April 16, 2015
Tennesssee House of Representatives votes to make the Bible the state’s official book
by Manuela Silvestre
Tennessee’s governor says it’s not ‘respectful.’ The state’s attorney general declared it unconstitutional. Yet the Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill yesterday (55-38) making the Bible the official state book.
The state Senate is scheduled to vote on a companion bill on Thursday.
Tennessee’s senate, like the state, is decidedly red—it consists of 28 Republicans to 5 Democrats. But there are vocal opponents of this bill on both sides; several Christians in both houses have also come out against the measure. Some believe it will “cheapen” the Bible to join a list of trivial symbols (I’m talking to you, Tennessee state tartan).
According to The Tennessean, House Speaker Beth Harwell was one of 20 Republicans to vote against the measure. Four others abstained, while only six Democrats voted in favor of the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris is another vocal Republican opponent, who can “hear Satan snickering” about all this and believes this measure would “dumb the good book down.” “Pilgrim’s Progress is a book, To Kill a Mockingbird is a book,” said another Republican Representative, Patsy Hazlewood, “The Bible is the word of God, it’s a whole… different level.”
If approved, the bill would go before Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who has not commented on whether he would veto it, though the fact that he’s spoken out against it indicate he might. Of course, the governor may simply want to steer clear of controversy; it’s possible he’ll let the bill pass without his signature.
Attorney general Herbert Slatery issued his opinion on Monday, concluding the bill violates not only the federal Constitution’s provision of separation of church and state but Tennessee’s as well. “The Bible is undeniably a sacred text of the Christian faith,” he said, “Legislative designation of The Holy Bible as the official book … must presumptively be understood as an endorsement of religion.”
Of course, federal and state separation of church and state aren’t quite the same. Slatery believes the bill is in more direct opposition to the Tennessee Constitution’s clause which reads “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religion establishment or mode of worship” than the federal stipulation that Congress cannot establish a religion.
Fighting the bill, should it become a law, will be expensive. According to Representative Marc Gravitt, it could cost the state millions.
None of this was not enough to deter the bill’s sponsor, former pastor Rep. Jerry Sexton (R), who said “it would be someone else’s fault if the state had to spend money on any legal action” if the bill becomes law. That’s nonsenses, however—he pressed on with the bill after Slatery stated he would not defend the law if it were legally challenged.
Sexton has defended the bill by saying “This does not establish any form of religion, and any move to denounce it, I think, is to silence those of us who would like to see a reverence given to a book that has played a role in all of our lives.”
Everything that is wrong with the motion is summed up by the above statement. This bill isn’t establishing a state religion, but Sexton doesn’t acknowledge his state’s attorney general’s counter-argument—it doesn’t change the fact that this is an explicit endorsement of Christianity by the state. Sexton may want to see “reverence” given to the good book, but there’s no argument here as to why the government should be the institution to give that reverence instead of, say, a church.
I do not have a law degree, but I have watched about four year’s worth of law shows, and it seems to me that if even one person in Tennessee is not Christian, then Sexton’s statement is legally false and irrelevant.
Even if the bill’s purpose is, as Sexton argues, to “memorialize the role the Bible has played in Tennessee’s history in terms of its historical, cultural and economic impact,” where is the proof? (As an aside, I’d love to see a study proving the Bible’s role in the state’s economic development.)
Plus, there is no word on which version of the Bible will become the official symbol of the state. The history of the Bible in print—which is, to some extent, the history of publishing itself—is fraught with political, cultural, and social significance and controversy. There is no one Bible and suggesting that there is indicates the political nature of this bill—that it’s an endorsement of “Christianity” as an identity, rather than a specific text—if not ignorance of the text Sexton claims to “revere.”
Rep. John Ragan (R) suggested a compromise, trying to bypass the religious quandary by proposing the official state book be Andrew Jackson’s bible. The amendment was swiftly killed, however, after Reps. Matthew and Timothy Hill (brothers, both Republican) asked why not Davy Crockett’s or Elvis’ bible?
The AP reported that Rep. Matthew Hill challenged critics to come up with an alternative state book. That seems like a valid request, especially since Tennessee has multiple symbolic songs and birds and insects, until you ask yourself: why are we even trying to choose state books?
Choosing a state book is like ripping open Pandora’s Box—what makes a book embody a state? Literary taste has never been particularly regional and it certainly isn’t bracketed by state lines—books often originate in a place, but they gain their status, their longevity, elsewhere. As far as I can gather, only Michigan and Massachusetts have chosen state books. And they’re both children’s books, which is way more innocuous (take a minute to imagine six year olds protesting).
To examine why the idea of choosing an official state book is silly, it is helpful to take a look at an editorial published by The Oregonian in which they asked for nominations for Oregon’s State Book in light of Mississippi’s attempt to make the Bible its official book:
It becomes very easy to see why naming an official state book has not been a priority for legislators, unlike, say, establishing Jory soil as the official state dirt. Because does anyone really care if the state flower is the Oregon grape versus the wild ginger? When the discussion turns to books and capturing the Oregon spirit, however, the experience and the argument are all personal.
Maybe the reason publishers are bad at marketing is because books are so personal. The experience of reading a book is different for every person who reads it. Unless you happen to be allergic, dirt is dirt.
Some proponents of the bill claim they are concerned about protecting religious freedom, but protecting religious freedom is exactly why the government should have nothing to do with anything remotely religious. If we make the Bible Tennessee’s state book, why shouldn’t we make California’s Dianetics? Oklahoma’s The Satanic Bible? New York’s Bottle Service? You know, so that everyone is represented.
According to Statesymbolsusa.org—apparently the definitive expert on state symbols—official symbols represent “the cultural heritage and natural treasures of each state.” Let’s set aside for a second the fact that Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities philosophy is based on fallacy (that a country as large as the U.S. has enough to tie all citizens together). The basic premise of Anderson’s theory is that the decline of religion made possible new conceptions of time, which in turn made it possible to imagine the nation. If in fact nationalism replaced the key formation of religious community, then don’t state symbols exist because we are no longer bound together by religion? If so, then what business do we have choosing religious texts to support nationalist formations?
State symbols exist to tie us together as a state or nation, in ways that religion cannot. This bill can only separate, or perhaps tear apart, the citizens of Tennessee.
Even if we ignore how many members of the GOP oppose this measure, and the number of representatives who love the Bible but do not want this bill to pass, and my very persuasive Anderson argument, think about this: why this bill? why now? What’s the political incentive?