Tennessee has an official state bird (mockingbird), a state reptile (Eastern box turtle) and a state rifle (Barrett M82/M107). Now some people in government are pressing for Tennessee to have an official state book as well – the Bible.
This is not a good idea. The Bible is undoubtedly important to lots of Tennesseans, but singling out a religious text for special designation raises a host of church-state problems. Chiefly, it puts the government imprimatur on a theological tome. It elevates that book to special, state-approved status.
People who favor the Torah, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, Dianetics, The God Delusion, etc. are being told, in a way that is not even subtle, that their beliefs and special tomes are really second class. The state has a favorite faith, and here it is. We just elevated its book above all others.
Inevitably, when an issue like this comes up, some people argue that it’s no big deal. It’s merely symbolic. No one will be forced to read the Bible or take part in Christian exercises.
If it’s symbolic only, if it doesn’t mean anything, then why do it?
The fact is, it’s not just symbolic – and the people who make that argument know that. They say it because they have an eye on the courts. If there is a legal challenge, they can fall back on the “it’s-no-big-deal” argument.
It can be a big deal to all of those who belong to other faiths (or no faith). It can be a big deal to everyone who is told that his or her faith or non-religious philosophy is an afterthought that pales beside the real thing.
Gov. Bill Haslam (R) vetoed the bill April 14, but proponents are already talking about reintroducing it. If they do, Haslam should veto it again. If Tennessee lawmakers want to honor the state’s literary roots, they’d do better to pick a secular volume penned by someone who actually lived there.