The text of the Hebrew Bible, with commentaries. Credit: Orrza, via Shutterstock

Why Tennessee should love the Bible

The text of the Hebrew Bible, with commentaries. Credit: Orrza, via Shutterstock

The text of the Hebrew Bible, with commentaries.
Credit: Orrza, via Shutterstock

Is there some kind of national competition between states going on -- to see which one can become the most medieval?

That is certainly the way it seems.

First, North Carolina adopts a particularly draconian anti-LGBT law law -- a set of restrictions that is already beginning to have deleterious effects on the state's economy.

Then, Mississippi follows suit -- with a law permitting businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers on religious grounds.

And now, the Tennessee legislature has approved a bill designating "the Holy Bible as the official state book."

Of course. State bird, state flower -- why not a state book?

Even pious Tennesseans agree that there are issues with this new law.

First, which version of the Bible are we talking about? The Holy Bible would include the Tanakh -- the Jewish scriptures (and puh-leeze, not the "Old Testament," which implies that God's original covenant with the nation of Israel is, well, old and outmoded), as well as the New Testament.

But, is the Tennessee Text going to be the King James Bible, or the Revised Standard Version, or any of a library shelf's worth of biblical translations?

Not only that. Let's assume that the choice defaults to a Christian version of the Holy Bible. OK, fine -- but again -- which version? The Protestant Bible is different from the Catholic Bible, which includes the Apocrypha and other deliciously and undeservedly obscure works of shaky religious authority. (See the utterly magisterial three volume collection, Outside The Bible, published by Jewish Publication Society, as well as God's Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible by my friend, Joel Hoffman).

And not only that. Let me speak personally -- about the Jews. We have our own way of interpreting the sacred text -- through the lens of rabbinic interpreters, sages, and commentators. Not to mention the fact that, for Jews, the Bible is hardly the last word on almost anything.

So, you see, it gets a little dicey. The whole "which version of the Bible do we choose?" thing turns out not to be as easy as it looks.

Of course, the establishment of the Bible as a "state book" would be a violation of the First Amendment, prohibiting the state from establishing an official religion.

That being said, imagine if the Bible actually did become Tennessee's state book. What principles would Tennesseans learn that might actually enrich civic life?

  • "And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Gen. 1:27). To say that all people are made in the image of God means that all people -- all people -- deserve to be treated with dignity, because all human beings are pixels in the face of God.
  • "The LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” (Gen. 4:9). Cain had just killed his brother. God knew where Abel was -- lying dead on the ground. But God was calling for Cain to become morally accountable, to acknowledge that he lives in the midst of a human society, and that he has basic responsibility for the Other.
  • “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” (Exodus 5:1). The necessity of human freedom, and the need to resist tyranny, is woven into the very fabric of human history and striving. That means that not only do all people have God-given dignity; all people are intended to live in freedom.
  • "There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you." (Exodus 12:49). The verse in question originally referred to the laws of the Passover offering, but it is way bigger than that. It is a basic truth: biblical morality means a compassionate, passionate care for the stranger. Jews are bidden to care for strangers because they were strangers in Egypt. This teaching is so huge that the Jewish Bible repeats it 36 times. (Yes, it's about the way that we treat immigrants).
  • "You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly." (Leviticus 19:15). The twin pillars of all civilization are fairness and justice -- a kind of justice that does not take economic class into consideration.

And those are just a few snippets from the Torah. I haven't even gotten to the rest of the Jewish Bible. I would expect that Christians would find their own sources of inspiration in the New Testament, and those of other faiths, too many to name, in their own sacred writings.

I am merely saying this: if Tennessee must adopt the Bible as its state text, at the very least, let Tennesseeans find, learn, and live the holy words in that tome that speak to how we create a decent society.

Look around you. Has that project ever seemed more urgent?