No, the Bible Should Not Be Tennessee’s Official State Book

On Wednesday, a resolution that would make the Bible the official state book of Tennessee cleared the state House and is now lumbering into the Senate. In the bill, Republican state Rep. Jerry Sexton argues that the Bible deserves the spot of honor not only because of its impact on the state’s history but also because of the lucrative Christian publishing industry that has flourished in and around Nashville.

“The Holy Bible has great historical and cultural significance in the State of Tennessee as a record of the history of Tennessee families that predates some modern vital statistical records,” the legislation says. “Printing the Bible is a multimillion-dollar industry for the State with many top Bible publishers headquartered in Nashville, including Thomas Nelson, Gideons International and United Methodist Publishing House.”

Full disclosure here. I’m a Tennessean, a Christian and am indebted to the many excellent Christian publishing houses I’ve had the pleasure of working with during my time at RELEVANT. I want every good thing for the people who work for these publishers and you won’t hear me say a bad word about the Bible. Indeed, I wish more people would take the Bible more seriously, and I emphatically do not believe that cause is served by this piece of legislation at all. Quite the opposite.

First up, there are the legal issues. Such a move would obviously seem to violate the separation of Church and State by singling one religious text out for special favor. That’s not a concern of Sexton’s though, who told the Tennessean that “This country wasn’t founded on Buddhist or Muhammad or any of those religions. Our country was founded on Judeo-Christian values.”

It’s easy to trot out the “America was founded on Judeo-Christian values” line for a case like this, despite the fact that such language is both historically dubious and several shades of troubling. To be sure, many of the Founders were Christians, though they went great lengths to keep religious preference out of the government they built. Second, we’ve come to recognize many deep, spiritual flaws within the religious beliefs of the Founders, most notably their endorsement of slavery. Are those “values” part of the package Sexton is hoping to enshrine with this legislation? He hedges a bit on this point, saying “what I’m trying to do is to be respectful toward everyone’s concerns, and just put the Bible where I feel like that it belongs.”

It’s an awful lot of legal air time for a piece of legislation that would not ultimately amount to much, even in the event that it goes all the way. Of the 50 states, only Massachusetts has an official state book (an official state children’s book, that is: Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for the Ducklings) and such official designations are fairly meaningless outside of tourism pamphlets. States tend to treat official symbols with self-aware tackiness, like Nebraska’s official state drink (Kool Aid. Oh yeah!), Arizona’s official state neckwear (the bolo tie. Oh no.) and Maryland’s official state exercise (walking. OK.)

Which is partly why the idea of making an official state book out of the Bible — a sacred text to millions around the world with importance that is by no means limited to Christians — feels so odd. Treating the text of the Bible with respect is absolutely a good idea, but is that really accomplished by lumping it in Tennessee’s official state amphibian (the cave salamander), fruit (tomato) and wild animal (raccoon)?

Former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam made this exact point during a previous attempt to make the Bible the official state book, vetoing the legislation which he said “trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text.”

“If we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, then we shouldn’t be recognizing it only as a book of historical and economic significance,” Haslam said. He was right. The Bible’s financial impact on the state is interesting, but using it as a metric of the Bible’s actual worth is an unseemly bit of consumeristic thinking that would strike many of the Bible’s authors as baffling if not offensive.

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It can be very easy for American Christians to find themselves idolizing the Bible, having more respect for the physical book itself than the wisdom within it. When this happens, the Bible becomes all sorts of things — a mystical talisman, a political football and a sort of cultural McGuffin. It’s easy to obsess over the Bible without understanding it.

Case in point, another Tennessee bill from Governor Bill Lee himself that would allow most Tennessee adults to purchase a firearm without a permit. The bill passed the state House of Representatives and is now headed to Lee’s desk for a signature. The bill is opposed by every major state law enforcement agency, already struggling with a state that ranks third for most dangerous in the union, fourth in firearm morality for minors, fifth for women murdered by men and first for accidental shootings of children. Though Lee calls the measure the “core to our public safety agenda this year,” there is no data whatsoever to suggest that such “Constitutional carry” laws make states safer. In fact, the most recent study showed that such laws lead to a 13 to 15 percent increase in violent crime over ten years.

This would all square with Jesus’ teachings about what happens when we “live by the sword.” Ignoring experts to push legislation that risks the lives of Americans already in the grip of a rash of mass shootings is a uniquely stern way of doubling down on living by the sword. It strikes the “well-regulated” qualifier from the Second Amendment in hopes that arming every household will make us all afraid enough of our neighbors to keep our guns holstered, or else.

But this isn’t biblical. “My peace I leave with you,” Jesus told the disciples in John 14. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” There is a truth here about how to live in a violent world, for those who care to internalize it. If Tennesseans truly want to honor the Bible, this would be a fine place to begin. The Official State Book nonsense is just trivia.

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