Why making the Bible Tennessee’s state book is a bad idea (COMMENTARY)

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Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville.

Photo courtesy of Natalia Bratslavsky via Shutterstock

Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville.

(RNS) The state amphibian of Tennessee is the cave salamander. The state sports fish is the smallmouth bass. The state insects are the firefly and lady beetle. The state dance is the square dance. The state reptile is the eastern box turtle.

 And if Tennessee lawmakers get their way, the state book will be the Bible.

As they sing on Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.”

On Tuesday (April 5), the Tennessee Senate approved House Bill 0615, a bill that “designates the Holy Bible as the official state book.” If Gov. Bill Haslam signs this bill into law, Tennessee will be the first state in the Union to pass such a resolution. A similar attempt in Louisiana failed in 2014. In Alabama, the King James Bible that was used to swear in Jefferson Davis as the president of the Confederate States of America in 1861 has been designated the “State Bible.”


RELATED: Bill to make Bible official state book goes to Tenn. governor


Defenders of the bill claim they want to make the Bible the official state book because it has been so prevalent in the history of Tennessee. One proposed amendment to the bill argued the Bible is important because families recorded their vital records (births, deaths, marriages) in Bibles, Bible publishers such as Thomas Nelson and Gideons International are based in Tennessee, and two state songs, “My Tennessee” and “Tennessee,” reference God.

Another legislator, perhaps fearful that this historical argument would not be enough to quell the bill’s opponents, proposed that the “personal Holy Bible of President Andrew Jackson,” currently in the possession of the Hodges Library at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, be designated as the official state book. In an age in which monuments and symbols commemorating former slaveholders are under attack, making Jackson’s Bible the state book would bring a whole new set of problems.

Legislators supporting this bill have the past on their side. The Bible has been part of the history of Tennessee much in the same way that it has played a role in the history of virtually every other state in the union. Though no state has ever made the Bible its “official state book,” other state legislatures, and even the U.S. Congress, have passed “Year of the Bible” resolutions.


READ: A majority of people in Scotland have no religion


But when it comes to these kinds of symbolic gestures, appeals to the past can only take us so far. The past is past. It’s frozen in time. Yes, the Bible was important to the people of Tennessee in the 19th century. So was slavery. But I don’t think any legislators are interested in making it the “state institution.”

The past becomes history when historians bring it into conversation with the present and recognize that the story of human beings (and the story of human beings living in the state of Tennessee) changes over time.

It goes without saying that there are a lot of people in the state who think the teachings of the Bible are still relevant. This gives House Bill 0615 some historical footing. People valued the Word of God in the past and they continue to value it in the present.

John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA. He is the author of "The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016)." He blogs daily at www.thewayofimprovement.com. Photo courtesy of John Fea

John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA. He is the author of “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).” He blogs daily at www.thewayofimprovement.com. Photo courtesy of John Fea

But Tennessee is not as homogeneously Protestant as it was in the 19th and 20th centuries. The U.S. as a whole, Tennessee included (at least to certain degree), has become religiously diverse. The people of the state no longer share a common Christian heritage, making House Bill 0615 look like little more than an attempt by legislators, perhaps threatened by such religious diversity, to protect a Christian culture that seems to be steadily eroding.

Times are changing in Tennessee. While the Bible remains a valued spiritual guide — the Word of God — to many people living in the state, attempts to make it the official state book are more about heritage than history. Heritage uses the past as a bludgeon. It gives the past political power and moral authority in the present that it was never meant to have. Heritage is more concerned with exclusion than inclusion.

 There are a lot of reasons why Haslam should veto this bill. The failure of the Tennessee Legislature to understand history is one of them.

(John Fea chairs the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He is the author of five books, most recently “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society” (Oxford University Press, 2016)).  He blogs daily at thewayofimprovement.com. Follow him on Twitter @johnfea1)

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  • RP

    As with the Ten Commandments – which Bible is the “state book?” The Hebrew Bible? The Catholic Bible with the deuterocanonical books? The more expansive bibles of Orthodox Christianity? Or perhaps an ecumenical common Bible? And then there’s the matter of which translation version? King James? King James with or without the apocrypha? The New
    Revised Standard Version? The New Revised Standard with the Apocrypha?

  • David

    Here we go again a handful of people say no to the bible and we do just that! the past repeats its self its not just history its our way of life and we have a person with a name of Haslam! really a non Christ like man or a middle eastern?? don’t know but if people who can pray for 1 hour per day and close down time square because its their religion why is it that we as people who worship Jesus Christ are always told No! but they allow muslims to practice their rights…. Sorry that is why Trump is so popular the rest of the people in the white house just can’t hear the people and that’s due to them receiving $$$$ from rich sheeks to keep quiet.. Shame on our government selling our country to fill your pockets should be cause for treason charges….But we all know that people like Hillary will never go to jail but if we did the same thing as her we would do life.. Go trump!!!!!!

  • The Bible is true. Christianity is true. So the Bible ought to be the state’s book even if it never was in Tennessee history, although it did play an important role in the history of the state that should be honored. Anti-Bible Fea’s argument only makes sense if he assumes that the Bible is not true. That’s what he should be arguing, rather than hiding behind shifting public opinion. “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next” (William Ralph Inge). Or as the Bible itself says, “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25).

  • Janet

    Following the Constitution is not persecuting Christians. They are given special rights all the time. What do you think all of so-called Religious Freedom laws are about?

  • yoh

    Nobody has to believe anything you just said about the Bible. In fact government officials who make such statements violate our Constitution. Religious freedom means that government can’t favor, endorse or support any given faith. Especially to the exclusion of others. Tennessee has told its citizens that unless you are of a certain sect of protestant Christian, the government will not take your concerns seriously.

    You want government to endorse your religion at the expense of others. This is repugnant to our laws and way of life. Your contempt for religious freedom and democracy is duly noted.

  • Barry Harlan

    Mike, you say that the Bible is true and that Christianity is true, but there are others who would say that the Koran is true and the Islam is true, and others who would say that the Book of Mormon is true and that the LDS church is the true church. These are all statements of belief, none of which can be proven in any rigorous way. Why is the Bible true? Because the Bible says it is true. This is circular logic that has zero relevance to the issue. And before you start calling me names, I am a Christian and in fact a priest. However, I do not demand that people believe as I do, rather I try to live as an example of Christ and invite others to walk along with me on the path that the Son of God has laid out for us. I believe that the Bible shows us the way of the Lord, but I know that I have to take that on faith, which is also a gift from God, and not something I can impose on others.

  • yoh

    So by acting like ISIS and forcing official recognition of your faith and you faith alone, you think you are combatting Islamic extremism? Hardly! You are doing their job.

  • Scott McGowan

    2nd chronicles 15 13 All people, young and old, male and female who refuse to dedicate their life to the Lord God of Israel were to be put to death.

  • Scott McGowan

    Thank you.

  • Alencon

    You have any actual evidence to back up your claims Mike? No. Why am I not surprised. Believe what you want but don’t force those beliefs on anyone else.

  • Rich

    Now show us the Bible verse where it says to worship Jesus Christ, instead of God.

  • Junebug

    Thank you Barry Harlan. You nailed it.

  • doug bruce

    (1 Peter 1:2) “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through … the … sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”
    We are all, according to Peter, predestined to be saved or damned. We have no say in the matter. It was all determined by “the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”

  • doug bruce

    2nd chronicles (16:12) “Asa … was diseased in his feet … yet in his disease he sought not to the LORD, but to the physicians.”
    Asa, when he had a foot disease, went to physicians instead of seeking the Lord. (God disapproves of those who seek medical help rather than “seeking the Lord.”)

  • J Guilford

    good response…

  • samuel johnston

    I propose that California make “Hitchhikers Guide” the state book, because of its useful advice- DON”T PANIC!

  • You are quite judgemental for a Christian. I’m a Tennessee resident and I STRONGLY DISAGREE with this “Bible as the State book “nonsense. I’ve been subjected to many different denominations that scared me to death and convinced me at 8 years old that I was a sinner. What a thing to tell your precious child! How do you explain all the different interpretations? You sound like one of those scary Christians.
    I’m not a Christian anymore. I won’t be telling my grandchildren that Jesus is real and break her heart when they find that Santa Claus is’nt. I’m sick of the facade designed to keep us in line with a religious philosophy when I’ve never been to a church that has ever invited the homeless and hungry to church, much less fed them. How many homeless have you helped lately? No. Your donation goes to build a bigger chuch. Not help the needy.

    And sheek is sheik dumbass!

  • Re: “Here we go again a handful of people say no to the bible and we do just that!”

    To not want the Bible made the state book is NOT the same as “saying no to the Bible.”

    Re: “… and we have a person with a name of Haslam! really a non Christ like man or a middle eastern??”

    Not sure what his ethnicity is, but Gov. Haslam is a Presbyterian. Not sure why you’re so unhinged about his name.

  • Garson Abuita

    The name Haslam is English, specifically common around Manchester. But let’s not let that get in the way of seeing that it…looks like Islam!!! Hide!!!!

  • samuel johnston

    Mr. Doug Bruce,
    “It was all determined by ‘the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”’
    If that is true, either God or Paul, or both are insane, and care nothing for humans at all. Justice amd/or mercy play no part in such a scheme.
    Ideas like that, appeal to those who like to think they are special and others are, …well, somehow not worthy. Methinks they have the pride that goeth before a fall- you included.

  • Ben in Oakland

    So if we are all us, damned or saved since the beginning of time, then why is it necessary to be a Christian?

  • BlackBart

    Dear Everyone in Tennessee,

    Stay the hell out of New England.

    That is all.

  • katie

    Haslam isn’t middle eastern. It is disrespectful to put a slave owners bible as the official state book next to a gun no less. What about people who aren’t Christians? Not all of our founding fathers were so why is it so important to make Christian based decisions for a country with mixed religious backgrounds? It’s also a racist persons bible….da faq

  • Elizabeth

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scopes_Trial

    Ah Tennessee…Stop. Seriously. Stop now. You’re starting to look silly…And as a state, you are too beautiful to be looking so silly.

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