No Bible-as-State-Book for Tennessee as Legislators Suffer “Symbol Fatigue”

There were more than 70 proposals to name new state symbols in 2015, according to the AP. Intrepid citizens of Alaska spearheaded an effort to get Miss Alaska named as the state hostess. There was an effort in Massachusetts to designate a state Tai Chi form. Some folks in Maine appealed to their state legislature to get the Friendship sloop designated as the official maritime sloop of the state of Maine. Ohioans also sought out sloop-related recognition, appealing to their state’s governing assembly to name “Hang on Sloopy” as the state rock song. And in Missouri, where I grew up, residents of the show-me state felt they needed an official state wonder dog. (Specifically, Jim the Wonder Dog, who was not from Missouri but evidently baffled some important Missouri psychologists in the 1930s.)

Oh, and you may have heard that there was an effort to get the Bible named as the state book of Tennessee.

The Tennessee bill that would make the Good Book into the state book is dead, for now. Although it was passed by the House, the Senate killed it, after Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and others pilloried the idea. Norris, a Christian, said that he “hear[d] Satan snickering” with glee at the notion that the Bible would be demoted to join the likes of the Tennessee cave salamander (state amphibian), raccoon (state wild animal), and milk (state beverage.) And State Attorney General Herbert Slatery, among others, pointed out some pretty glaring church-state problems. Nevertheless, supporters of the bill argued that it was simply meant as a recognition of the importance the Bible has played in Tennessee’s history.

But why does Tennessee—or any state, for that matter—need to have a state book, wild animal, beverage, wonder dog, etc.?

Interesting story, that. Apparently, you begin to see modern state flags and designated state flowers around the time of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition. States wanted their own flags to fly, and their own flowers to display, in their exhibitions. Decades later, in 1927, the legislatures of seven states — Alabama, Florida, Maine, Missouri, Oregan, Texas, and Wyoming — decided they needed state birds thanks to the efforts of progressive women’s clubs and their connection to the Audubon Society. And so it went, until recent years, when legislatures have begun to experience symbol fatigue.

Part of it may have to do with how state symbol initiatives have become handy ways of introducing school children to the political process without, well, really involving them. You can see the appeal. Involve kids in an effort to get, say, saccharomyces cerevisiae designated as the official state yeast, and right away you’ve got an interdisciplinary project that could relate science, civics, math, Latin, and so forth. But even these sorts of efforts are starting to fatigue state legislators — or maybe one could say, state legislatures are finding themselves unable to deal with even softball initiatives like these. Some New Hampshire fourth-graders recently learned this the hard way, when they took their “state raptor” appeal to the New Hampshire legislature.

The kids thought the red-tailed hawk would make a great state raptor. But to be fair, New Hampshire already had a state bird. Rep. Christy Bartlett raised this issue, asking “But now do we need a state raptor? Isn’t that a bird?” A reasonable question. She then went on to say that there were just too many bills like this—to which Rep. John Burt agreed. “If we keep bringing more of these bills and bills and bills forward that really I feel we shouldn’t have in front of us, we’ll be picking a state hot dog next.” Perhaps it was the idea of a state wiener that inspired Rep. Warren Groen to add his own remarks. Because the red-tailed hawk grasps its prey with talons, said Groen, “and then uses its razor-sharp beak to rip its victim to shreds… the shame about making this the state bird is it would serve as a much better mascot for Planned Parenthood.”

I haven’t seen anything to indicate that the Tennessee Bible bill was initiated by children, or—more to the point—by the promptings of school teachers. But I do wonder whether pieces of legislation like this make schoolchildren of us all. It’s not clear how designating the Bible as state book serves the common good, just as there’s no clear way in which designating milk as the state beverage serves the common good. The point is not to get people to engage the Bible (or milk, or salamanders) in any meaningful way. Nor is the point to express the je ne sais quoi that defines the good people of Tennessee, in all their distinctiveness and local color. Arguably, the point is to make some people feel involved in the legislative process (without effecting real change); and, also, to indicate whether you are on Team Bible or not. So it’s probably a good thing that the bill won’t proceed for now.

But perhaps it’s time to ask why it was put forward in the first place.