On April 15th, the Tennessee House of Representatives decided in a 55-38 vote to designate the Holy Bible as the official book of the State of Tennessee. Tennessee is my home state, and I’m proud of it. I love everything about Tennessee, from the mountains in the East, to the hills in the Cumberland Basin, to the rivers and bluffs near my home in the West. But, I have to say, this decision by members of the state legislature leaves me scratching my head. I wonder just what they hoped to achieve through this decision. It would seem that all they’ve managed to do is make the state look foolish on multiple levels.
To much of this country, this seems like a blatant violation of the First Amendment. The Establishment Clause prevents the promotion of one particular faith group over another, and I fail to see any way you can argue that this isn’t exactly what has happened in this case. One can make the argument that the Bible is not necessarily a Christian text alone, and they are not promoting Christianity over other faiths. If these lawmakers can say now that they haven’t violated the Establishment Clause, they won’t be able to for very long. At some point, they’re going to need to define what they mean by the “Holy Bible.” Do they mean the Protestant Bible, with its 66 books? Will they choose the Catholic Bible, with the inclusion of the Apocrypha? Will the State of Tennessee convene a council to determine a new canon for this purpose?
In choosing a Bible, and choosing which books are included or discarded, there is no avoiding a violation of the Establishment Clause. Endorsement of one particular variation of the Bible as the official book of the state will mean that the faith group using that particular variation has been legitimized as the official version of Christianity. While no one can deny that Protestant Christianity reigns as the prominent religion in the South, this is not the only manifestation of Christianity, and certainly not the only manifestation of religion, in the South or in the United States. Being the majority does not give you special privileges, and the law prevents a state from essentially excluding other groups. Selecting the Bible, and likely the Protestant Bible, as the state’s official book will alienate Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and even some Christians in the process.
The Tennessee House of Representatives looks unwise to Christians as well. To begin with, the Bible is not a book. The Bible is a collection of books. Bible derives from βιβλια, meaning books. What we have in the Holy Bible is a library, a collection of texts, not one book. To label the Bible as the official “book” ignores the breadth and variety of literature present within the biblical canon. Furthermore, to label the Bible as the official book of a state is to strip the Bible of its religious and spiritual significance. To view it as simply another piece of literature is to deny its value to Christians as a spiritual text to be meditated upon and studied as it shapes Christian experience.
I hope the state legislature in Tennessee, as well as any other politicians in states considering similar legislation, would recognize that the Bible does not need to be propped up and supported by the state. Benjamin Franklin once said that, “when a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one." God and the Bible don’t need our help in this, they can take care of themselves.
Adam McDuffie is a senior at Wake Forest University pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Religion with a concentration in Religion and Public Engagement. After graduation, Adam plans to attend seminary and pursue a career as a hospital chaplain. Originally from Brevard, NC, Adam has spent most of his life in TN, and currently resides in the thriving town of Atoka. Born in the aftermath of the SBC/CBF schism and the son of a Baptist minister, Adam is passionate about all things related to Baptist life and history. When not having his heart broken by the Demon Deacons, Adam finds time to be an avid Atlanta Braves fan and an even more avid fisherman.