself a very desirable benefit, is extended to religious groups by virtue of their very existence. Under special legislation and unlike other nonprofits, houses of worship don't have to apply for tax-exempt status and deal with cumbersome paperwork. They are assumed to have it as soon as they form. Federal law also makes it exceedingly difficult to audit a church, but secular nonprofits can be audited more or less at the discretion of the Internal Revenue Service.

Nor are religious leaders barred from speaking out on moral, social, and political issues. They do it all of the time, and nothing in the law prevents it. All nonprofit groups that hold the 501(c)(3) tax exemption are barred from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office, but this ban does not extend to discussion of issues. Houses of worship not only deliberate issues, they act on them. Denominational lobbyists troll the halls of Capitol Hill and statehouses, lobbying legislators alongside defense contractors, tobacco industry representatives, and advocates for labor unions. People have mixed feelings about the appropriateness of church lobbying, but the fact that it is so common clearly debunks ludicrous claims that religious voices are crying out in the wilderness, unheard by anyone but forest animals.

Whether through culture or custom, the law often treats religious groups with kid gloves. A wide-ranging scandal over child sexual abuse engulfed the Roman Catholic Church in the 1990s. Evidence abounds that church officials covered up allegations of abuse and reassigned suspected priests to keep them one step ahead of the law. A corporation whose leaders did the same would have been shut down, its leaders put behind bars. Yet while a few individual clerics have been imprisoned, the U.S. leadership of the Catholic Church has never been held accountable by law enforcement officials. The only way some victims could get justice was through civil lawsuits.

Persecuted groups have no political capital and are despised by the government. Does that sound like evangelical Christianity? The very idea is absurd. Evangelical groups enjoy more political influence now than they ever have and meddle in our personal lives in unprecedented ways. Conservative Christian organizations hold a veritable veto power over Supreme Court appointments, for example. President George W. Bush was forced to replace Court nominee Harriet Miers after complaints from the Religious Right. Ironically, White House strategist Karl Rove had even called Dobson to tell him of Miers's nomination in advance of a public announcement, specifically noting that she attended a conservative church with a history of "pro-life" activism.

Political analysts agree that the Religious Right holds the Republican Party in a type of headlock. Only candidates who submit to the Religious Right's ideological litmus test--anti-legal abortion, anti-gay rights--can make it through the GOP primaries. Dobson roams the country, endorsing candidates and bragging about his political power. He claims to have played the decisive role in the defeat of U.S. senator Thomas Daschle in 2004 and pressures other "red state" Democrats to do his bidding, lest they meet the same fate.

Megachurches dot our landscape. Religious television and radio broadcasting is a multimillion dollar business. Religious publishing rakes in millions more; Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series of apocalyptic potboilers topped the bestsellers lists for months. On any given weekend, about half of the adult population attends a religious service of some type, and more than 90 percent of Americans say they do not doubt the existence of God. Most people think well of religion. They certainly have no desire to persecute it.

Religion has invaded our political system to such an extent that it befuddles and sometimes even alarms Europeans. Politicians trip over themselves to talk about what their faith means to them, and no candidate or officeholder in his or her right mind dares to end a speech with any phrase other than "God bless America." During the 2000 primary season, the GOP contenders were asked during an Iowa debate to name their favorite political philosopher.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Why Does a Nice Minister Like You Support the Separation of Church and State?     1
Freedom of Religion: What it is and What it is Not     15
Religion and Public Education: The Unnecessary Conflict     47
Religious Icons and Public Property: The Ultimate Triumph of Symbolism Over Substance     86
Faith-Based Initiatives: Paying for Piety     117
Religion and Politics: Finding the Right Balance     148
Sex and Sensibility: The Religious Right's War on Our Private Lives     176
Religiously Motivated Censorship: Attacks on the Freedom to Read and Learn     206
Conclusion: Saying No to Theocracy     236
Afterword to the Paperback Edition     258
Index     270
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Reading Group Guide

1. Before reading this book, what were your views of the controversy surrounding the issue of governmental and religious independence? Have they changed? If so, how?

2. Discuss the author’s vocation as a Christian minister and his progressive social and political views. Do you see a conflict between the two? Why or why not?

3. Discuss the intersection of religion and politics. Why has religion become such a large part of political discourse in recent memory? Do you think our country has benefited from religion being injected into national political debate? Why or why not?

4. “Imagine if [Thomas] Jefferson were alive and running for office today. His bold dismissal of miracles, his rejection of the Trinity, and his advice to his nephew would make him the Religious Right’s public enemy number one. It is a great irony that Jefferson, the man who helped birth our republic, could not today be elected to any office in it” (pages 28—29). Do you agree with the author’s assertion? Do you think other historical figures from the past might face opposition in this day and age? If so, which leaders, and what obstacles might they encounter?

5. Consider the national debate about evolution versus intelligent design in school science instruction, as well as the federal lawsuit regarding the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board’s choice to adopt intelligent design theory as part of its ninth-grade biology curriculum (the author details this in chapter 2). What do you think of this issue and of the judge’s ruling against the district?

6. How would you answer the question the author poses in chapter 2: “Since so muchreligious activity is legal in public schools, and since religions can be discussed in so many different ways, why do Americans keep fighting over religion in the public schools?” (page 64).

7. “At the end of the day, the faith-based initiative amounts to little more than a scheme by the federal government to put the poor on church steps one day and drop a bag of money there the next and pray they find one another” (page 118). Does harm come from government sponsorship of religious groups, or are there benefits to this kind of support? If the latter, what are some advantages to society?

8. “Religious texts are a poor basis for government because religious texts are notoriously open to varying interpretations” (page 170). Think of this statement in terms of the documents upon which American democracy was founded: the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights. Could the same be said of these documents, considering how society–and democracy–has changed since they were first conceived? Do you consider yourself a “constructionist,” meaning do you interpret documents like the Bible or the Constitution literally, or do you construe their meaning within the social context to which they might apply?

9. In chapter 7, the author discusses the Religious Right’s many attempts to force the removal of certain books from public library systems that they consider offensive or counter to religious teaching. Do you find it ironic that organizations that advocate religious freedom also desire to restrict the choices of books available to the public in an institution like a library? How do you believe the Religious Right is able to address this seeming incompatibility in its own views?

10. The author states in the conclusion: “Slowly but surely the wall of separation between church and state is being eroded, much to the detriment of our pluralistic democracy” (page 255). Do you agree? If so, what are some solutions to the problem?

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