Christian book publishers and some Charleston-area faith leaders fear that a proposed tariff on Chinese imports could lead to a shortage of Bibles in the United States.
Millions of Bibles are produced in China annually and a 25 percent tariff recently proposed by President Donald Trump would make it more expensive to print the religious text, according to Mark Schoenwald, CEO of HarperCollins Christian Publishing. That cost increase likely would be passed on to consumers, who would pay more for the world's best-selling book.
If the 25 percent increase is reflected in the sticker price, a Bible that costs $15 today would cost $18.50 after the tariff takes effect.
HarperCollins is the parent company of the two largest Christian book and Bible publishers in the nation, Thomas Nelson and Zondervan. Close to 75 percent of HCCP’s Bible manufacturing expenses are incurred in China.
"Outreach efforts of these organizations will inevitably be affected by the cost increase imposed by these proposed tariffs," Schoenwald said, according to a transcript of his remarks made before the United States trade representative last month. "We believe the Administration was unaware of the potential negative impact these proposed tariffs would have on Bibles and that it never intended to impose a 'Bible Tax' on consumers and religious organizations."
The tariff would impact churches, schools, ministries and nonprofits by leaving them with fewer resources to educate others and connect them with the Holy Bible, the publisher said, especially in the Holy City where many large churches hand out the religious text free of charge.
At Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, a Bible rests beneath every seat in a sanctuary that fits 2,000. Guests are free to take them home.
"It is a major cost to the church when you’re replenishing 2,000 at a time," said the Rev. Byron Benton, the church's senior pastor.
The Bible has special features that have led manufactures to move Bible-printing facilities abroad decades ago, leaving no substantial domestic manufacturing alternatives, Schoenwald said. The book's unusually thin paper must be handled by specialized machines and its leather covers are designed so that the Bibles can lay open despite the size. Often, the books contain ribbon page markers and decorative end papers.
These features add up to higher manufacturing costs compared with the production of an ordinary book, Schoenwald said.
Even as LifeWay Christian Resources shuts down all 170 of its shops — including seven in South Carolina with one in North Charleston — other Christian book stores in the Lowcountry are staying open by offering non-Christian materials. The establishments are functioning less as a book store and more as community centers.
If Bible prices do rise, it wouldn't be the first time Charleston-area bookstores have felt the pinch. LifeWay Christian Store recently announced it was closing all of its brick-and-mortar locations due to declining customer traffic and sales.
At Pauline Books and Media on King Street, Sister Margaret Kerry said costs to publish books "are always going up." The store has kept its doors open by relying on the generosity of donors and offering programs and hosting events, such as a recent Piccolo Spoleto concert.
“We have to do more," Kerry said. "We’re not just a bookstore. We are constantly thinking of other ways of how people are looking for the Gospel."
Benton said that if Christian books do become more expensive, Mount Moriah could increase focus on its library where parishioners are encouraged to check out material.
“It forces us to get creative and monitor our costs so that we are maintaining our effort in getting people access, but within reason," he said.
While Bible apps are widely popular and congregations incorporate technology in services, people still want physical copies of Bibles and devotionals. At the King Street store, 40 percent of the store's sales come from Bibles and children's books from companies like Zondervan.
Religious leaders said the physical text has sentimental value. Many Bibles are handed down through generations and hold written records of family genealogy.
“People like to have a prayer book in their hand," Kerry said. "It's always going to be a treasure that we have the scriptures. The word of God is still living and active in people’s lives.”
Trump and China's President Xi Jinping agreed to resume negations at the recent G-20 summit. The U.S. president said the tariffs would be put on hold, "at least for the time being."