Officials in Tennessee have been arguing over a bill to declare the Bible the state’s official book. This is not a new argument in the Volunteer State. A proposal like this passed the legislature in 2016, but Gov. Bill Haslam (R) rightly vetoed it.

The measure (HB 2778) has not improved with age. During a recent debate in the Tennessee House of Representatives, legislators got bogged down in arguments over theology. At times, the debate sounded more like something you’d hear in a seminary, not a legislative chamber.

State Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) tried to argue that the Bible has special meaning for Tennessee because many copies of the book are printed in the state. But when he was challenged by Rep. Johnny Shaw (D-Bolivar) who argued that it’s not the place of government “to tell people how to practice their personal religion,” Sexton gave up the game by responding, “I say we have taken God out of our country, and it’s time for us to put him back. It’s time for us to put the Word where it belongs.”

The lawmakers also sparred over which version of the Bible they’d be endorsing. While Sexton insisted that there’s only one version, which he called the “Holy Bible,” in fact there are many interpretations of that book. One legislator, Rep. Dwayne Thompson (D-Cordova), said he had done some research and found 92 English-language versions of the Bible “and there’s probably a lot more than that.”

Some of the most interesting comments came from Rep. Kevin Vaughn (R-Collierville) who told lawmakers that voting against the bill “is not a referendum on your personal beliefs or your personal relationship with your creator or your savior” – a line that won him applause.

Vaughn spoke with great emotion, admitting, “I have struggled with this.” But in the end he said he could not support the measure, even though he believes the Bible to be the infallible word of God.

“I just don’t believe that bestowing a ceremonial title on the living word of God is something that this body needs to engage in. … It tends to alienate,” Vaughn said. “It has even created division within this body.”

Yes, it has. And it would create division among the population of Tennessee as well. That state includes many varieties of Christians but also non-Christians and non-believers as well. The government can best respect all of their rights by refraining from elevating a text that some (but by no means all) Tennesseans regard as sacred above all others.

P.S. The Tennessee legislature did not vote on this measure and now plans to go out of session due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the bill may resurface later this year so Americans United will continue to monitor the situation. You can read our letter to lawmakers about the bill here. 

Photo: Rep. Johnny Shaw speaks against a bill naming the Bible the official book of Tennessee