In my office, I proudly display my Tennessee roots. I grew up discussing Tennessee politics with my grandfather, a former state representative. While I was in law school, he gave me several items from his 1970s legislative office, including a framed state flag and a state seal magnifying glass. I have carried these items to Mississippi, Texas, and now D.C. I love my home state and am proud to call myself a Tennessean, but every once in a while, I just have to shake my head and wonder.
The recent effort to make the “Holy Bible” the official state book of Tennessee was a bad idea from the start. Previously, Louisiana (2014) and Mississippi (2015) had introduced similar bills, although neither bill made it to the legislative floor for a vote. Tennessee’s actually passed its House of Representatives! I am encouraged, however, that the Tennessee Senate heeded the advice of the state’s attorney general and is allowing the measure to die in committee. Hopefully this is the last we will hear of this type of legislation.
State Rep. Jerry Sexton introduced his bill with good, albeit misguided, intentions. The Bible is probably in more private homes than any other single book. In my personal library, I have numerous copies of the Bible, including versions in English, Hebrew and Greek. I even went to seminary to study it more in depth.
According to Guinness World Records, the Bible is the best-selling book of non-fiction with more than 5 billion copies in print worldwide. Additionally, more than 2,100 languages have a translation for at least one of the Bible’s 66 books. Although the Bible’s reach is undeniable, it is not an appropriate candidate to become an official symbol of the state of Tennessee, or any other state.
All states have multiple symbols highlighting their various characteristics such as history, flora, fauna, creativity and industry. Some symbols, like flags, seals, mottos, wildflowers and songs, may be well-known by the citizenry. Others, such as the state beverage, folk song, game bird, pet or insect, are likely known only to a few.
While Michigan and Massachusetts each include a “children’s book” as a state symbol, no state includes “book” as an official state symbol. Alabama has had a “state Bible” since 1853, which has been used in each subsequent inauguration to swear-in the governor and is displayed at the Alabama Department of Archives and History when not in use.
With the pervasive influence of the Bible and a process for giving official recognition to aspects of state culture, why has the Bible never been recognized by any state as its official book? The two-front opposition in Tennessee encapsulates the best reasons for other states to avoid similar proposals: designating the “Holy Bible” as the state book is both unconstitutional and trivializing.
As several critics proclaimed, the bill is unconstitutional. The U.S. Constitution prohibits laws “respecting an establishment of religion” while Tennessee’s constitution goes further, declaring “that no preference ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery summarized the analysis as: “Legislative designation of The Holy Bible as the official book — as an official symbol — of the State of Tennessee, when viewed objectively, must presumptively be understood as an endorsement of religion and of a particular religion.”
The Bible is inextricably tied to the Christian faith. While debates on inerrancy and inspiration frequently occur within Christian circles, all Christian groups ascribe some measure of authority to its text. Often, the Bible plays a central role in corporate worship and personal devotion. Giving official state recognition to the importance of the Bible within Tennessee history and culture is a back-door endorsement of Christianity as the state’s official religion.
Like Rep. Sexton, many of the bill’s detractors are devout Christians. They oppose the bill because they view equating the Bible’s importance to that of the state agricultural insect, amphibian and tartan as trivializing. Precisely because the Bible means so much to them personally, they could not fathom reducing it to just one more item in a list of secular mundane symbols.
The Bible does not need official recognition from the state of Tennessee or any other state to demonstrate its importance. Through our words and actions, particularly love for our neighbors, the Christian community is — or at least should be — a far truer testimony to the Bible’s influence than including it on a list as one among many state symbols.
The article appeared in the May issue of Report from the Capital.