Is the Bible Too Holy to Be Tennessee’s State Book?

"Chillin' with my Bible..." courtesy Flickr user Jerry Worster via Creative Commons

What does the Bible have in common with a raccoon, a Barrett M82 rifle, and square-dancing? Soon, like all these unlike things, the Bible may be part of the state of Tennessee’s official symbology, since the sponsors of House Bill 615, “designating the Holy Bible as the official state book,” have vowed to override Governor Bill Haslam’s veto.

The idea that Tennessee would add the Bible to its list of official state symbols has brought out a flurry of reactions, from clichéd comparisons to the state’s 1925 antievolution law (which resulted in the infamous Scopes “monkey” trial) to speculation that Governor Haslam’s veto was purely a tactical maneuver to avoid the kind of backlash North Carolina faced over its recent anti-LGBT law. Critics of the bill have also pointed to an analysis by the state’s Attorney General, expressing the view that the law would violate both the US and Tennessee constitutions.

But these responses fall far short of explaining the bill or the context that it’s speaking to.

The language of the bill does not endorse the Bible as true, literally or otherwise. It doesn’t even repeat the often invoked (and historically suspect) claim that the Bible was uniquely influential in the founding of the United States. In fact—stunningly—the bill to adopt the Bible as the state’s official book makes no mention of the Bible’s text at all. It’s the role of the Bible as a physical object that is being recognized.

The Bible isn’t just a text that can be interpreted by different groups of readers as religious, ethical, historical, or scientific: Bibles are printed, material objects. They have weight, and take up space. They are made, transported, and sold. And much of that making and selling happens in Tennessee. Nashville is the home of several of the nation’s largest Bible publishers. Hotel nightstands around the U.S. are filled with Bibles produced by Nashville-based Gideons International. Major publisher B&H Publishing is also based there, and even though Thomas Nelson is a subsidiary of New York-based Harper Collins, its offices are in Nashville.

It’s hardly unusual for declarations of state symbols to recognize locally significant industries. Earlier this month, Maine adopted its edible export the lobster as the official state crustacean. The state flag of Arizona contains reference to the state’s copper industry. But state symbol designations can also become deeply partisan. Last year, student-led efforts to have Idaho recognize the Giant Salamander as the state amphibian ran into resistance from legislators who feared the designation might result in “potential federal overreach” in the form of mandated protection for the non-endangered blotchy beast from Coeur d’Alene. (The legislature revisited the salamander later in the year and adopted it into their state symbology.) In 2014, South Carolina adopted the Columbian mammoth as state fossil, but only after the defeat of an amendment that would have insisted that the mammoth was created on the Biblical sixth day.

Unlike the obvious overreach of the creationist mammoth amendment, the language of HB615 appears to go out of its way to remain neutral on the question of whether the Bible is true. The bill includes the observation that many other recognized state symbols have religious interpretations, for instance:

 The “Coccinella 7,” commonly called the ladybug or the ladybird beetle was chosen as a state insect, even though, according to the Blue Book, “this beetle was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and called the ‘Beetle of our Lady.’”

HB615 expresses legitimate reasons to recognize Tennessee’s Bible industry and its history, which don’t necessarily insist upon the Bible being holy, true, or the Word of God and invokes comparisons with other state symbols to demonstrate that doing so can be constitutional. Bill sponsor Senator Steve Southerland has been quoted explaining that his “purpose in bringing this legislation is to memorialize the role the book has played in Tennessee history.” The bill is crafted to justify the Bible’s importance as a historical object and to argue that merely having religious implications, or having had religious meanings to the people who first elevated a symbol to prominence, does not make an official state symbol an endorsement of religion.

Many of the bill’s critics doubt the veracity of Southerland’s secular sentiment and it’s clear that many of his admirers actually support the bill out of a desire to see the state accept Biblical religion. Yet there’s no explicit evidence that Southerland’s intentions are inherently religious, and legislative intent is one part of a key judicial test of whether a law violates the Establishment clause.

Still, some of the bill’s opponents claim that HB615 is precisely an endorsement of religion. The Tennessee branch of the ACLU opposed HB615 on the grounds that it gives preference to one religious group (those that accept the Bible as scripture) over others and “marginalizes the tens of thousands of Tennesseans who choose to practice other religions or not to practice religion at all.” Other secular organizations including Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation have also spoken out against the bill.

Arguing against the bill from almost the exact opposite perspective, Governor Haslam justified his veto by stating that treating the Bible as a commodity and historically significant object without acknowledging its God-given holiness was a denigration of the Bible itself. Haslam wrote: “this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text.”

Some of the earliest arguments for the separation of church and state were articulated along Haslam’s lines. Not that the state is threatened by religious influence or intolerance, but rather that religion is cheapened by engaging secular power. This approach allows Haslam and some members of the legislature (who wanted to hear the testimony of clergy) to oppose the bill and take a moral high ground with religious constituents, while justifying “voting against” the Bible.

Ironically, while Haslam and other religious opponents to HB615 cite the opinion that the bill is unconstitutional, they also have no qualms citing their personal religious views to justify their opposition.

The legal/Constitutional question boils down to whether the Bible can ever be separated from its religious meaning. The bill’s secular opponents—such as the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State—and its religious opponents, including Haslam, are united in the view that such a separation is impossible. This is in a deep sense a semiotic failure on both ends of the political spectrum. But it may also be a recognition of the Bible’s unique role as a political and legal powder keg in American history, going back to the Bible riots of the mid-nineteenth century and continuing up to the creation science trials of the 1980s.

Constitutionality aside, a more complicated question about HB615 has to do with exactly whose history is memorialized and honored by making the Bible the official state book. Nashville’s history as a center of Bible publishing goes back to the Civil War, when a lack of printers and materials to make plates and presses in the Confederacy resulted in a Bible shortage. But the history of the Bible’s use in Tennessee goes much further back—and not simply as a religious text.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) has a large collection of family Bibles. Many family bibles were large, expensive and impressively produced tomes, quite unlike the quality of typical trade books published in the nineteenth century. They were marketed as heirlooms, and many of these family bibles even had printed pages in them where a family genealogy could be filled in. In some cases, the family history recorded in these Bibles included the names and relationships of slaves held in the antebellum South, though they remained records belonging to literate white people. As the historian of religion and material culture Colleen McDannell shows in her study of how these family Bibles were used, “During the nineteenth century, the Bible became the center of a material Protestantism that depended on the physical senses to produce religious emotion.” HB615 acknowledges the TSLA’s Family Bible collection, emphasizing that in some cases, these Bibles provide the best evidence of historical events in early Tennessee history, especially in the history of domestic life.

The Bible—or more particularly, these various Bibles—have played a variety of roles in Tennessee’s history and identity. That history is certainly worth recording, interpreting, and making available to the public. Ratifying the Bible by making it the official state book can be interpreted as speaking to a certain political demographic that entangles religion and identity.

The religious nature of the text aside, adopting the Bible as an official state book also entangles Tennessee’s identity with a specific interpretation of its history. The fight over official public memorials of American history has intensified, especially in the South—with activists calling out the valorization of Confederate relics without acknowledgement of the role that racism and slavery played in that history. The same concern is present for the erasure of native people’s histories in American settler-colonialism.

If the bill’s goal is truly to “memorialize the role the book has played in Tennessee history” then opponents ought not to be consulting clergy or imposing their own personal religious sentiments. They should be questioning whether invoking this version of the state’s history sends the right message to Tennessee’s present and its future.